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The second half of the nineteenth century was a time that saw the agrarian nature of British and US society pushed aside in favor of an urbanization caused in large part by the centralization of production under capitalist industrialization. A time marked by exploration, repression, capitalist excess and consequent inequality. This economic and social reality is the context Sheila Rowbotham’s newest book Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States takes place in. The text, which is both a group biography and a history of American utopianism, is also a tale of the beginnings of socialism and anarchism. Indeed, many of Rowbotham’s subjects cut their teeth (so to speak) by participating in and organizing strike actions in the cities and towns they lived in. It was this introduction to a world where ordinary citizens took mass action in the name of fairness and justice that opened their minds to the greater possibilities of human freedom and struggle.
The protagonists of Rebel Crossings were involved in numerous political and social movements in the United Kingdom and in the United States. With Walt Whitman and his celebration of human freedoms as their text and inspiration, the women and men portrayed in this book found themselves on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking about civilization and humanity itself. Their existence at the dawn of industrial capitalism, its rise to dominance, and its excesses and wars, is what enabled their freedom only to eventually absorb and limit it in ways few of them foresaw. As the capitalist State worked with the bankers and financiers to insure their maximum profits and control, the individualist ethics of the type of anarchism the bulk of this group adhered to lost its popularity. The way things turned out, those who placed class at the top of their analysis would end up dominating the US Left for decades.
Rowbotham colorfully chronicles the loves of her subjects, their political transformations and their travels, all the while maintaining a mapping of their connections. Most importantly is the fact that the primary subjects of Rowbotham’s text are women. This is important because women in the nineteenth century were mostly assigned to very specific roles and expected to defer to men in both the public and private spheres. Rowbotham’s women did not. The nature of marriage was open to challenge as were relationships. Sexuality was hotly debated and subject to all matter of reinterpretation. The human body in all its forms was slowly becoming unclothed. It’s hard to fathom a time when most people thought bloomers exposed too much of the female form; or when bicycle riding by women was frowned on by most sectors of society, but this is what the women of that time were up against. It was Whitman’s comfortableness with the human body that was part of his attraction to the rebels of the time.
For the most part, Rowbotham does not romanticize her subjects. Their occasional racism and anti-immigrant are acknowledged and remarked upon. So is the class prejudice of one of at least one of the women whose biography is prominent through much of the book, Helen Tufts. Her background is what is known as WASP and, if any group of people in the United States are considered royalty; this group would be the first among them. At the same time, this is a story of individuals overcoming their backgrounds and prejudices to become egalitarian, free and more open-minded. Indeed, the final chapter of the book details Ms. Tufts expulsion from the
Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after she speaks out against the anti-left and anarchist radical blacklist of the McCarthy area.
If there is a hero in the book, it would be Helena Born. Her presence as a labor organizer, speaker, lover and friend is essential to Rowbotham’s text, even after Born’s death. It is Born who provides both strength and inspiration (along with a fair amount of simple human love) to those whose lives she touches. Furthermore, her speeches and writings inform and inspire hundreds if not thousands more, especially after her death when her work is compiled by her lover and the aforementioned Helen Tufts.
The tale told in these pages travels from Britain to the east coast of the United States and from there to the (then) wilds of California. Just as the writings and thoughts of Rowbotham’s subject inform her tale, so do many of the other writers of the period. Edward Carpenter, William Morris, Karl Marx, and the Haymarket martyrs are all essential to the politics of Rebel Crossings, just as they were to thousands in their day and after. This is a story of individuals involved in the anarchist movement, tied together by love, friendship and politics. It is also a story of how these phenomena also push some of them apart. This is 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.