Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis

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Review by Liz Dexter

First of all a caveat, in case any keen-eyed reader finds my name in the acknowledgements: I did work on this book in my professional capacity, doing the transcriptions of many of the interviews Helen Lewis undertook for it, and, indeed, provided some encouragement along the way. However, I in no way knew anything about the finished product until I held it in my hands, and this is an honest and unbiased review.

Helen Lewis has the admirable aim in this book of looking at feminism’s more difficult women, the ones who have been shaped to fit the narrative when they didn’t quite fit it or, if they didn’t fit it at all, eased and erased out. Women like Erin Pizzey, who founded the first women’s refuge (obviously a good thing) but then fell out with everyone, decided some women are addicted to violence and ended up claiming there’s no such thing as gender issues in domestic violence (Lewis gives the stats that proves that wrong) and being an activist for men’s rights. Marie Stopes is somewhat well-known for being into eugenics but also appears to have misrepresented her first husband to help her story. Difficult doesn’t always mean dodgy, but some of these women really didn’t fit in with the mores of their time, let alone those of today’s often changed times:

In this book you will meet women with views which are unpalatable to modern feminists. You will meet women with views which were unpalatable to their contemporaries. A history of feminism should not try to sand off the sharp corners of the movement’s pioneers – or write them out of the story entirely, if their sins are deemed too great. It must allow them to be just as flawed – just as human – as men.

Difficult women also include the elderly activists who ordered abortion pills online and tried to get themselves arrested, or the women who had to try hard to push forward the cause of equal rights. And there are also some men in here, notably Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman’s husband (as he tends to be known) and supporter of the Grunwick women (who refused to be nice compliant South Asian women and raised a huge amount of striker support) and the sons of women who have been murdered by or killed their husbands talking about coercive control when people don’t want to talk about it. They’re not afraid to talk about tricky subjects from the off: when introducing Marie Stopes’ archivist biographer, for example:

It took me ten minutes after meeting Lesley Hall to start talking to her about penetration.

Lewis is a bit scathing about the way modern feminism “feels toothless” and women’s history a “shallow hunt for heroines”. Young feminists seem to often think the fights are already won, where Lewis gives us a good overview of just how many fights are still only half-way there (women in their 20s now have pay parity with men to a large extent – until they start families). The theory of waves of feminism is discussed but also linked with the idea of backlash, and Lewis shows a good grasp of the bigger picture, from reminding us that

Feminism should be less concerned with individual choices than the conditions in which they were made.

when talking about issues around changing one’s name upon marriage, and coming to the conclusion that the things that allowed women’s football to become popular were trousers and war. She also makes sure to talk about the wider world arena away from the UK-centric nature of the book as a whole, reminding us that the revolution in women’s education that has been pushed through here now needs to be replicated worldwide, and speaking of Malala and an Indian women’s education charity.

We get personal details – somewhat famously about some sex stuff but also at the start about her own divorce and how a whole stream of women have had to work on that one for us all. I liked this bringing in of the personal, and this is also evident in the witty, Caitlin Moran-like, asides in the footnotes, because the personal IS political, after all, and it also makes the book more approachable. Another personal note is, of course, that the subjects of the book are chosen by Helen Lewis: she hopes

That the gaps do not look like deficiencies, but invitations.

There is a powerful call to action at the end of the book:

 Ultimately … the cure for feminist ennui is feminist campaigning.

The patriarchy is outlined as the main culprit, pressing men as well as women into repressive and uncomfortable roles. She uses a series of demands sets out at the Women’s Liberation Conferences in the NINETEEN-SEVENTIES (for goodness’ sakes) to show that there’s still a lot of work to get our teeth into, some partially achieved, some where we need to look at the intersection of gender, race and class, some that are still so far away. The description of a Difficult Woman at the very end is a masterpiece and I wish I could quote the whole thing: I encourage you to go and get a copy and read it!

The book doesn’t have notes (and we know I like a good note) although it does have amusing footnotes, and each reference is clearly linked to either an interview for the book, an interview for a previous article, or a book or journal article, with author and title mentioned. So I’m fine with that, and understand notes can put off the casual reader. There is a good, full bibliography and a long and comprehensive index.

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Liz Dexter is always thrilled to be acknowledged. She has written more personally about her reaction to reading this book on her blog, where she writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Helen Lewis, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape, 2020). 978-1787331208, 354 pp., hardback

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