Rebel Crossings

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This book is a fine example of someone on a mission. In the 1970s Sheila Rowbotham found a book in the British Library called Whitman’s Ideal Democracy and other writings by Helena Born, with a biography of the author written by Helen Tuffs.

Helena Born was a radical woman with some unconventional views. She came from a middle class family, became a socialist, was an active (and often leading) supporter and organiser of many strikes in the late 1880 and 1890s, during the period of New Unionism.

She was also influenced by anarchism and was inspired by Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter. Rowbotham was fascinated by the book and the range of ideas outlined. This stayed with her, and in 2009 she set out to find out more.

Helena was close friends in Bristol with Miriam Daniell; both were active in the socialist and trade strike movements. Miriam had a relationship with Robert Allan Nichol, a married man. The three lived together, Helena providing a cover for the relationship. Later, when Miriam was pregnant, the three moved to the US.

Helena developed what is referred to as a “free union” in Boston with William Bailie.

The sixth character in the book is the author Gertrude Dix, who had a relationship with Robert after Miriam’s death.

Rowbotham describes the six as participants in fluid political, cultural and spiritual networks.

Their interests included feminism, socialism, anarchism, mycology, free love, health foods, sex psychology and rational dress. She likens the political and ideological journey of the six to her own; her socialism was formed at a time when the new left in many countries was seeking an alternative to the repressive aspects of communism under Stalinism.

For me, the book got off to a great start, describing Helena’s and Miriam’s involvement in campaigns and strikes for the eight-hour day, when new unionism organised unskilled workers.

As well as being treasurer and secretary of the strike committee, Helena organised a soup kitchen providing food for strikers and their families. Helena and Miriam witnessed the power of solidarity between men and women.

Gertrude Dix was also involved in the unionisation of female workers in the tailoring industry. These to me were the highlights of the book.

“Free love” seemed to involve females providing financial and organisational support for the men and children; there seemed to be little in the way of equality in their relationship.

“Rational dress” turned out to be women wearing breeches when cycling — at the time seen as controversial, as were vegetarianism and health foods, but hardly likely to change the order of society.

The research and dedication that Rowbotham put into the book is commendable, but unfortunately, certainly after leaving the UK, the lives and interests of the six don’t, in my view, offer answers to the question of equality between men and women, and wider society.