Malcolm's Reviews > Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham
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In 1891, the New York Consumers’ League, very much the product of the Working Women’s Society, drew up a list of stores to boycott for unfair labour practices in the production of their goods, but also a list to support for their ethical trading practices, while in 1890 the Women’s Trade Union League convinced the London County Council to include women clothing workers in the fair wages provision it imposed on its providers – consumer power and ethical trading practices from 120 years ago.

At a time when ‘austerity’ is being used as an excuse to roll back the advances made by working people and other oppressed groups, while people’s movements globally are working to find new ways of politics and new ways of struggle, Rowbotham’s work reminds us of the long years of campaigning and the depth of our history of a politics of change. She explicitly outlines the relevance and importance of this book in the conclusion: “societies are recreated in more ways than meets the eye. The mundane, the intimate, the individual moment of anger, the sense of association: all contribute to the fabric of daily life. The rediscovery of their lost heritage is revelatory, and not only because these energetic innovators dreamed up so much that we take for granted in the world. They also staked out a remarkably rich terrain of debate around questions which are equally vital today. How to renew the body politic; how to take account of specificities while maintaining a wider cohesion; how to allow for individuality while finding connection through relationships and social movements; how to combine inner perceptions with outer change; how to respect the insights and experience of the subordinated and still move from what is to something better; all these are as germane as they ever were.” (p240)

In exploring the lives and politics of women radicals and reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rowbotham has taken us into the politics of struggle beyond women suffrage, important as it is, the drama and class basis of many of the leaders of the struggle have tended to overshadow other work by women – liberal, socialist, anarchist and other shades. The obscuring of these struggles hides women’s campaigns that lead to housing improvements, working class success and better lives, improved social conditions of existence, enhancements of reproductive knowledge and rights, and the political struggles of the everyday. Rowbotham acknowledges Dolores Hayden's excellent work on domestic design as an inspiration for this book: it s a worthy companion. Although she reminds us of how far we have come and how nearly everything we hold dear is the product of struggles the wrest away from the powerful, it is also a depressing reminder of both how far we have to go and how much we have forgotten.
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