Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso) • Book review by Jenni Gunn • It was the feminist movement that coined and popularised the phrase ‘the personal is political’.
Sheila Rowbotham, the internationally renowned historian of feminism and social movements, is a leading figure in the women’s liberation movement in Britain, with a long and distinguished career of academic writing as well as political activism which spans a career of five decades.
Her newest book, Rebel Crossings explores the transatlantic story of six pioneering radicals living in the late nineteenth and early 20th century.
Rowbotham examines the lives of these six characters, creating personal and political biographies that provide a fascinating insight into the formulation and dissemination of radical ideas, and how these ideas travelled across the Atlantic, from Edinburgh, Bristol, Belfast and Manchester, to the Californian wilderness and the streets of Boston, Massachusetts.
But Rebel Crossings is as much an exploration of how the relationship between individuals and the struggle for personal fulfilment developed the political philosophies of these six individual lives.
This exploration seems deeply personal to Rowbotham, who clearly admires the breadth of vision of her six radical subjects.
As an academic, but also an activist, Rowbotham understands how deeply personal experiences and our interactions with others can impact upon our ideology and outlook. Rowbotham explains how recounting their lives allowed her to “trace opinions shifting and relocating as new concepts were graded upon old…Looking at an interacting group revealed their consciousness emerging dynamically through their relationships with one another.”
We see how secularists and feminists exchanged ideas with anarchists and non-conformists who embraced the ideas of free love and unconventional dress. Through these interactions we can see the development of relationships and the synthesis of entire political movements who were yet to reach maturity.
Rowbotham details the personal struggles of these four women and two men and relates these personal battles to the wider political and historical context of the period. All four of Rowbotham’s women, Miriam Daniell, Helena Born, Helen Tufts and Gertrude Dix made brave personal decisions in striving towards “love and independence” by breaking with the social conventions of the day.
Miriam Daniell, for example, broke with convention by leaving her husband, a union which her closest friends described as a “unhappy marriage of many years.” She took up with Robert Allan Nicol, the son of a Dunfermline shopkeeper, who moved in with Miriam and her closest friend Helena Born in Bristol.
Nicol was a Scottish socialist; a supporter of an independent Scotland, Ireland and Wales, who was interested in ideas of sexual emancipation and contraception, both extremely controversial issues during this period. He made an indelible mark on Miriam and Helena’s personal lives, going on to father a child with Miriam. But he also affected their political outlook.
Indeed, the effect was mutual, as Miriam’s involvement with trade union organising in Bristol and her strict adherence to the “socialist gospel” enticed Robert to become involved in the labour movement.
Helena described Miriam as having an “intimate knowledge of the lives of working people” and a “deep sympathy with them.” Robert, infected with Miriam’s passion for social justice and worker’s rights eventually led him to become the secretary of the militant Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, where he rubbed shoulders and exchanged ideas and experience with such notable figures as Eleanor Marx.
There are countless examples of this interplay throughout Rebel Crossings. Another common theme throughout the piece is Rowbotham’s character’s commitment to lead authentic lives according to their principles whilst simultaneously fighting for social justice through their political work.
There is a natural tension displayed here between each activists commitment to the power of the collective, but also a deeply personal belief that individual self-fulfilment was an absolute good.
According to Rowbotham, they actively “sought to combine their quest for personal development of individuals with the creation of a society based on co-operative association, rather than competition and profit.”
The fluidity with which the characters espoused collectivist political ideals with the highest regard for personal liberties and individualism gives the reader an insight into one of the most hotly debated philosophical questions of the day, and a constant tension between anarchist and socialists movements that has not completely subsided even today.
This unique mix of personal biography couched in a historical narrative makes Rebel Crossings an impressively weighty piece of scholarship that is also a wonderfully readable piece of political and social history. Indeed, Rowbotham’s style is at times almost novelistic, but never loses the detailed analysis that makes this work about so much more than the six human subjects contained within its pages.
Their stories are both inspiring and strangely familiar, making Rebel Crossings a must-read for anyone interested in the history of radical politics in Britain and the United States.