Sheila Rowbotham's massive history reminds us of the remarkable revolution in women's lives which has both shaped and been shaped by the course of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine being arrested now for spreading information about birth control, as Margaret Sanger was in the US in 1916. Young people are astonished that it took high-profile militancy from suffragettes, which culminated in force-feeding in prison, to secure votes for women, a luxury we know take for granted.
The trouble is that so much has happened to women in the past 100 years that it is almost impossible to encapsulate everything, as Rowbothan attempts to, in 580 pages. The most successful and thorough sections focus on ordinary working women and their stories. But she also tries to cram in everything else - daily life, cultural influences and the rise of screen goddesses, changes in attitudes to sex and contraception, make-up and dress. On top of that we have the whole of the American 20th century to digest as well.
Inevitably, with such a vast canvas, Rowbotham jumps from subject to subject, often in the same paragraph. The narrative rarely flows seamlessly, particularly in the early sections when there are fewer sources to draw on. Too often, just as something gets really interesting, we are left in mid-air panting for more.
On page 209, she tells us that a growing number of single women were destitute in the US during the 1930s. Two million women were unemployed and those who were homeless roamed the streets and slept rough. "The result was the She-She-She camps, set up in 1933. But the provision for women was always less than for men." Rowbotham tells us nothing more. What were the She-She-She camps? Who set them up? The throwaway sentence makes me feel as if I am the only imbecile in the world who has never heard of them.
Each chapter is devoted to a decade and subdivided into sections on politics, work, daily life and sex, first in the UK, then in the US. Such a rigid structure limits more than it liberates. It illuminates the swift pace of change: for instance, how the chaste 1950s opened up to the liberal optimism of the 1960s which paved the way for the feminist activism of the 1970s. But as Rowbotham herself says, the "dimensions of women's experience are too extensive to fit a simplistic linear mode".
As a result, we lose any sense of narrative progression or polemic. It would have been interesting to discover how the segregation of female and male work developed with industry through the course of the century, in order to explain the tenacity of wage differentials. And how did the radical change in attitudes towards sex and reproduction affect relationships and attitudes to marriage?
This is a very useful encyclopedic work of reference, rather than a product of the more fashionable school of history which uses narrative to explain. Every ten pages or so a vignette of boxed information is dropped into the main text on subjects as varied as Barbie Dolls, Lesbian culture and the Spanish Civil War: they enhance the eclectic, encyclopedic feel. As with the best encyclopedias, it is a joy to dip into; the detail of each section is rich and entertaining. Barbara Cartland was very concerned that the new vogue for slim women during 1920s flapperdom would lead to weaker babies. Norman Hartnell had an extra shamrock embroidered into the skirt of the Queen's Coronation dress for luck.
Meanwhile, life stories of lesser known women such as Edith Thompson read like the synopses of novels. In 1923 she was hanged, aged 29 and possibly pregnant, after her younger lover killed her husband, even though there was no evidence to suggest she had been an accomplice. But she was portrayed as an evil adulteress who led a younger man into crime.
At the end of this long book one is left with a lasting sense of extraordinary progress that has immeasurably improved the quality of life for women. But there is also a sense of longing for the activism and collective chutzpah of former pioneers, which helped to drive those achievements forward.
"Women have experienced the fracturing of feminine identity in the course of this century," concludes Rowbotham. In that fracturing of experience, collective need has evaporated and feminist activity focused on disparate causes. Women have come a long way. But we still have further to go.Reuse content