Rowbotham was born in Leeds, the daughter of a salesman for an engineering company and an office clerk From an early age, she was deeply interested in history. Rowbotham was to write that traditional political history “left her cold”, but she credited Olga Wilkinson, one of her teachers with encouraging her interest in social history by showing that history “belonged to the present, not to the history textbooks”.
Rowbotham attended St Hilda’s College at Oxford and then the University of London. She began her working life as a teacher in comprehensive schools and institutes of higher or Adult education. While attending St. Hilda’s College, Rowbotham found her syllabus with its heavy focus on political history to be of no interest to her. Through her involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and various socialist circles including the Labour Party’s youth wing, the Young Socialists, Rowbotham was introduced to Karl Marx's ideas. Already on the left, Rowbotham was converted to Marxism. Soon disenchanted with the direction of party politics she immersed herself in a variety of left-wing campaigns, including writing for the radical political newspaper Black Dwarf. In the 1960s, Rowbotham was one of the founders and leaders of the History Workshop movement associated with Ruskin College.
Towards the end of the 1960s she had become involved in the growing Women’s Liberation Movement (also known as Second-wave feminism) and, in 1969, published her influential pamphlet "Women’s Liberation and the New Politics" which argued that Socialist theory needed to consider the oppression of women in cultural as well as economic terms. She enjoyed wearing miniskirts and being sexually liberated. She was heavily involved in the conference Beyond the Fragments (eventually a book), which attempted to draw together democratic socialist and socialist feminist currents in the UK. Between 1983 and 1986, Rowbotham served as the editor of Jobs For Change, the newspaper of the Greater London Council.
Since then, Rowbotham has produced numerous studies and articles expanding upon her theory, which argues that as women’s oppression is a result of both economic and cultural forces then a dualist perspective (socialist feminism), which examines both the public and private sphere, is required to work towards liberation.
Rowbotham was especially influenced by Marxist social history as practiced by E. P. Thompson and his wife Dorothy. Combining a Marxist analysis with feminism, Rowbotham contends that capitalism not only systematically oppresses the working class, but also particularly oppresses women. In Rowbotham’s view, women are doubly oppressed as they are forced to sell their labour in order to survive, but also forced to use their labour to support their husbands and children. Rowbotham is critical of traditional Marxist history for what she sees as the neglect of such issues as family history, the role of housewives in supporting the economy, sexuality, and maternity. In her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World, Rowbotham maintained that the domestic household work done by women was a part of commodity production as it allowed the production and reproduction of men's labor However, Rowbotham claimed that the human family was not just an instrument for disciplining and subjecting women to capitalism, but was a place where potentially humans could take refuge from the what Rowbotham sees as the commodification of human relationships under capitalism In Rowbotham's view, raising children, sexuality and need for human relationship means that the family can rarely be reduced down to a service commoditiy. Likewise, she argues for a Marxist history that accords equal importance to the role of both sexes in the history of revolutions, unions, political parties and protest movements.
In such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) and Hidden from History (1974), Rowbotham put her ideas into practice by examining the experience of women in radical and revolutionary movements in Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, China, Russia, France and Britain from the 17th century to the 20th. In Rowbotham’s opinion, working within the established order has never brought women any gains, and only through revolutionary socialist movements have women made any social gains. Rowbotham has argued that through male revolutionaries are willing to accept women as partners as long as the revolution lasts, once the revolution is over, women are expected to return to their traditional roles. In Hidden from History, Rowbotham examined British women's history from the 17th century to 1930 from a Marxist viewpoint For Rowbotham, the history of British women could best be defined through class oppression, the Industrial Revolution and sexism
Rowbotham has praised Vladimir Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders for legalizing abortion, divorce, and contraception plus founding the Zhenotdel (women’s department) and socialized restraurants, health care and laundries. Rowbotham has criticized Soviet policies starting with the First Five Year Plan of 1928-33 for not only expecting women to work full time, but also to take on the burdens of house work and child raising. Rowbotham has contended that to achieve women’s liberation requires a "revolution within the revolution" or freedom from the “colony within the colony”. Rowbotham maintains that capitalism and sexism are so closely linked that only one way to destroy both is a radical change in the "cultural conditioning" of humanity as regards child-rearing, homes, laws, and the work. Rowotham’s books were, and are still well received in radical feminist circles.
In her 1973 book, Women’s Consciousness, Men’s World, Rowbotham presented her analysis of contemporary social conditions from a Marxist-feminist perspective. Rowbotham argues that origins of sexism predate capitalism, and that the institution of marriage closely resembles feudalism. Rowbotham argues that as in feudalism serfs were obliged to serve their masters, she contends that wives are likewise contracted to serve their husbands. In her books, Rowbotham has used a broad variety of sources such as government statistics, pamphlets, novels, interviews, songs, secondary sources, and her own history. A major source of criticism of Rowbotham is her heavy reliance on secondary sources for such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution and Hidden from History.
In her 1977 book Dutiful Daughters co-written with Jean McCrindle, Rowbotham interviewed fourteen women of lower-middle class and working class origin. Through Rowbotham notes that the life stories women interviewed for Dutiful Daughters were not intended to be representative of all British women, she argues that these snap-shots of different lives if combined with enough other oral histories can provide an understanding of the experience of ordinary women.
As part of relating the personal to the political, Rowbotham has examined the sexual and political beliefs of such late 19th-early 20th century radicals as Edward Carpenter who saw socialism as way for humanity's spiritual rebirth and Stella Browne who fought for birth control and argued for the importance of sexual pleasure for women Rowbotham argued that the political beliefs of Carpenter and Browne were closely tied to their personal lives
Besides for her work as a historian, Rowbotham has been active in left-wing causes. In her book Beyond the Fragments co-written with Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal, Rowbotham called for the various fractions of the British left to unite, and work for a socialist Britain through grass-roots activism.. Rowbotham has great faith in activist social movements working from the bottom up to change society. Rowbotham feels that historians have a duty to contribute to social change by writing books expose what she sees as the evils of society. As such, Rowbotham is highly critical of those historians who, influenced by theories of French structuralism and post...structuralism, write in a style unlikely to appeal to the general public.
In Rowbotham's opinion, an issue of great importance is providing a definition of patriarchy so that women know what they are struggling. Rowbotham finds fault with those feminists who deny men a role in the battle against sexism. In her opinion, women and men should stand equally against both capitalism and sexism to achieve radical social reorganization.
In 2004, Rowbotham was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was Professor of Gender and Labour History, Sociology at the University of Manchester, England until her involuntary retirement in 2008.
Rowbotham's involuntary retirement from the University of Manchester caused protest from students. The Facebook group Save Sheila Rowbotham was established to campaign for her continuation as a Lecturer. The same year she published the first ever biography of Edward Carpenter, titled Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love and did continue to teach within the Sociology department at Manchester. In Autumn 2008, Rowbotham's request to stay on after the age of 65 to a third of her job was refused. However after protests from students, academics and others internationally the university offered her a third of research professorship. She is currently a Simon Professor.
The archives of Sheila Rowbotham are held at The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University, ref 7SHR.