The Women Who Brought You the 20th Century

dreamers of a new day

Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century

By Sheila Rowbotham (2010)

Book Review

Dreamers of a New Day is about the first international feminist movement in the 1880s and the profound influence feminist organizers and writers had over 20th century life. Most of the women Rowbotham identifies by name are invisible to mainstream society – despite the critical importance of the major social reforms and institutions they fought for and won.

The period 1880-1929 was notable for the wide adoption of mass production and communication, the obliteration of rural life and the treacherous economic instability resulting in recurrent panics and recessions. These major social changes triggered a broad range of anti-authoritarian social movements, including socialism, anarchism, utopianism, populism and numerous other trade union and reform movements. As in the anti-authoritarian sixties, women naturally questioned why the new freedoms men were seeking shouldn’t apply to them, as well. This, in turn, led to the creation of numerous  revolutionary and reformist women-led groups.

The Campaign for Social and Economic Equality

Contrary to what they teach in high school, the first women’s liberation movement fought for far more than the right to vote. Early feminists campaigned (and won) equal access to higher education and professions previously closed to them (eg medicine, law, pharmacy, veterinary medicine) and housekeeping arrangements that enabled mothers to meet their children’s needs while simultaneously pursuing careers. The period 1880-1929 saw a lot of experimentation with cooperative kitchens, laundries, bakeries and child care facilities.

The Feminist Campaign for Clean Drinking Water, Sanitation, Birth Control and the Shorter Work Week

The settlement house movement was a direct outgrowth of the feminist movement. Early women-run settlement houses typically offered communal kitchens, organizing facilities for women’s trade unions (the Working Women’s Union was formed in 1881), childcare and parenting advice. The settlement houses (Jane Adams’s Hull House in Chicago is the best known), which were often linked with universities, were directly responsible for the development of the new fields of social science and social work, which scientifically studied the needs of children and families.

These early feminist groups also led campaigns (which they won) for clean drinking water, sanitation services, clean safe streets, housing more conducive to children’s needs, an end to child labor and sweat shops, a shorter work week, subsidized state housing, and maternity benefits for destitute mothers (established in at least a dozen states before Roosevelt enacted the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in 1935).

On the sexual front, feminists campaigned for (and won) sexual equality to men, including equal access to divorce and equal access to guardianship of children (prior to 1900 wives and children were viewed as the property of men), the right to dress as they pleased, engage in “free love,” legally access birth control and birth control information (illegal under the Comstock Law in the US and the Obscenity Law in the UK), the right to say “cunt,” “cock,” and “fuck” without going to jail, and medical reforms to reduce maternal mortality (in the 1920s, it was four times as dangerous to give birth as to work in the mines).