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.