Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham FRSA (born 1943) is an English socialist feminist theorist and historian.

Sheila Rowbotham

Born1943 (age 7576)
Leeds, England
Academic background
Alma mater
Academic work
School or traditionSocialist feminism
InstitutionsUniversity of Manchester
Notable works
  • Hidden from History (1973)
  • Beyond the Fragments (1979)
  • A Century of Women (1997)
  • Threads Through Time (1999)

Early life

Rowbotham was born in 1943 in Leeds (in present-day West Yorkshire), the daughter of a salesman for an engineering company and an office clerk.[3] From an early age, she was deeply interested in history.[3] She has written that traditional political history "left her cold", but she credited Olga Wilkinson, one of her teachers, with encouraging her interest in social history by showing that history "belonged to the present, not to the history textbooks".[3]

Rowbotham attended St Hilda's College at Oxford and then the University of London. She began her working life as a teacher in comprehensive schools and institutes of higher or adult education. While attending St Hilda's College, Rowbotham found her syllabus with its heavy focus on political history to be of no interest to her.[3] Through her involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and various socialist circles including the Labour Party's youth wing, the Young Socialists, Rowbotham was Introduced to Karl Marx's ideas.[3] Already on the left, Rowbotham adopted Marxism.[4] Soon disenchanted with the direction of party politics she immersed herself in a variety of left-wing campaigns, including writing for the radical political newspaper Black Dwarf. In the 1960s, Rowbotham was one of the founders and leaders of the History Workshop movement associated with Ruskin College.[5]

Towards the end of the 1960s she had become involved in the growing women's liberation movement (also known as second-wave feminism) and, in 1969, published her influential pamphlet "Women's Liberation and the New Politics", which argued that Socialist theory needed to consider the oppression of women in cultural as well as economic terms. She was heavily involved in the conference Beyond the Fragments (eventually a book), which attempted to draw together democratic socialist and socialist feminist currents in Britain. Between 1983 and 1986, Rowbotham served as the editor of Jobs for Change, the newspaper of the Greater London Council.[6]

Outlook on feminism

Since then, Rowbotham has produced numerous studies and articles expanding upon her theory, which argues that as women's oppression is a result of both economic and cultural forces then a dualist perspective (socialist feminism) that examines both the public and private sphere is required to work towards liberation.

Rowbotham was especially influenced by Marxist social history as practised by E. P. Thompson and Dorothy Thompson.[7] Combining a Marxist analysis with feminism, Rowbotham contends that capitalism not only systematically oppresses the working class, but also particularly oppresses women.[7] In her view, women are doubly oppressed as they are forced to sell their labour to survive, but also forced to use their labour to support their husbands and children.[7] Rowbotham is critical of traditional Marxist history for what she sees as the neglect of such issues as family history, the role of housewives in supporting the economy, sexuality, and maternity.[7] In her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World, Rowbotham maintained that the domestic household work done by women was a part of commodity production as it allowed the production and reproduction of men's labour.[6] However, she claimed that the human family was not just an instrument for disciplining and subjecting women to capitalism, but was a place where potentially humans could take refuge from what Rowbotham sees as the commodification of human relationships under capitalism[6] In Rowbotham's view, raising children, sexuality and need for human relationships means that the family can rarely be reduced down to a service commodity.[6] Likewise, she argues for a Marxist history that accords equal importance to the role of both sexes in the history of revolutions, unions, political parties and protest movements.[7]

In such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) and Hidden from History (1973), Rowbotham put her ideas into practice by examining the experience of women in radical and revolutionary movements in Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, China, Russia, France and Britain from the 17th century to the 20th centuries.[8] In her opinion, working within the established order has never brought women any advances, and only through revolutionary socialist movements have women made any social gains.[8] Rowbotham has argued that though male revolutionaries are willing to accept women as partners as long as the revolution lasts, once the revolution is over, women are expected to return to their traditional roles.[8] In Hidden from History, she examined British women's history from the 17th century to 1930 from a Marxist viewpoint.[6] For Rowbotham, the history of British women could best be defined through class oppression, the Industrial Revolution and sexism.[6]

Rowbotham has criticised Leninism and Bolshevism, claiming that they "narrow the struggle of women's emancipation",[9] and sees "libertarian socialism", "ethical socialism" and anarchism as providing more vital understanding of women's needs.[9] Much of her historical work has been about these strands of leftism that were opposed by Communism. She has criticised Soviet policies starting with the first five-year plan of 1928–33 for not only expecting women to work full-time, but also to take on the burdens of housework and child raising while at the same time banning abortion and birth control.[8] She has contended that to achieve women's liberation requires a "revolution within the revolution" or freedom from the "colony within the colony" as sexism was and is just entrenched in radical left-wing men as it is on the right.[8] She maintains that capitalism and sexism are so closely linked that the only way to destroy both is a radical change in the "cultural conditioning" of humanity as regards child-rearing, homes, laws, and the work.[8] Rowbotham's books were, and are still well received in radical feminist circles.[10]

In her 1973 book, Women's Consciousness, Men's World, Rowbotham presented her analysis of contemporary social conditions from a Marxist-feminist perspective.[10] She argues that origins of sexism predate capitalism, and that the institution of marriage closely resembles feudalism.[10] She contends that as in feudalism serfs were obliged to serve their masters, wives are likewise contracted to serve their husbands.[10] In her books, Rowbotham has used a broad variety of sources such as government statistics, pamphlets, novels, interviews, songs, secondary sources, and her own history.[11] A major source of criticism of Rowbotham is her heavy reliance on secondary sources for such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution and Hidden from History.[8]

In her 1977 book Dutiful Daughters, co-written with Jean McCrindle, Rowbotham interviewed fourteen women of lower-middle class and working class origin.[11] Though Rowbotham notes that the life stories of women interviewed for Dutiful Daughters were not intended to be representative of all British women, she argues that these snap-shots of different lives if combined with enough other oral histories can provide an understanding of the experience of ordinary women.[11]

As part of relating the personal to the political, Rowbotham has examined the sexual and political beliefs of such late 19th- to early 20th-century radicals as the gay rights activist Edward Carpenter, who saw socialism as way for humanity's spiritual rebirth, and the feminist Stella Browne who fought for the legalisation of birth control and argued for the importance of sexual pleasure for women.[6] Rowbotham argued that the political beliefs of Carpenter and Browne were closely tied to their personal lives.[6]

Besides her work as a historian, Rowbotham has been active in left-wing causes.[11] In her book Beyond the Fragments, co-written with Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal, Rowbotham called for the various fractions of the British left to unite, and work for a socialist Britain through grassroots activism.[11] She has great faith in activist social movements working from the bottom up to change society,[11] and feels that historians have a duty to contribute to social change by writing books that expose what she sees as the evils of society.[12] As such, she is highly critical of those historians who, influenced by theories of French structuralism and post—structuralism, write in a style unlikely to appeal to the general public.[12]

In Rowbotham's opinion, an issue of great importance is providing a definition of patriarchy so that women know what they are struggling against.[10] She finds fault with those feminists who deny men a role in the battle against sexism.[10] In her opinion, women and men should stand equally against both capitalism and sexism to achieve radical social reorganisation.[13]

Recent professional life

In 2004, Rowbotham was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was Professor of Gender and Labour History, Sociology at the University of Manchester, England, until her involuntary retirement in 2008.

Rowbotham's involuntary retirement from the University of Manchester caused protest from students. The Facebook group Save Sheila Rowbotham was established to campaign for her continuation as a Lecturer. The same year she published the first ever biography of Edward Carpenter, entitled Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love and did continue to teach within the Sociology department at Manchester. In Autumn 2008, her request to stay on after the age of 65 to a third of her job was refused. However, after protests from students, academics and others internationally the university offered Rowbotham a third of research professorship. She is currently a Simon Professor.

Rowbotham's 2009 biography of Edward Carpenter was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.[14]

Rowbotham was the Eccles Centre Writer in Residence at the British Library for 2012.


Papers of Sheila Rowbotham are held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, ref 7SHR


  • Women's Liberation and the New Politics (Spokesman, 1969). ISBN 0-85124-008-9
  • Women, Resistance and Revolution (Allen Lane, 1973; Verso, 2014)
  • Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (Pelican, 1973; Verso, 2015)
  • Hidden from History: 300 years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It (Pluto Press, 1973, 1992).
  • A New World for Women: Stella Browne, Socialist Feminist (Pluto Press, 1977). ISBN 0-904383-54-7
  • Dutiful Daughters: Women Talk About Their Lives, with Jean McCrindle (Viking Press, 1977). ISBN 0-7139-1050-X
  • Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, with Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright (Merlin Press, 1979, 2012)
  • Dreams and Dilemmas: Collected Writings (Virago Press, 1983)
  • Friends of Alice Wheeldon (Pluto Press, 1986) ISBN 0745301568
  • Friends of Alice Wheeldon - 2nd Edition, The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George (Pluto Press, 2015) ISBN 9780745335759
  • The Past Is Before Us: Feminism in Action Since the 1960s (HarperCollins, 1989). ISBN 0-04-440365-8
  • A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States, (Viking, 1997)
  • Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organization Among Poor Women in the Third World and the First, with Swasti Mitter (Routledge, 1993).
  • Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action (Routledge, 1993). ISBN 0-415-90652-0
  • Homeworkers Worldwide (Merlin Press, 1993). ISBN 0-85036-434-5
  • Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World, with Swasti Mitter (Routledge, 1997). ISBN 0-415-14118-4
  • A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States (Viking, 1997). ISBN 0-670-87420-5
  • Threads Through Time: Writings on History and Autobiography (Penguin Books, 1999). ISBN 0-14-027554-1
  • Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (Verso, 2000). ISBN 1-85984-622-X
  • Looking at Class: Film Television and the Working Class in Britain, with Huw Benyon (River Oram Press, 2001). ISBN 1-85489-121-9
  • Women Resist Globalization; Mobilizing for Livelihood and Rights, with Stephanie Linkogle (Zed Books, 2001). ISBN 1-85649-877-8
  • Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84467-295-0 pk (Verso, 2009). ISBN 978-1-84467-421-3
  • Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010).

See also



  1. Kinsman, Gary (2009). "The Politics of Revolution: Learning from Autonomist Marxism". Upping the Anti (1). Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  2. Brock, Deborah. "'Workers of the World Caress': An Interview with Gary Kinsman on Gay and Lesbian Organizing in the 1970's Toronto Left". Left History. Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  3. Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, Fifty Key Thinkers on History, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 270.
  4. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, pp. 270–71.
  5. Cook, Hera "Rowbotham, Sheila", in The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Vol. 2, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999, p. 1020.
  6. Cook, 1999, p. 1021.
  7. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, p. 271.
  8. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, p. 272.
  9. Kate, Webb (8 September 2011). "Sheila Rowbotham Interview: Home Economics – The Third Estate". Nothing Is Lost. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  10. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, p. 273.
  11. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, p. 274.
  12. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, pp. 274–75.
  13. Hughes-Warrington, 2000, pp. 273–74.
  14. "Last year's shortlist". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 26 July 2011.

Works cited

  • Alexander, Sally & Taylor, B. "In Defence of 'Patriarchy'", New Statesman, 1 February 1980.
  • Caine, B. English Feminism 1780–1980, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Cook, Hera, "Rowbotham, Sheila", in The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Vol. 2, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999, pp. 1020–21.
  • Copelman, D. "Interview with Sheila Rowbotham", in H. Abelove, B. Blackmar, P. Dimock and J. Schneer (eds), Visions of History, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981, pp. 49–69.
  • Degler, C. N. Is there a History of Women?, London: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, Fifty Key Thinkers on History, London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Kaye, H. J. The British Marxist Historians, Cambridge: Polity, 1984.
  • Radical History Review, 1995, Vol. 63, pp. 141–65.
  • Seccombe, W. "Sheila Rowbotham on Labour and the Greater London Council", in Canadian Dimensions, 21:2, 1987, pp. 32–37.
  • Swindells, J. "Hanging up on Mum or Questions of Everyday Life in the Writing of History", in Gender and History, 2:1, 1990, pp. 68–78.
  • Vedder-Schultz, N. "Hearts Stave as Well As Bodies: Ulrike Prokop's Production and Context of Women's Daily Life", in New German Critique, Vol. 13, 1978, pp. 5–17.
  • Winslow, Barbara; Kaplan, Temma & Palmer, Bryan, "Women's Revolutions: the Work of Sheila Rowbotham: a Twenty-Year Assessment", in Radical History Review, Vol. 63, 1995, pp. 141–65.
  • Zissner, J. P. History and Feminism: a Glass Half Full, New York: Twayne, 1993.
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