Dreamers of a New Day, By Sheila Rowbotham

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The whole area of our daily life should constitute politics," wrote the American social reformer, Mary Parker Follett in 1918: "there is no line where the life of home ends and the life of the city begins". Responding to the new pressures of modern life – mass production, slums, migration – women imagined better futures. Working conditions, diet, dress, the design of houses, streets and cities, maternity, education, sexual relations – everything was grist to their mill.

Sheila Rowbotham assembles a vast congregation of these "dreamers": women who worked for social change long before the majority got the vote. Spanning both sides of the Atlantic, and three generations from the 1880s to the 1930s, they don't constitute a movement or a political tendency. "Domestic redeemers" venerated motherhood and believed in women's moral mission; free-lovers wanted "selfrealisation" even if it meant slamming the door on home, husband and children. Anarchists proposed independent communities; gradualists got elected to local councils; socialists initiated strikes or joined picket lines.

Dreamers of a New Day brings to life an astonishing panoply of networks, self-help groups, leagues and unions. Countless women were "awakened" by guilt and longing, driven by moral zeal, galvanised by anger. They took their frustrations into community actions and campaigns, food riots, boycotts and rent strikes. They were housewives and workers, immigrants like the Russian-Jewish women who sat all night amid "tea-steam and cigarette smoke", discussing marriage and the family, to the horror of their menfolk. Or women like Anna Julia Cooper, whose mother had been a slave, attacking white suffrage organisations for their racist assumptions.

Maimie Pinzer, a Jewish prostitute and morphine addict, told a startled upper-class reformer that the marriage ceremony was "the worst lot of cant I ever heard". Factory girls, shop assistants, "typewriters", bohemians and schoolteachers, they generated a new political culture as they leafleted and demonstrated, set up their own journals, poured out novels and pamphlets.

None of it came easily. Wanting life to be "all of a piece" might lead to prosecution or worse. Edith Lanchester (mother of the actress, Elsa) was briefly committed to a lunatic asylum by her father for wanting to cohabit with her working-class partner. Kate Chopin's novel of 1899, The Awakening, cheered many women who wanted, like its heroine, sexual fulfilment rather than dull domesticity. But its publication ostracised the author and ruined her life. Breaking down the walls inside oneself was equally fraught. Tormented by her feelings for her philandering lover, the anarchist Emma Goldman felt a fraud attacking possessiveness.

Dreamers of a New Day is crowded, lively and inspiring. Occasionally its transatlantic threads are left in mid-air and lives are told in snatches on the wing. There are tantalising glimpses of those clubs, choirs, holiday homes, theatre groups, and "mini-utopias", like the Whiteway Tolstoyan anarchist community in the Cotswolds, which sharply rejected one male arrival who thought sexual "varietism" an excuse for womanising. And what became of Edinburgh's "Cafe Vegetaria", a suffrage meeting place in 1909?

In chapters on consumer power and ethical capitalism, Rowbotham stretches her rubric to the limit. Her "adventurers" include entrepreneurs and management gurus. At one extreme is Sarah Lees, suffragist, Liberal philanthropist and later, the first woman mayor of Oldham. She formed a cooperative building society among millworkers. At the other is Ida Tarbell, wanting to humanise the workplace by "scientific management" but against giving women the vote. Rowbotham leaves the last word to novelist Nella Larsen, one of many artists denouncing mass production as a form of psychological subordination, "cutting all to a pattern, the white man's pattern".

Dreamers of a New Day argues that women were a profoundly "creative force", transforming the map of politics. It's not a nostalgic view. Their demands for a "humane economics" have not gone away. Rowbotham's book is a tribute to women's faith in the possible but also to her own unquenchable belief in women.

Alison Light's 'Mrs Woolf and the Servants' is published by Penguin