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

Sheila Rowbotham
Image (partial) from vintage medical poster, "Dr. John Butler's Electro-Massage Machine"

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.

Excerpted from the Introduction from Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century by © Sheila Rowbotham (footnotes and images excluded) Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books.

In 1902, an American suffragist and novelist, Winifred Harper Cooley, dreamed of a twenty-first century without oil trusts, sweatshops or slums. This 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. A few years later in Britain, a Crewe clothing worker turned socialist and feminist, Ada Nield Chew, declared, ‘Most difficulties are caused by our age-long habit of looking upon what is, and what has been, as utterly desirable.’

This capacity for optimistic imagining was characteristic among reformers and radicals in both America and Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Running parallel with campaigns for women’s suffrage and involving both feminists and anti-feminists, a diffuse but resilient attempt to alter daily life and culture was underway. From the 1880s, thought interacted with action in a whirl of speculation, proposals, policies and utopian visions. Exploratory and adventurous aspirations were expressed not only in books and articles, but through movements, organizations, local groups and projects. Women, along with men, were swept up by the impetus for changing everyday life. The conviction that social circumstances could be altered and that ways of living, as well as looking, might be transformed, contributed to the ‘can-do’ ethos which was particularly potent in the USA.

The ferment was encouraged by startling technological developments, paradigm-changing discoveries in science and iconoclastic forms of art. These, along with an unprecedented level of global trade and investment, new ways of organizing production and consumption, changes in communications and the growing ascendancy of urban life, fostered a belief that a decisive rupture with the past was occurring. However, the rapid pace of change brought daunting problems in its wake. Increased competition and falling profits resulted in periods of depression through the 1870s and 1880s, which persisted into the mid-1890s; inflation followed from the late 1890s. Confronted by the unbridled power of large-scale corporations, mushrooming city slums, the destruction of rural life, workers responded with a new mood of militancy, while sections of the middle class, troubled by the conditions of the poor, also questioned class inequality. Women, as well as men, felt a moral compulsion to intervene, bringing their own experiences to bear on the dissident economic and social perspectives which were emerging. And when they encountered opposition to their engagement in the public arena, middle-class and working-class women invoked motherly care, moral cleansing and class loyalty to justify stepping beyond the prescribed ‘womanly’ sphere.

At the same time, women’s demands for access to employment and for political rights were pulling women outwards; calling into question their assumed dependence on and subordination to men. The suffrage movement inspired some women to resist other forms of injustice and inequality, and effect change in social and economic life more broadly. It also carried with it an internal promise of self-actualization and human dignity, encouraging efforts to alter personal ways of being. In moving towards a new role in the public sphere, feminists disturbed cultural assumptions about how women could be and what they could do in their own lives.

The bicycle became the symbol of this self-propelled female vanguard contesting physical and psychological spaces. ‘The bicycle is doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end’, declared the British social reformer Clementina Black in the Woman’s Signal in 1895. ‘Nobody expects a woman to go cycling escorted by a chaperon, a maid, or a footman’. Women’s rejection of the habitual meant that constraints of gender were being stretched, intensifying tension around the manner in which female/male and personal/public activities were divided. Those who sought to keep women from taking a wider social and political role were quick to attack below the belt, caricaturing rebel women as unsexed and absurd, or over-sexed and deranged. In 1894, Punch derided British new women for living on ‘nothing but foolscap and ink’, while in New York ‘Bohemian girls’ were morally suspect. Bicycle or no bicycle, women acting alone without men-folk to protect them were deemed liable to fall.

External demands for change were apt to boomerang back into the personal realm of being and relating, further breaching the demarcation between private and public life. Progress through education or access to employment revealed new unforeseen cultural and psychological barriers; radical movements, and the backlash these evoked, combined to relate resistance in one arena to rebellion in others. From the 1880s to the 1920s, three generations of women in both the United States and Britain can be seen challenging many different aspects of women’s subordination and questioning how aspects of human experience were zoned and defined. The American social reformer Mary Beard summed up this integrated vision in 1912: ‘Everything that counts in the common life is political’.

The women who tried to alter everyday life and culture along with their own destinies were both dreamers and adventurers, for they explored with only the sketchiest of maps and they headed towards the unknown, courageously interrogating assumed behaviour in personal relationships and in society. They challenged gender divisions, sexual attitudes, family arrangements, ways of doing housework and mothering, existing forms of consumption and paid working conditions. They proposed new approaches to the body, alternative kinds of clothing and food; they turned their attention to how space was used in cities, to the time needed for leisure, to the purposes of work. From their rejection of the familiar came iconoclastic projects, demands and concepts. En route they criticized existing methods of education, delineated new areas of knowledge and subverted existing assumptions about culture. The American writer Kate Chopin crystallized women’s extraordinary bid for new identities, new relationships and new mores in her ‘new woman’ novel of 1899, The Awakening.

The potpourri of rebels and reformers dreaming of a new day did not comprise a cohesive group or even a ‘tendency’. Their revolt arose from disparate sources: they were driven by fear of moral and social disintegration, by anger against injustice, by visions of utopia and by a resolve to improve everyday living and relating. Nor were they united in outlook or intent. Some aspired to alter existing culture, others to transform the world; some wished to regulate and improve, others to release and liberate. They were, moreover, shaped by dissimilar social backgrounds.

Some were upper middle class and keen to cast off privilege; others were members of the growing in-between strata, educated yet not quite ‘ladies’, uprooted, mobile, and liable to be iconoclastic. Among their ranks, working-class women striving for solidarity stood alongside

African-American women linking gender to their emancipation as a race.

The American and British dreamers of a new day came too from opposing political cultures. They might be women, but they were also free thinkers, anarchists, socialists, feminists, communists, moral and social reformers, liberals, progressives, labour movement women, bohemians, sexual radicals or eugenic enthusiasts. Their views ranged from extreme forms of individualism to advocacy of association and collectivism. Some were mystics searching for inner change, while others wanted to concentrate on external reforms. There were women who considered that their sex carried special values which could improve the male public sphere, and others who saw identity as always in flux. Some emphasized social change rather than the suffrage, while others believed that the suffrage would lead to wider reform. Some believed firmly in state planning, others in spontaneity and direct action. There were advocates of expanded productivity and consumption, and women who clung on to the nostrums of thrift and self-help. Some imagined technology taking over daily life, while others propounded the simplification of life.

Though the dreamers started from conflicting vantage points, headed off down contrary tracks and disagreed over solutions, many of their preoccupations overlapped and interacted. This convergence was most evident around the boundaries that marked personal and public identities. In both Britain and the United States, women who braved the public arena found themselves subverting gendered assumptions. The middle-class moral and social reformers, both black and white, who sought to tackle vice or poverty, inadvertently shifted a personal womanly role out into the new habitat of the urban slum. In the process they altered suppositions of what women could do. Along with more radical women who became involved in movements like anarchism, socialism or African-American liberation, they could discover that being active in public spheres raised many personal questions. Some began to wonder why gender issues were deferred into the indefinite future and why men in these movements often considered that the freedoms they sought for themselves were not suitable for women.

Misgivings about the cultural expectations of womanly behaviour in personal relations could also arise as part of a wider rebellion when external forces impinged upon daily life. These could be traumatic. The outer world of big business and modern industry drove through the customary lives of rural and urban women in the home, demolishing the familiar and the known; while violent attacks on African Americans led women from these communities to organize. Those who were provoked into resistance experienced the power of taking part in collective action; some went on to become active in the suffrage cause.

Changes in the position of women themselves created new spaces for heterodoxy. By the early twentieth century, women on the radical fringes of the feminist movement were exploring startling ideas about personal emancipation, and rebellious bohemian women were contesting the bounds of acceptable femininity and staking out alternative sexual identities. The ‘modern’ 1920s women who inherited the consequences of all these revolts along with the shock of World War One, struggled to connect a vision of equality with an affirmation of women’s differing needs, to articulate a new scope for personal feelings and desires, and to translate their experiences as women into a wider democratization of everyday life.

Divisions between groupings and generations were by no means hard and fast. A surprising degree of connection occurred even between women in apparently quite distinct camps, while the strong networks they developed from the late nineteenth century formed a series of remarkable criss-crossing webs that survived over several decades. Though many of the political proposals and social policies they devised were not to be realized during their lifetimes, fragments of their utopias would later percolate into the mainstream. Through their strenuous personal rebellions these dreamers of a new day helped to shift attitudes about how women could be and live. Their galvanizing conviction that things could be better created waves which rippled into every aspect of culture, even if the outcomes were not always what they had envisaged. From amidst their contradictory experiments came new ways of being women.

Though a similar impulse for change appears in both Britain and the United States, the contexts in which they operated differed markedly. In 1880 Britain was the great economic power in the world; but America was zooming rapidly ahead and by the 1920s would be supreme. The American capitalist system, being new and unhampered by aristocratic remnants, was both more innovative and more voracious than its European counterparts. Able to draw on an endless supply of new, young and desperate workers, the unprecedented economic development of the US reinforced values of competition and individual self-help. A degree of mobility of talent was possible which could never occur in Britain. The other side of the coin was that the power of big money was unfettered, labour conflicts more violent and American employers less willing to accommodate to trade unions, while workers in the US were divided by race and ethnicity to a much greater extent than in Britain.

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