Three weeks ago, I became a grandmother to little girl called Emerald Green. I keep saying it’s wonderful but, truthfully, I’ve been unnerved by her. Almost immediately, my mind got busy mapping out all the dark corners and challenging avenues of possibility that a woman travels through, and how I may help her along the way. And she really does need me to do that, even though she won’t know it for a good while yet.
This event coincided with the arrival of Shelia Rowbotham’s new book, Daring to Hope: A Memoir of the 1970s, published by Verso with the strapline: “A personal history of life, love and women’s liberation.” The book charts Rowbotham’s experiences throughout the era and reflects on the Women’s Liberation Movement during the decade that, as a historian, her works Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) and Hidden from History and Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973) were published.
Embedded in the fervent eruption of left wing hope and possibility that the 70s magically nurtured, Rowbotham recounts the decade with references to important people on the left, both nationally and internationally, and their work. Rowbotham’s reflections are thoroughly engaging and I felt aligned with the frank and personal account of a young woman’s life changing throughout the decade.
The memoir soars with fem observations versus the murmurs of political temblor. Your hair can be as problematic as Lenin, Liz Waugh can unionise night cleaners and look fabulous in hot pants and, yes, you can praise Loretta Lynn for lamenting dark truths with melody. Who knew? Bread and Roses, girls. We are every woman.
I interpreted all this as anthropological. Lessons in how to reflect on a political and personal landscape. There aren’t many spaces informally inviting women of different classes and cultures to sit down and talk, and I hope Rowbotham’s memoir encourages these meetings and conversations. For me, a big takeaway is Rowbotham’s social, considerate, and yet unapologetic approach to liberation.
After reading the book, I sent Rowbotham an emotional email. Considering this moment in my personal life, and the things I was discovering about the decade in which I was born, it resonated so loudly for me and my daughter that it nearly woke the baby.
“I’ve been moved by your book, particularly the style of you in a three-legged race with the personal and political.”
I was a bit scared sending it, but Rowbotham replied incredibly graciously.
She wrote: “I laughed about the three-legged race. It is hard to write about very personal feelings if you are an historian as in academia subjective stuff is frowned on – partly to prevent bias but also perhaps as a kind of withholding that denotes power.”
I was honest about how I had felt on the outside assuming that “Everything you said the media assumed of the movement at the time, I kind of mostly assumed, too.”
Rowbotham replied with the clear historical importance of the recollections. “There were a lot of us all around the place who were broadly similar to me and my friends in the 1970s and for the first half of the 1980s. However, I suspected we were submerged in terms of cultural memory and that prompted me to write. It was not easy.”
In my life, I’ve had badges of honour and labels of failure, and both have defined me by my sex. But what this book offers is a collection of references to people I want to learn more about. I’m grateful to discover that I am part of this sisterhood, and that women with similar experiences once talked in gentle, encouraging and yet passionate groups wanted to work out how to bring every woman up.
It’s something that Rowbotham feels has been suffocated in the decades that followed. “We tend to take what we were doing in the 1970s for granted as the norm, but feel often glum at the layer upon layer of conservatism that came about in the decades in between. So it is precious indeed to know that there are others who will keep on.”
I don’t know any woman right now whose personal life and political feelings aren’t in constant flux. Rowbotham once held a placard exclaiming that “we want the moon” because, as her new memoir reminds us, we must expect, and we all absolutely deserve, the moon.
Daring to Hope by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso. You can order the book here.