Sisters feeling left out

13th June 1997 at 01:00
A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States

By Sheila Rowbotham

Viking #163;20

In this extraordinary and ambitious enterprise, Sheila Rowbotham attempts to record the history of women in two very different cultures. She follows women's histories through attitudes to sex and sexuality, to work, to families, and to women's political activity. The history is interspaced with what the blurb describes as "entertaining essays" on subjects such as prostitution, the Arts and Crafts movement, Barbie dolls, and so on.

So the canvas is an enormous one. Yet one is left feeling that there is a serious lack here to do with the extent to which the areas covered are Rowbotham's own areas of interest - her agenda, if you like - as opposed to concentrating in part on areas we know concern women deeply on both sides of the Atlantic, which are almost unmentioned.

For instance, there is only one mention of the ordination of women, right at the beginning of the book, in an aside about Victoria Liddiard, the suffragette, who campaigned lifelong for the ordination of women priests. Yet all the evidence shows that women make up a larger part of most Christian congregations than men, and the question of how men have controlled the churches and women have struggled for a toe-hold, leading to changing attitudes to paedophile priests, for instance, is a key part of women's history this century. As is the role the churches played in parts of the civil rights movement in the United States. To ignore religion seems perverse, given the degree to which women have religious involvements.

Also, while there is much about sexual freedom, and even about abortion, there is remarkably little about women's health. In the index, under health, diet achieves eight entries in Britain and four in the US, while infant mortality gets only one mention in each. Yet in terms of what has most affected women's health, the provision of health care as a universal right in Britain, with antenatal care, health visiting, and regular child checks, has been transformati onal. So too has the women's campaign for the right to have less medical intervention in childbirth, and the emphasis on giving birth as women themselves wish. Similarly, in the US, the lack of universal antenatal care in most states (with Massachusetts being an honourable exception) has led to enormously high perinatal mortality figures in some areas.

Those figures, as well as the figures for breast cancer (and associated campaigns), and the gradual change to hormone replacement therapy without studies which show its long-term effects, are the meat of women's history. Yet Rowbotham covers very little of the ground.

Every woman, were she even to attempt so massive a task, would write this book differently. But the issue remains open as to what the most significant areas of women's history are - and whether one can legitimately leave out issues about health while concentrating so heavily on women's political campaigns, such as the anti-cruise missile camp at Greenham Common. For Greenham was important, but only to a minority of women. Similarly, campaigns to get more women into Parliament get remarkably little coverage (where is the Three Hundred Group in all this, to be added to the redoubtable Fawcett Society?). The book was completed too early to give coverage to the new feminisation of the House of Commons with women playing a major role in Cabinet and in junior ministerial positions.

So this is far from complete. But, in the areas on which it concentrates, it is very persuasive. The role of women politicians such as Eleanor Rathbone and Ellen Wilkinson in Britain and Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune in the US is well recorded, though I would have wished to see more made of Eleanor Rathbone's role in rescuing Jewish refugee children and others in the thirties - her campaign largely convinced others, including the former prime minister, Lord Baldwin, to appeal to the nation on behalf of child refugees. Similarly, it would have been excellent to have read more of Mary McLeod Bethune's extraordinary career.

But one of the limitations of a volume of this kind is that it has to be brief. Within its limitations, it has succeeded. It misses, in my view, some essential areas, and it emphasises the radical at the expense of the middle-of-the-road in some respects. But it tells a powerful, gripping story.

The only major complaint is the essays scattered among its pages on various subjects, which read like magazine articles. They simply do not fit. They could have been an appendix, or a separate volume of thoughts. But within this serious history, with excellent photographs, they are a distraction. They destroy the reader's concentration on a rapidly moving text, which is so beautifully written that one reads this vast tome as if it were a novel.

Julia Neuberger is chief executive designate of the King's Fund

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