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Reflections on the Recent Work of Sheila Rowbotham

Women's Movements and Building Bridges

Vinay Bahl is the author of The Making of the Indian Working Class: A Case Study of Tata Iron and Steel Co. 1880-1946 (1995). She is an assistant professor of sociology at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (Penn State) at Williamsport.

Sheila Rowbotham is an active British socialist feminist as well as a political-historical writer. Growing up intellectually and politically in the Marxist tradition as shaped by Edward and Dorothy Thompson, growing and changing in struggles lost and won, Rowbotham continues to base her analyses in history. Her personal history and memory contribute significant details to the political analyses she offers, especially of grassroots movements. Rowbotham lives the life of a politically committed activist and an historical reporter, while a single mother actively engaged in her community. She has written fifteen books, innumerable articles, introductions, essays, poems, films, record jackets, reports, reviews and interviews. Her first book, Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World (New York: Pantheon), created a major stir when first published in 1972. Her writing is a product of her own experience as a teacher of apprentices in continuing education (where she has taught hairdressers and typists), her efforts to organize night cleaners, of marching with coal miners and their wives, and of years of active engagement in the Trotskyist movement and in the world of left publications.

In the later 1970s and the early 1980s she helped organize a movement inspired by her pamphlet Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Islington Community Press), published in 1979. Later they published it in book form in both America and Britain. The pamphlet acted as a springboard and inspired a small social movement that brought together people in traditional workers’ organizations, the Leninist left, local community initiatives, women, gays, blacks, and youth. Beyond the Fragments groups appeared throughout England in the early eighties. These were not; only political forums, but also social networks, part of people’s everyday life and leisure, connected to looking after children, having fun, being active on the job and in the community. Sheila carried the politics of the Beyond the Fragments groups into the government itself. In 1982 she went to work for the Greater London Council (GLC), the then popularly elected governing body of the city of London in which the Labour left had a majority. It sought to mobilize people usually excluded by the formal political process, and to organize them in informal ways combining participatory democracy and representative government. She also edited Jobs for Change, a widely distributed photo magazine about economic policy and projects. Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, a sort of tribute to the success of its programs. After working for the GLC, Sheila has returned to supporting herself and her son by her writing. This has not been easy in the depressed political atmosphere of the late eighties and early nineties. She has never retreated into academia or become cynical about the power of working people. She lives both her scholarship and active left feminist politics, which has made her a true public intellectual.


Movements develop in the process of communicating themselves…. We have not even words for ourselves. Thinking is difficult when the words are not your own. Borrowed concepts are like passed down clothes, they fit badly and do not confidence…. We walk and talk and think in living contradiction.1

Sheila Rowbotham wrote these lines in the context of feminists using male-centered language and concepts. But I find these lines also useful to explain my dilemma as a "Third World" woman using the English language, as well as using Western feminist concepts and categories. This dilemma started back in India, where the English language has long been a status symbol as well as a vehicle for social mobility. The position of the English language within India as well as in the world today is a tacit mark of the continuing vigor of Western imperialism. Thus I found that who I was for others, my "intelligence," indeed my essence, was a function of how well I had mastered the English language. Postmodernist notions of "difference" and "identity" offered not help but further obstacles, embedded as they are in a language impenetrable to any but a few.

These notions have been put to dubious use, as has the slogan of "multiculturalism." The notion of multiculturalism was interpreted as promotion of "differences" and separation among various ethnic and national groups within the United States as well as in the world at large. Such interpretation of the concept of "multiculturalism" came at a time when the Cold War was ending and large areas previously beyond the direct reach of the multinational companies (particularly the former "Eastern Bloc," but also India and to some degree China as well) were being ripped open for exploitation under the banner of "liberalization." The promotion of segregation of identities among various ethnic and national groups within these states led inevitably to political conflicts and to the weakening of potential resistance to imperialism. A such ethnic and nationality group conflicts in turn further ensured global domination by the First World in the name of "maintaining the peace" in the post-Cold War era.

It is in this historical context (and while reading Sheila Rowbotham) that I found myself thinking of building bridges among women, rather than promoting the idea of "differences" according to the prevailing fashion of academic and political discourse. But I am also aware that I shall be misunderstood if I claim to agree with Sheila without examining the relevance of the fact that she is a white British feminist and I am an Indian (problematic concept) "colored" woman. This threshold dilemma arises because postmodernism in the academy does not allow me any other voice except standing against the West as "different." Indeed, I have generally found it very difficult to communicate with Western feminists (with a few exceptions of course) because when not feeling guilty for not "understanding" me, their predominant mode has been that of condescension. These experiences made me aware that I am supposed to remain comfortably "different" and alien in U.S. society or find support from the Indian community (which has its own oppressive mechanism to control their women, that I reject) for the rest of my life.

I cannot accept this imposed reality because if I have to constantly define myself in opposition to the constructs of "otherness" thrust on me, then that would be the surest way to "othering" myself I am well aware that the moment one allows oneself to be subsumed within categories of "otherness" one automatically empowers what one is set against. What I seek instead is the creation of voices of dissent, of multiple points of attack and defense, sharply individuated yet linked.

Any theory, if it is to be of some practical use in the material world, must be capable not only of explaining material reality but also of providing a tool to act upon that reality. All of us know that today no country is formally a colony, but this does not mean that we are living in a postcolonial era. It only means that relations between First and Third World now

take a more concealed form. We are well aware of the debt-dependency of Third World economies, of the no longer subtle means of control exercised by the World Bank and the IMF. It is in this wider context that the link between the micro-politics of the academy and the macro-politics of imperialism exists. Therefore, it becomes imperative that scholars both from First and Third Worlds should be aware of the ways in which their investigative and interpretive studies promote or serve the designs of imperialism. As scholars our concern should be to find the lived truth of specific human relationships in specific historical circumstances and not the theories of inevitable incomprehension, of convenient relativism, that now flourish in the Anglo-Saxon academy.

Therefore, in order to understand the issue of "differences" as promoted in the United States, and searching for ways to live with respect, independence, and human dignity, I started asking the following question of myself: Why should I always see myself as "different" in U.S. society when I have become a typical part of the historical process of this country? Moreover, my arrival in the United States is not simply a personal decision on my part but also a product of a complex historical process of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism in which the histories of Britain, the United States, and India are intertwined. With this understanding of the historical process of the world capitalist system, I do not see myself as "different" from Western women. Even when I dress differently, when I have a different cadence or accent in speech, or different aesthetic tastes and food habits, it does not make me more "different" in the United States than in India because both countries have a vast variety of people with a vast variety of tastes and languages. I know that I am not different as a human being from other human beings because we all need the same human rights, the same human care and same basic things in life, and the same clean environment. That is why I refuse to he treated as "different."


Today, all of us (Third and First Worlds alike) experience the pressure of unrestrained global capitalism. In this perspective and context it seems illogical and unrealistic to interpret and analyze the experiences of people and societies as only a process of internal (therefore, different) conditions. Instead, we should try to understand the contemporary hegemonic powers and forces, their ideological and other mechanisms of control, and explore how they interact with different societies and how they shape peoples’ views and consciousness. International feminist scholarship has begun the task of understanding the connections between First and Third World economies and their effect on the lives of women in all countries. This work is essential if links are to be forged between women’s political struggles all over the world. The idea of creating bridges has caught up many women in the world in recent years, and Sheila’s writings have been a contribution to that healthy trend.

The massive migration of ex-colonial populations to the industrial cities of Europe and the United States (due to the demand for cheap labor) has created new kinds of multiethnic and multiracial social formations. Keeping these new realities of the contemporary world in mind Sheila explains in her recent book Homeworkers Worldwide (London: Merlin Press, 1993) the growth "of a Third World within the First." She also highlights an important fact that "several organizing initiatives among Third World women workers outside the conventional situation of highly organized western trade unionists have challenged the fatalism which assumed that poor women were not organizable."2 She correctly saw the home workers phenomenon in Britain and in India as a product of a global process of capitalist relations and not a problem of women of the "Third World" separately. Soon the homeworkers themselves began to make global links. This process raises the hope of a new kind of labor movement which is a contribution to a new kind of internationalism. Moreover, these women homeworkers are not just Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Filipina but also include white women. "Homeworking groups in Britain and Holland now are lobbying the EEC to recognize homeworkers’ conditions and make legislation in the different European countries more similar."3 These new types of associations have shown the capacity to cross over the boundaries of production and reproduction, of labor and community, of the economic and social. The account in this book urges women of the West to learn from the experiences of Third World poor women who are resisting the exploitation of the multinational corporations. She notes that homeworkers organizations have had an important international role in Europe and Canada as well as in the Third World, where’ organization of casual workers is emerging in countries like the Philippines. "Synthesizing old and new forms of organizing will be the work of the future—that future whose outline we can as yet barely discern."4

While pointing both at the international links between women’s movements and the interaction of ideas, Sheila Rowbotham also brings to our attention that the development of ideas itself is an integral part of the movements. One cannot develop without the other. The relationship between collective action and women’s emancipation is of special significance because a lone voice claiming liberation is no threat. Sheila is aware that none of us can know exactly how new struggles will emerge, what interpretations will be given to women’s movements, or what ultimate form they will take. Women join collective actions for different reasons at different times and places. Many women have participated in social protest action due to historical reasons particular to their own situation, and not simply in response to ideas taken from the outside. In this process of struggle each group of women developed their own strategies, and their own interpretations of the questions of equality. Moreover, all women do not use the demand of equality in the same way. In many cases "women demand peace sometimes as `mothers,’ sometimes as `human beings.’"5 The process of liberation is obscured when mothers can be at once revered and marginalized as happened in the mobilization of women in nationalist and sometimes in socialist movements. These various factors that color women’s actions and the nature of their demands is a reason why many women’s movements are not revolutionary as normally understood. It is a continuous and central insight of the work of Sheila Rowbotham that even when these womens’ movements are not revolutionary, the demands they make require such a fundamental change in society that they are completely inconceivable without revolution. Sheila Rowbotham’s work emphasizes the relationship between the making of feminist theory and women’s life experiences, because theories evolve in the process of inter action between these two. It means there cannot be one theory only or any universal model for women’s movements to follow. "Thought of a social movement is not packaged neatly between two covers…. Anyone who has been an active participant in politics knows people do not sit solemnly reading a book and then march off to make strategies and programmes."6 Earlier, Sheila wrote on this issue that every new movement assumes a different shape and in the process women’s movements all over the world look as if "thousands and thousands of women were busy making a gigantic garment in which they all borrow themes from one another but create their own patterns."7

These specific "patterns" in women’s movements emerge due to the specific social, cultural, political and economic conditions of the countries where these women live in a particular historical time. For example, modern inventions in information technology have been used to create a large pool of women workers in the developing countries. This is a phenomenon that cannot be understood at a journalistic glance, but requires study. Each region is incorporated in the global economic network as a specific component of the international division of labor. Sheila Rowbotham and the Indian scholar Swasti Mitter have explored this phenomenon in the recent anthology they edited, Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (London; New York: Routledge, 1995) In raising the issue of the impact of technology the editors are able to challenge the existing definition of the term "Third World" as including only the underdeveloped nations. These studies include as subjects non-affluent communities and nations and immigrant groups residing in technologically and economically developed nations as well, while continuing to use the term "Third World." This strategy allows the possibility of an alternative perspective that links the struggles of poor people from different regions of the world, in the context of the links that integrate their regions in global capitalism.

Various accounts in this volume show that a consequence of urban employment in the new technology is to give women social power and control (albeit contested) over their fertility. This is an instance where the contest itself is proof of a progressive change. Most of all, women all over the world are able to become aware of their connection with one another by means of the same information technology. The editors urge that women need to use this awareness of their connection with other women in the world to share experiences and to collect data about common problems and issues. For instance, very little is known about the effects of new technologies on the health of women workers. Most of the concerned governments give priority to the question of creating jobs and economic growth, but little or no attention to the issue of the health hazards in the new work environment.

Postmodernist discourse has tended to be an obstacle to taking up the research that might best serve to promote internationalism in matters of women’s economic empowerment The editors write that "in our current intellectual climate, women of the Third World have become the subject of research in connection with the `other.’ It is the `differences’ rather than the issues of economic liberation that has assumed a central position in academic analysis."8 Postmodernist discourse of "Eurocentric bias" has had the odd result of discouraging the interest of women academics in the developing world in research that deals with the life and work of women with different heritages than their own. The work in this collection explains that this trend coincided with the ascendant ideologies of the 1980s which fetishize the market mechanism and glorify self help and individual entrepreneurship. In such an atmosphere people will readily shun collective responsibility for vulnerable or marginal groups even within the boundaries of their own nation, let alone beyond the boundaries (cultural or political) of their own community. The problem is compounded by those Ecofeminists who consider research on new technology and its impact on women to be irrelevant and unproductive. According to such Ecofeminists, technology itself incorporates and reproduces values harmful to the poor people of the world. With logical consistency but little sense, they promote the goal of the subsistence economy. This entire volume argues that appeals for subsistence economy are a diversion from the central question of how to alter the material conditions that determine relations of power both nationally and internationally.

The editors argue persuasively that both postmodernist and Ecofeminist approaches lead to the erosion of any belief in the power of collective action, of course without in anyway diminishing the rate of feminist publications. One can find "shelves and shelves of poetry and fiction, books about sexuality, about race, about health, about housing, about violence, about psychology." But the very few books that attempt to put these concerns in the context of women’s changing economic relation with technology are "heavily outnumber[ed] by ‘how to’ books about computing."9 It seems that feminist attention has shifted away from the previously central concern of women’s economic place in the system and of women’s work, both paid and unpaid. This change in the focus of feminist academic attention is linked to a radical shift of emphasis from the collective to the individual. Rowbotham and Mitter point out that the "language of ‘difference,’ and antimodernity ironically gives the politics of exclusiveness and Eurocentrism a new lease of life." The feminist critique of the Enlightenment devalues the different needs of women of non-European origins which are best expressed in precisely those same despised universal Enlightenment values of equality, reason, and autonomy.

Sheila Rowbotham has taken pains to remind us that "women studies after all had its origin not only in the desire to extend what was studied but to transform the power relationship in how knowledge was constructed and communicated."10 To this end our attention must focus on the question of organization for collective action. Rowbotham and Mitter have developed their ideas on the process of organization and collective action in a second recent collection entitled Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organizing Among Poor Women in the Third World and the First (London; New York: Routledge, 1994). This book is a valuable effort to open as an area of inquiry the new kinds of organizing emerging among poor women around questions directly concerned with the process of production. But the actions and consciousness of poor women workers of the Third World, generally unable to use traditional methods of labor organizing in the teeth of fiercely repressive local regimes, cannot satisfactorily be explained under narrow and constricted definitions of class consciousness and resistance. These workers are creating novel democratic organizing processes in the most varied contexts in the poor countries, with consequences in the Western countries as well. The accounts in the book reveal the true interconnection of class with gender and race by insisting on the basic Marxist notion of situating work and class centrally within social existence as a whole, while also subverting the assumption that new cultural forms and their theorizing originate only in the North. Agaln by including studies spanning both Third and First Worlds, the editors are able to challenge the prevailing separation between studies focused on "women and development" issues in the Third World and work done on the economic and social circumstances of class, gender, race, and ethnicity in the First World.

This division of scholarly inquiry obscures the importance of multinational capital, which does not fail to exercise influence over "women’s studies" in line with its influence in society more generally. We are then diverted from the task of finding patterns in the multiple forms of global events affecting women. Our problem is that these patterns are complex, variable, and far from readily predictable in their development. Instead of giving up efforts to find commonalities amongst working women, our aim must be to understand these complex patterns by starting with inquiry into what is happening. This is the only way we can assess the odds which are stacked against poor working women. For example, one can find patterns in the history of nineteenth century textile mill women workers in Britain and the United States, and in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan, which are parallel with conditions within the modern Free Trade Zone (FTZ) found in the Third World. For instance, the employers in all these cases sought influence over the attitudes of the new mostly female work force through providing accommodation. The historical study of these lodging houses showed interesting unintended effects when women by sharing living space with other women were also able to share their experiences at the workplace as well, and derive strength from one another, which frequently, developed into militant consciousness. The study of women’s current parallel experience in the FTZs is the type of task that Rowbotham and Mitter rightly demand be taken up by the feminist scholarship of today.

The studies collected by Rowbotham and Mitter, and Sheila’s own recent work, document the emergence of new kinds of social and economic democratic practices among the poor women of the world as their labor power is commodified. In this process, so deserving of our attention, the poor women of the Third World are demanding a very basic and minimum human need—dignity and daily bread. "These women who labor for such small [basic] rewards present us a tremendous human challenge [one that] compels us to ask the following questions: What kind of development? What kind of growth? What kind of society can ensure that these basic aspirations are met?"11 Can we find answers to such basic questions of dignity and daily bread by postmodernism’s appeals to ?differences’ and cultural relativism? Rather, the recent work of Sheila Rowbotham is a continuing demonstration by one admirable woman of a unity of practice and theory in practice that is a model to all, worldwide.


  1. Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Liberation and New Politics, Pamphlet n. 17, (London: May Day Manifesto Group, 1971) pp. 5, 10.
  2. Sheila Rowbotham, Homeworkers Worldwide (London: Merlin, 1993), p. 2.
  3. Ibid., p. 84.
  4. Sheila Rowbotham and Swasti Mitter eds., Dignity and Daily Bread (London; New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 11.
  5. Sheila Rowbotham, Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action (London; New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 296-297.
  6. Ibid., p. 306.
  7. Sheila Rowbotham, The Past is Before Us: Feminism in Action Since the 1960s (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), pp. xii-xiv.
  8. Sheila Rowbotham and Swasti Mitter eds., Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 14.
  9. Ibid., p. 15.
  10. Ibid., p. 343.
  11. Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organizing Among Poor Women in the Third World and the First, (London; New York: Routledge, 1994).
1996, Volume 48, Issue 06 (November)
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