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Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century

Sheila Rowbotham

(Verso; US: May 2010)

Focusing primarily on the achievements, hopes, dreams, and disappointments of British and American women in the late- 19th and early- 20th centuries, Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century is an impeccably researched, densely written, and thoughtful book. The book’s scope is impressive; it touches on nearly every conceivable subject: fashion, socialism, unions, housework, sweatshops, communal utopias, children, consumption, and of course, sex. 


Equally impressive is the number of voices Rowbotham is able to include. Whenever possible, Rowbotham lets her audience hear from the women themselves, and the quotes she incorporates make the book come alive. Some names might be familiar: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perhaps best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Jane Addams of Hull House fame, social activist Elizabeth Stanton, author Olive Schreiner, and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.


Other names might not be so recognizable. For example, in the chapter “New Housework: New Homes”, Rowbotham describes Ellen Swallow Richards’ contributions to the women’s movement. Richards, the first female graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “presented domestic work as a scientific area of study” and “regarded women’s activity in the home as the basis for a much wider social responsibility for the lived environment.” According to Rowbotham, Richards’ “new thinking dissolved the demarcations between the household and life outside the home”. Richards also coined the term “oekology”, which later morphed into the word ecology.


Rowbotham includes women from all walks of life: working women, rich women, middle-class women, African-American women, educated women, and uneducated women. Naturally, then, as Rowbotham points out “the adventurous innovators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be characterized as sharing a coherent politics”.  However, at least judging by the content areas Rowbotham focuses on, these innovators did have concerns about many of the same things; most notably work and sex.


As the chapter titles “New Housework: New Homes”, “Labour Problems”, and “Reworking Work” suggest, work and more specifically “women’s work” is a prominent theme in the book. For example, Rowbotham relates that American journalist and anarchist Kate Austin wrote for publications such as “the American free thought journal Lucifer: The Light Bearer” and that she was one of the first women to note the double standard between different types of work:


Isn’t it queer that women can do the hardest type of manual labor… and not a protest is heard. Should she take it into her head to study medicine, practise law, lecture or write on women’s rights… the whole masculine world is convulsed, wise old fossils write… ponderous papers on the subject, the home is in danger, woman is unsexing herself, getting coarse and masculine.



According to Rowbotham, Lillie D. White, who also wrote for Lucifer “was scathing about the pressure on women to be homemakers” and contended that “Woman has always been taught that her highest happiness lies in a correct step to the music of post and kettles, a mastery over the ingredients and process of making palatable bread, butter, pies, and pickles, and a general devotion to the loves and duties of home; and my protest is that she has learned the lesson so well.”


This was, of course, just one philosophy. Rowbotham describes how other women, such as British author Cicely Hamilton, suggested that men should share in the housekeeping duties, and stated that “she could see ‘no reason why it should be the duty of the wife, rather than of the husband, to clean doorsteps, scrub floors, and do the family cooking. Men are just as capable as women of performing all these duties’.” American socialist Josephine Conger-Kaneko “insisted… that housework was work, and contributed to wealth”, and other women believed technology would put an end to the drudgery of housework. Rowbotham notes that Sylvia Pankhurst “imagined that the hearth-brush and dishcloth would disappear, and meals would be produced from communal kitchens. Clearing up would be made easier by dishwashing machines and paper plates.”


Not surprisingly, issues related to sex, birth control, and motherhood also compose a major part of the book. Rowbotham discusses the “free love” movement of the late 19th century, various forms of birth control, and the development of sex education. She also relates something perhaps all too familiar to today’s readers: the connection between sex and advertising. “Advertisers discovered the new ‘sex appeal’ and packaged the promise; an advertisement for Camel cigarettes showed a young man lighting a woman’s cigarette accompanied by the caption ‘Pleasure Ahead’.”


While many of the sexual reforms Rowbotham details did eventually become realities, many other dreams she describes never left the fantasy stage. Cooperative living—including cooperative laundries, kitchens, and bakeries—never materialized, at least not on a wide scale. Neither did the dream of a socialist housekeeping system: “in which a man or woman employed by the local authority would arrive at one’s home on a motorbike with a sidecar full of utensils such as municipal vacuum cleaners and washing machines and, at a low cost, help with the housework.”


Another unrealized dream: “working-class and lower-middle-class housewives sending a postcard overnight to their local council, to order meals which would be freshly cooked and delivered the next day.” However, the inclusion of these types of stories is part of what makes the book interesting—instead of another boring academic history book. Reading about the unfulfilled dreams of these fascinating women adds another level of insight into their lives.


Moreover, the book needs these types of examples, stories, and anecdotes. Dreamers of a New Day is densely written. After all, it couldn’t have been easy to fit 30 years of history into approximately 300 pages. This is not a quick or an easy read, but it is a highly informative one.  Plus, Rowbotham includes enough stories and quotes to keep the book from becoming an overly dry academic text. It’s certainly no beach read, but it’s not just for bespectacled academics, either. Except for readers who possess a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t learn something from this book.

Rating:

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By Sheila Rowbotham
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The future was revealed by a ‘radiant’ woman ‘in flowing, graceful robes’, who explained that in a hundred years’ time, no one would be tramping the streets without a home, or be unemployed. By then the world’s labour would be shared equally, so that each individual only worked five hours a day.
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