What about Val?

A CENTURY OF WOMEN: The History of Women in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham, Viking pounds 20

The story this book tells will be broadly familiar to its readers, all of whom have lived through at least part of it. Even those of us who were born after the end of the Second World War know about Rosie the Riveter, the muscular female factory worker whose image appeared on the cover of Picture Post in 1943 to celebrate the contribution of American women to the war effort. Latterly, though, Rosie has come to represent something else: the cynical way in which female labour was exploited in two wars, only to be packed off home again when hostilities ceased.

The imposition of different meanings on women, and especially mothers, depending on the political and social needs of the time, is one of the themes of Sheila Rowbotham's ambitious book. So is the contest which flared up whenever women tried to challenge those meanings, whether the recusants in question were the suffragettes who harried male politicians before the First World War demanding the vote, or the feminists who disrupted the Miss World competition in November 1970, armed with bags of flour, tomatoes and stink bombs. "We're not beautiful, we're not ugly, we're angry," they chanted.

Rowbotham's book tries to be inclusive, assigning as much importance to the sometimes bewildering shifts in women's consciousness down the century as it does to mainstream political events, like acquiring the vote and the long fight on both sides of the Atlantic for equal pay. Each decade gets its own chapter, dealing first with Britain and then America, and there are sub-divisions into subjects like politics, work, sex and daily life. Hundreds of women are quoted, from towering figures like Eleanor Roosevelt to farm workers, trade union organisers, and other women who would be surprised to find their experience recorded in any kind of history. Some of these voices are funny and revealing. When Lady Violet Bonham Carter asked her governess how she would spend her life, she was told that "until you are 18 you will do lessons". And after that? she inquired. "And afterwards you will do nothing." Others are tragic. A young mother from Liverpool, Winnie Roberts, began a letter during the Second World War: "My Darling Sweetheart, you must forgive me the tone of my letter yesterday as my nerves are on edge. We endured a terrible night last night and the sirens have gone since I started these few lines." The unfinished letter was found in the ruins of the bombed house in which Winnie and her baby daughter Maureen died.

None of this, however, compensates for the stylistic and methodological problems which persist throughout the book. First, there are the awkward linking sentences: "A crisis of authority between generations in the middle class troubled American commentators too"; "Gender as well as class bias persisted"; "Yet the decade which invented the uncomplicated bouncy word `bonking' was also beset by fears."

Then there are Rowbotham's cultural interpretations, which are necessarily short and frustratingly reductive. To say that Marilyn Monroe "faced the camera carefully prepared" hardly does justice to her deliberate re-invention of herself as a sex symbol, and her consequent impact on worldwide notions of femininity. The same uncertain touch is visible in the brief biographies which follow the main text, so that Angela Carter's long career as a journalist and critic is reduced to the statement "In 1959 worked as a journalist." Madonna is described as a "film actress and singer", and only two of her songs are mentioned, apparently at random, while her Sex book is left out altogether.

Rowbotham's omissions are easier to forgive, given that her work is on such a huge scale, but there does seem to be a bias in favour of worthiness and against women whose faces don't fit. Valerie Solanas, would-be assassin of Andy Warhol and author of The SCUM Manifesto, does not appear at all, and there are other puzzling lacunae, such as the failure to mention the role in shaping women's consciousness in the 1970s of feminist publishing houses like Virago.

Although the book ends with a section on the years 1990-1995, there is no reference to communitarianism, the political ideology which has influenced both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and whose potential impact on women, particularly working mothers, worries many observers. And while she documents the increasing use of contraception pretty thoroughly, Rowbotham shows little interest in one of the most rapidly growing percentages of women in western Europe - in Britain it now stands at 20 per cent - who have deliberately chosen not to have children at all.

There are also, inevitably, mistakes. Rowbotham locates the Yorkshire Ripper murders in her chapter on the 1980s, when the sequence began in 1975 and ended abruptly a few weeks after the death of Jacqueline Hill - one of his final victims, not the third as stated here - on 2 January, 1981, when Peter Sutcliffe was arrested. But these shortcomings pale into insignificance beside the book's most glaring fault, which is that no matter how exciting her material, Rowbotham's style somehow manages to flatten it into a narrative unenlivened by humour, outrage, irony or passion.

In that respect, her book suffers by comparison with Olwen Hufton's much bolder approach in her history of women in the early-modern period, The Prospect Before Her. Both writers are academics. But Hufton has chosen to address the widest possible audience, while it is hard to imagine many readers, whether worldly-wise nonagenarians or inquisitive teenagers, persevering to the final pages of Rowbotham's unfailingly dull prose.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz