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Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States

The transatlantic story of six radical pioneers at the turn of the twentieth century
Rebel Crossings relates the interweaving lives of four women and two men as they journey from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from Britain to America, and from Old World conventions toward New World utopias. Radicalised by the rise of socialism, Helena Born, Miriam Daniell, Gertrude Dix, Robert Nicol and William Bailie cross the Atlantic dreaming of liberty and equality. The hope for a new age is captured in the name Miriam and Robert give their love child, born shortly after their arrival: Sunrise. A young Bostonian, Helen Tufts learns of Miriam’s defiant spirit through her close friendship with Helena; the love she feels for Helena and later for William fundamentally alters her life.

All six are part of a wider historical search for self-fulfillment and an alternative to a cruelly competitive capitalism. In articles, poems and allegories Helena, Helen and Miriam resist the cultural constraints women face, while female characters in Gertrude’s novels struggle to combine personal happiness with radical social commitment. William campaigns against class inequality as a socialist and an anarchist while longing to read and study. Robert, the former union militant, becomes preoccupied with personal growth and mystical enlightenment in the wilds of California.

Rebel Crossings offers fascinating perspectives on the historical interaction of feminism, socialism, and anarchism and on the incipient consciousness of a new sense of self, so vital for women seeking emancipation. These six lives bring fresh slants on political and cultural movements and upon influential individuals like Walt Whitman, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Patrick Geddes and Benjamin Tucker. It is a work of significant originality by one of our leading feminist historians and speaks to the dilemmas of our own time.

Reviews

  • “Rowbotham is one of Britain’s most important, if unshowy, feminist thinkers”
  • “An immersive book with a gripping narrative drive and it will make you wonder why stories like this are usually ignored by historians.”
  • “Miriam and Robert are two of a cast of six fin-de-siècle figures that Sheila Rowbotham has unearthed, all courageous in defying convention and fighting to bring a new world into being. Rowbotham is the right person to tell this story. She has spent her career writing about historical attempts at liberation and has herself become a doyenne of the feminist movement...The stories she has uncovered are timely because the principles they prize are under threat.”
  • “Rebel Crossings contains remarkable tales of courage”
  • “Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history... a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative”
  • “Like the radicals of the sixties who shaped Rowbotham, the subjects of her new book connected their political action to their pursuit of personal transformation and spiritualism…Rebel Crossings […] is animated by this idea, as essential now as ever, that socialism and feminism are inseparable.”
  • “[A] monumental work of research…[Rowbotham] follows the lives and loves and the endlessly mutating politics and enthusiasms of four women and two men who sought a utopian way of life.”
  • “Rowbotham is a leading feminist historian, and an unapologetic utopian ... Rebel Crossings is crammed with hopeful visions from the past”
  • “Clear and even stylish”
  • “This is a story of individuals involved in the anarchist movement, tied together by love, friendship and politics…[A] very human work about what it means to be human. Sheila Rowbotham has created a wonderful text that is at the very least a unique history, a fascinating romance, and a travelogue.”
  • “I can’t wait to read this… Juicy historical gossip for nerds.”
  • Rebel Crossings approaches this subject of what we might call radical overlap by way of fascinating, free spirited individuals, often personally lost in the need to make a living and make a meaningful life for themselves...If they exert no memorable political effect and would be lost to history without the staggering archival work of Rowbotham, still, they have a lot to tell us...Rowbotham has entered their lives almost as if they were her contemporaries, the political and cultural dreamers of the 1960s-70s, generations later still sure something far better could be worked out, as much personally as politically.”

Blog

  • Sheila Rowbotham on Mary Wollstonecraft

    On this day in 1759, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfield's, London. 

    In this extract from her introduction to Wollstonecraft's groundbreaking work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, historian Sheila Rowbotham charts the radical milieu into which she was born, and the enduring influence of her work.



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  • Reconceptualizing Family History

    "Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.


    Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.

    As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one." 

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  • Reconceptualizing Family History (Part II)

    Continued from part I.


    Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).

    The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis

    Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47

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Upcoming Events

  • Screen_shot_2017-04-21_at_10.34.13-max_141

    October 28, 2017

    London, United Kingdom

    William Morris Society

    Rebel Crossings: William Morris and Socialism in Bristol and Manchester

    Sheila Rowbotham explores the influence of William Morris on the thinking and politics of the six radical pioneers featured in her latest book, ‘Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States.’

Other books by Sheila Rowbotham