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Living the Split

A CENTURY OF WOMEN: The History of Women in Britain and the United States.\o7 By Sheila Rowbotham (Viking: 753 pp., $34.95)\f7

July 19, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield is acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University. She is a contributing writer to Book Review

History is neither a grand, linear story of inevitable progress nor a tiresome, depressing tale of futile repetitions. It is the study of change--and the almost inevitable resistance to it, as Sheila Rowbotham reminds us in "A Century of Women," her scrupulously researched, remarkably far-ranging, decade-by-decade study of American and British women from 1900 to the present. "The long view of history presents a different way of considering what is happening by seeking to know how change arises," Rowbotham writes. "The story that unfolds when we look at this century as a whole is neither a straightforward march of progress nor one in which debacle is ever absolute. There is too a story that surfaces and one that has to be gleaned."

For Rowbotham, author of the influential 1972 book "Women, Resistance and Revolution," history is both political and personal: "Women's history in the twentieth century includes demands like the vote and equal pay . . . along with the glance of pleasure or the wild act of personal daring." It is unpredictable: "[T]he gains of one era can turn into the problems of the next. Not all repercussions can be calculated." It is simultaneously objective and imaginative, "a grappling between evidence and consciousness."

For each decade, Rowbotham focuses on the categories "politics," "work," "daily life" and "sex," and certain seminal questions emerge again and again--albeit in altered, even transmogrified, forms. Are women primarily producers or reproducers? Are women essentially different from--even better than--men? Do women need special protections, both legal and social, or is simple equality with men enough? Should feminists seek to pry open the existent society, or create a new and different one? Is the family a locus of power for women or a source of oppression? Do women share a common condition, or are they primarily defined by class, nationality or ethnicity?

"A Century of Women" makes clear that the answers to these questions, like the queries themselves, are never constant. Indeed, in Rowbotham's narrative, context is (almost) everything. Take, for instance, the issue of birth control, which has been so hotly contested for the last 100 years. At the turn of the century, the demand for access to contraception (and contraceptive information) was shockingly subversive, suggesting then, as it does now, that women could--and, even worse, wanted to--separate sexuality from procreation and meld it to pleasure. During and after World War I, radicals like Agnes Smedley and Emma Goldman "were convinced that there was a connection between women's feelings of sexual helplessness and the political and economic system. The campaign [for contraception] was part of a wider challenge to social hierarchy and repression. . . . The birth-control agitation thus linked personal and political self-determination."

But wait. Throughout the century, support for birth control has reappeared in far different guises: as a way of maintaining white middle-class demographic supremacy; as a solution to poverty, crime and drugs; as a means of eliminating the underclass; and even, in the America of the 1950s, "as an alternative [to the redistribution of wealth] which would prevent the rise of Communism." One era's progressive, even revolutionary, demand is another's backlash.

War, too, assumes complex dimensions. As World War I began, some socialists and feminists, in both Britain and the United States, expressed "a vehement revulsion against the hypocrisy of politicians and the carnage of militarism." But in both countries, most women were stirred by sentimental patriotism and strident nationalism, and became enthusiastic supporters of that carnage. Yet it is also true that in both countries the war, hideous and futile though it was, catapulted women into the paid work force and vastly changed attitudes toward work, sex, marriage, social mores and religion. In Rowbotham's dialectic, this war of reaction promoted women's freedom.

And challenged, too, the then-prevalent notion of women as the gentler sex. Rowbotham reports how, in Great Britain, "[l]iberal politicians who had accepted the construct of a natural female disposition towards peace were flummoxed by angry working-class women during the peace negotiations . . . demanding revenge for the death of their loved ones. Meanwhile, in 1924 in Ireland, [independence advocate] P.S. O'Hegarty grumbled that the women of Dublin were the most implacable and hysterical participants in the civil war: 'The Suffragettes used to tell us that with women in political power there would be no more war. We know that with women in political power there would be no more peace.' "

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