Thursday, 15 May 2008

Sheila Rowbotham at 1968 and all that

Professor of Gender and Labour History, Sociology at the University of Manchester, Sheila Rowbotham spoke to a crowded gathering of attendees of '1968 And All That' on the topic of 'The personal and the political in 1968' discussing the way events in 1968 shaped her work and philosophy. The central focus of Sheila's talk remained the political and cultural influences on a broad school of 'second wave' feminism developing in a period following the summer of 1968, within which she played an instrumental part.

Readers may be aware that Sheila has faced the prospect of forced retirement from the University of Manchester, inspiring a facebook campaign opposing the termination of her contract; the publicity the campaign has attracted seemed reflected in the attendance of the event, with many of those present forced to stand due to limited space.

Citing the influence of 'first wave' feminist thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley in inspiring conceptions of individual lives dictated by reason as the source of emancipation, Sheila suggested this idea provided an influence to the work of later feminist writers. Sheila cited the work of Doris Lessing, in the formation of what would prove to be a characteristic feature of second wave feminism: the importance of 'personal experience' as the subject of political discourse. The influence of 1968 was to provide a language in which to discuss the importance of these experiences, a language that would prove highly influential to later Women's Liberation movements.

Sheila noted that the existence of revolutionary heroines such as Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourg were figures that did not come across as having "personal feelings" and if they did, as she conceded, this was not "part of what was meant to be said about them". That the revolutionary figures cited by Sheila shunned a confinement to those issues seen to pertain to the domain of women was not a subject that was expanded upon in great depth, unfortunately.

The focus upon personal experience as a vehicle for "willed freedom" implied a focus upon the role of 'individual will' as the agent for social change. Sheila also noted however a problematic implication of 'the will to be free', mitigated as this will is by stratifications of class and its associative implications.

In the context of the escalating Vietnam war and the great swelter of ideas prevalent during 1968s Sheila joined the International Socialist, precursor of the Socialist Workers Party, for eighteen months until it is suggested there were moves to expel her. This involvement coincided with a workerist period in which the IS sought direct influence with the workers movement with the mass entry of members into factory work places. As a consequence of this turn to industry, those seeking to engage in the emergent women and gay liberation movements retained a fractious relationship with the Executive Committee of the IS.

Contributions from the floor highlighted the failings of 1968 inspired second wave feminism to deliver the promise of equality it desired; noting the ability of capitalism to accommodate a focus upon identity politics without dramatically altering its underlining exclusionary and exploitative logic. That capitalism has been able to adopt the rhetoric of women's emancipation to sell everything from cigarettes to soap suggests that capitalism retains a versatility in its search for profit.

In contrast to the decidedly equivocal approach that has been taken in relation to women's issues in the past, communists must serve as the tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects, while viewing such movements as part of the fight for universal human liberation which only the working class can lead.

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