Rebel Crossings by Sheila Rowbotham review feminist utopian dreams

A vivid collective biography of groupings of 19 th-century freethinkers is crammed with hopeful perceptions from the past

Last year, believe it or not, was its first year of Utopia. A perfect culture: happy, prosperous, accept, peaceful this idyll was widely celebrated, although its site, appropriately, was nowhere( from the Greek < em> ou-topos : U-topia ). The moment was the 500 th anniversary of Thomas Mores Utopia , a splendid little work( in Mores texts) that, over the centuries, has seen repetitions in innumerable dreamings and schemes, especially on the left.

Socialism has always concealed utopian visionaries, although they have not always been welcome there. From the villages of universal harmonization sponsored by Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and their early 19 th-century adherents( rejected by Marx and Engels as purely utopian ); to the libertarian-communist Edens of William Morris, Edward Carpenter and other fin de sicle New Lifers; to the free-loving, free-living arcadias of 1960 s radicals, utopianism has been alternately espoused and refuted by the left. The scope of progressive aspirations has widened and narrowed with changing periods. Today, in a climate of ascendant neoliberalism and far-right populism, the aspirations have dwindled to the point where even the modest social-democratic desires of Jeremy Corbyn and his adherents are slated as cranky utopian fantasizes by their Labour party detractors.

All socialist utopias involve some refashioning of gender relations. This has been true-blue from the start. Between 1825 and 1845, Britains firstly socialists the Owenites, after the capitalist-turned-communist Owen grew a root-and-branch criticism of womens abuse along with strategies to eradicate it, ranging from practical step such as reform of the union the regulations and the coming into effect of birth control, to the creation of communities where private property would be abolished, childcare collectivised and nuclear households replaced by cooperative family organisations. With these changes, the Owenites promised, women, wedded or single, is increasingly becoming humen social equates; no female, with or without progenies, would need a humankind in order to survive. Or, as one female told a progressive satisfy in 1840: When all should labour for each, and each “re supposed to” exertion for the whole, then would female be placed in a position in which she would not sell her autonomies and her finest feelings.

Libertarian-communist Eden Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe, near Sheffield. Photograph: Courtesy of Verso

In the 1830 s, Owenite feminism passed from Britain to the US via Owens son Robert Dale Owen, a strong supporter in womens reproductive privileges, and the personality freethinker Frances Wright. A handful of communities were established where union was by seam declaration, with no swearing of everlasting faithfulnes or wifely submission. These communities were short-lived, as were the half-dozen Owenite communities in Britain, and by the late 1840 s the free movement of persons had died out. But the connection between utopianism, socialism and feminism existed to reemerge in the 1880 s , strengthened by the rise of the status of women suffrage movement in the intervene decades.

A host of thinkers and organisations appeared in Britain and America dedicated to building a brand-new Jerusalem free from sex slavery. The US east coast was specially rich in visionaries. Most were obscure, with few adherents and few traces left behind them. But in the mid-1 970 s, Sheila Rowbotham encountered a little work in the British Library written by one of them, Helena Born, who originally came from Bristol, and edited by an American named Helen Tufts. Later she discovered that Tufts had stopped a personal journal. These finds defined her on a four-decade rummage that has resulted in Rebel Crossings , a collective biography of a half-dozen transatlantic radicals of the late 19 th century.

Rowbotham is a producing feminist historian, and an unapologetic utopian. Rebel Crossings opens on a personal tone: I firstly detected the little group of rebels in this work when I, myself, was young and persuaded “the worlds” was about to change for the very best. Now in her 70 s, Rowbotham went of age politically in the salad days of the New Left, when young lefties like her were seeking an alternative to socialism under Stalin. She looked for her alternatives in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, in the History Workshop movement and, above all, in womens liberation, which became for her, as for many leftwing women at the time, her political home.

New Left guys could be pretty old-school when it came to women. In 1969, Rowbotham published an influential pamphlet attacking the marginalisation of women by the male-dominated revolutionary left and arguing for feminism as a whole people theme: Our liberation is inextricably bound up with the revolt of all those who are oppressed[ and] their liberation is not realisable amply unless our subordination is aimed. The following year she faced down an audience of( principally male) those individuals who giggled at her call for research into womens biography. In the decades since, she has published dozens of journals and articles chronicling the histories of women, specially female freethinkers such as those in Rebel Crossings .

I converged Rowbotham in those early days in the womens movement. She had just published her first work Women, Resistance and Revolution ( 1972) which changed my life. I was a PhD student writing a standing dissertation on the US liberal philosopher John Dewey. I read her section on Utopian Recommendations, ditched Dewey, and embarked on its further consideration of utopian socialism and feminism in Britain( published under Eve and the New Jerusalem in 1983 and reissued last year ).

Subversion sustained by humour and enjoyment Sheila Rowbotham. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

For Rowbotham, biography writing was not an academic workout but a political act: her testified purpose in writing Women, Resistance and Revolution was to produce a labor that would succour the continuing great efforts to connect feminism to socialist change. Today her hopes for a progressive change have faded, but the ambition to link the past and present in revolutionary lanes is still there. My aim, she writes in Rebel Crossings , is subversion sustained by mood and enjoyment.

Born and Miriam Daniell were friends in 1880 s Bristol who campaigned for womens suffrage, aided local strikers and played leading roles in the Bristol Socialist Society. Robert Nicol was a Scottish union militant and Miriams lover. In 1890, the three young people moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they experimented with a emcee of isms, including Marxism, anarchism, transcendentalism and something called ownerism( self-ownership ). They read Emerson, Thoreau, Carpenter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Walt Whitman( a special hero ), and wrote for publications with claims such as Liberty, the New Age and the Coming Light.

Charismatic and bold Miriam Daniell. Photograph: Courtesy of Verso

Miriam exquisite, charismatic and the boldest of the trio espoused Russian nihilism and a mystical feminism centring on female as the universal redeemer. Helena, a more tough-minded man( fearless and repelling was her self-description ), became the guiding liberator of the Boston Comradeship of Free Socialists and wrote articles deploring capitalist alienation and feminine fripperies. Both women were bravely defiant of social convention: Miriam had left behind a husband in Bristol, while Helena became the lover of a married man, an Irish-born anarchist named William Bailie.

Both also died young: Helena in her early 40 s, Miriam in her mid-3 0s, after giving birth to a daughter named Sunrise, a small, powerless sheaf of utopia who became the stepdaughter of the progressive novelist Gertrude Dix, who succeeded Miriam as Robert Nicols lover. After Helenas death, William Bailie wedded Helenas friend Helen Tufts, a Boston-born feminist who in the 1920 s was removed from the Daughters of the American Revolution for uncovering a DAR blacklist of social reformers and other anti-patriots. If thats patriotism, she bit back, Ill have none of it.

Rebel Crossings vividly rekindles these busy, entangled lives, with their campaigning and propagandising and woo, criss-crossed by doctrinal disagreements and ethical dilemmas represented more acute by relentless soul-searching and grasping at moral absolutes. All six members of Rowbothams exponents were religious freethinkers, but their radicalism was shot through with the missionary zeal of a spiritual elect. Dear Comrade, Miriam wrote to a acquaintance, tell us if we think we learn higher elevations and purer lightings than another not shuns that climbing Soul but deflect to point the way we take. Pragmatism had little constituent to play here, including in their free-love commitments, which were passionately ideological. Cherish waits not upon social or political changes, Helena wrote to William at the high levels of their fiction. It creates them. Cherish is the great equaliser.

But if adoration equalised hearts, it left many social inequities intact. Beyond all teach and preaching is actual living, Tufts reminded her friends. But actual life often disappointed, as new world the various modes of relating bumped up against old world habits and stances. Jealousy, struggle, prejudice developed their chiefs; low-spirited bodily necessity get in the way of the higher life, particularly for the women. A female who behaved as though her privileges were equivalent to that given to guys would be treated equally, Helen continued; but daily life with her William was not always an egalitarian dream. Wm hardly ever wipes the dishes, but he tells I cant understand where all these dishes come from! she disclosed to her journal. My dearest would like to forget dishes after he has utilized them.

Its easy to smile at some of this, and Rowbotham does smile now and then. But she never deigns. These were courageous spirits whose courage she admires, and whose strifes to balance altruistic services and egoism, uniting and personal lust deserve her tendernes. And her empathy: she has known such strifes. She has lived them, or rather experiences very like them as have I, and many other women who share our political past.

For any veteran of 1970 s progressive feminism, speaking Rebel Crossings is likely to be a mixed pleasure, summoning up a revolutionary past that seems sadly distant hitherto uncomfortably close, as it reawakens rememberings of our own utopian moment, with its courage and distractions, its open-hearted perceptions and myopias. Like the books exponents, we knew what we wanted a nature where all would live freely and unselfishly, with equal status, resources and opportunities and we sought to live our lives in the shape of our ideals, forming anti-patriarchal sexual relationships and communal households are aiming to prefigure the egalitarian culture to come.

A womens procession in Sydney, Australia, on 21 January. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/ AAP

We were whole life revolutionaries, and the future belonged to us. But we underestimated health inequalities among us( of class, race, culture advantage, resources available) and the obstacles we faced, both internal and external: our conflicting wants( for unity, freedom, labor, progenies ); our muddles over guys; the personal antagonisms, disguised as political conflicts, that cut across sisterly solidarities; but above all, the relentless momentum of our times, as the postwar agreement that had kindled our optimistic dreamings threw direction to tooth-and-claw neoliberalism and the dystopian nightmare we now learn before us.

Rebel Crossings is crammed with hopeful perceptions from the past, but on the present it strikes a melancholy tone. Watching globalised capitalism in action proper free expression, attacking collective rooms, shredding non-marketable aspirations, social solidarity and fellow feeling Rowbotham is forced to recognise that a good society, along with a brand-new revolutionary and emancipatory social consciousness, will take longer be recognised that I imagined. Like many in my generation, I accept this reality rationally, but emotionally find it ineffably baffling.

In the aftermath of 2016, Rowbothams bafflement is widely shared and not just by one-time utopians. And hitherto last month some five million women took to the streets in 673 rallies worldwide. On seven continents we paraded, against Trump and all that he represents: demagoguery, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia. Our banners repetition the call of Rowbothams long-ago rebels, for a future of sovereignty, cherish and solidarity. For the majority of members of us, this was the first glimmering of brightnes in a dark hour. Barely utopia, but a moment of genuine hope, born not in some nowhere country of political fantasize but here and now, in this very nature, which is the world of all of us( Wordsworth) the only place from which real hope, and tenacity, can spring.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States issued by Verso. To ordering a photocopy for 21.25( RRP 25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orderings simply. Telephone orderings min p& p of 1.99.

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