Kira Cochrane interviews Sheila Rowbotham for the New Statesman Books Interview about the early women’s movement explored in her new book Dreamers of a New Day, her role in the second-wave of feminism in Britain, and Jean-Luc Godard’s request:
Forty years ago, you spearheaded the second-wave feminist movement in Britain by suggesting the first ever National Women’s Liberation Conference. Do you see that wave of the movement as utopian, too?
Yes, we wanted everything to change. We were women who had had an education, but many of us came from non-educated backgrounds, so we didn’t have precedents in our families for different ways of being. Men were similarly caught, so they treated us in very confused ways. We were all breaking every rule, and yet the old assumptions kept surfacing. I remember one guy telling me that my role as a woman was to be a nurturer. I said: “I don’t want that role!” I don’t mind nurturing when I feel like it, but I don’t want to be stuck in that category.
Does it surprise you that a class analysis has largely disappeared from feminism?
I think it happened when the manufacturing industry dwindled and workers moved over to the public sector. Also, the Murdoch press has had the power to crush the slightest sniff of old-style Labourism, or feminism – Harriet Harman says very mild things and the tabloid press goes bananas. The way that the Labour Party abandoned working-class people has left a complete vacuum, and a deep feeling of hurt and anger.
In 1970 Jean-Luc Godard asked you to walk up and down stairs naked, reciting words of emancipation and you said no. Have you ever regretted that decision?
No – even though I didn’t have incredibly pure, principled motives for refusing: it was mainly vanity. I did read the words of emancipation, and the woman who ended up on screen in my place was terribly slender and elegant.
Read the full interview here.