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Difficult Women: Whirlwind tour of feminism

Book review: Helen Lewis focuses on 11 issues in this ‘personal, partial and imperfect’ account

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in Eleven Fights
Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in Eleven Fights
Author: Helen Lewis
ISBN-13: 978-1787331280
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

The history of feminism is a history of difficult fights fought by difficult women who can present us with difficulty today. Marie Stopes, a tireless campaigner for birth control, was opposed to abortion, in favour of eugenics and in 1939 sent Hitler a volume of her poetry complete with cover letter. Prominent suffragettes endorsed violence. The founder of the first women’s refuge in Britain is now an activist in the men’s rights movement.

We do ourselves a disservice if we airbrush historical figures in order to create feminist saints, says Helen Lewis. In her “partial, imperfect, personal” history of feminism in Britain, difficult is another word for complicated. “Most of us are more than one thing; everyone is ‘problematic’,” she says – a truth that all good fiction writers understand.

The trailblazing women who populate her book are a fascinating and contradictory lot – no less visionary for their flaws and no less flawed for their vision. Focusing on 11 fights – such as divorce, the vote, education and abortion – she moves between the past and the present, drawing on interviews and archive material as well as her own experience. Along the way she gives ample space to controversies and internal divisions, to about-turns and dodgy compromises. The messiness is part of the story – it makes it more interesting and real.

Among the pioneers included is Caroline Norton who, following her separation from her husband in 1836, campaigned for divorce reform and access to her children. Norton ultimately changed what marriage meant for her fellow countrywomen though she never, she said, “pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality”.


Other figures are even more underacknowledged. Annie Kenney, a working-class woman and militant suffragette was a kind of celebrity in the early 1900s but is nothing like as well-known as the middle-class Pankhursts. For a short time, just after the first World War, footballer Lily Parr was another household name; at its peak her team drew crowds of 50,000 but by the end of 1921 the FA had banned women from playing on professional pitches. Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun came out as a lesbian in 1975; she was later deselected and erased from British political history.

Difficult Women excavates and contextualises numerous stories and in this sense is partly a rectification. It packs so much in it can feel like a whirlwind tour but Lewis is an entertaining guide – assured, self-aware and extremely funny. Her humour, as well as her effortless blending of the personal and political, is reminiscent of Caitlin Moran whose endorsement appears on the back cover.

Love and wit

Lewis’s wit is one of the book’s standout strengths – except for when it’s not. A staff writer at the Atlantic and a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, she makes no apologies for being a “difficult woman” herself. “The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean,” she writes in a rallying manifesto at the end. “She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it.”

Her debunking of the expectations placed on women is thorough, refreshing and necessary; the pressure to be nice threatens to prevent us from confronting oppression and agitating for change.

There is another difficulty with Lewis though. “We can welcome transgender people into feminism without junking the idea that biology matters… an episiotomy doesn’t care how you identify,” she writes in the chapter on love. It’s glib, particularly since she doesn’t extend much of a welcome, tending to reference conflicts instead – between “the rights of trans women and biological females” in elite sport for example, or the “desire to ‘claim’ butch women as non-binary individuals or trans men”. While she emphasises that there are gaps in the book, she could easily have been more trans-inclusive, shown more solidarity or even empathy – which is radically different from niceness.

Graham Linehan

Her chapter on abortion includes powerful descriptions of being in Dublin during the 2018 referendum as well as evocative interviews with three older women who protested Northern Ireland’s ban on terminations. These sections exemplify her skill as a journalist, her instinct for nuance and ability to bring her subjects to life.

The chapter also quotes from an interview with the television writer Graham Linehan who, in 2015, talked publicly about his wife, Helen, having an abortion following a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality. It was a brave and important disclosure but Lewis doesn’t mention Linehan’s subsequent fixation on trans issues and his frequent, hugely controversial, social media posts.

This seems at odds with the spirit of Difficult Women, a book that relishes thorny dichotomies. It is nevertheless an admirably accessible and thought-provoking history, full of information and irreverence. Lewis is problematic; she also talks a lot of sense. “We have to resist the modern impulse to pick one of two settings: airbrush or discard,” she says. “History is always more interesting when it is difficult… The battles are difficult and we must be difficult too.”