Difficult Women: Whirlwind tour of feminism

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

Scottish-born doctor and birth control pioneer Marie Carmichael Stopes is one of the women featured in Difficult Women by Helen Lewis. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Scottish-born doctor and birth control pioneer Marie Carmichael Stopes is one of the women featured in Difficult Women by Helen Lewis. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 Irish Times
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