I loved reading this book for two reasons. First, it validated being a difficult woman, that is considered to be difficult every time I objected to something sexist. Second, it was my history. I am solidly and proudly a ’second wave’ feminist. Additionally, it provided perspective on some developments in gender politics during my life.
Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights
The full title gives you an idea of the content and structure of this book. Helen Lewis explores eleven fights in the history of feminism and you could probably predict what they are. Some have not yet been won, others began a very long time ago. Each one, as Helen Lewis shows, was pushed forward by one or more women who were seen as very difficult.
Christabel Pankhurst and the fight for the vote
Marie Stopes and sex
Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strike
Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly Lesbian MP
Sophia Jex-Blake and women’s medical education
Erin Pizzey and women’s refuges
And and and
In each of the eleven fights women refused to be quiet or withdraw their objections, and each of them were vindicated in the longer term.
In my own past I think of access to contraception for unmarried women, divorce reform, abortion rights, equal pay, maternity leave and childcare. I became a pregnancy counsellor for the centre in a nearby city after being active in the campaign to provide access to abortions in my local area. I learned so much from that work, not least about the agonies for women contemplating abortions.
I was one of the first to apply for maternity leave in the same city, in 1977. It was granted, but the vitriol meted out to me by my colleagues was hard to take. I was taking a man’s job, I was told. I learned the truth of the phrase she quotes more than once: to have it all you must do it all. I became a single mother, wanting to progress my career, to be able to take advantage of living in London, but finding that my life was exceedingly tough for several years.
And so my personal struggles were often feminist struggles. This is true for Helen Lewis too, although she is at least a generation younger than me. As we used to say – the personal is political.
Two omissions from this book sadden me. I spent my professional life working in schools or on school improvement in the university. I worked in London schools from 1982. These were the years of school curriculum reform, and analysing classrooms from perspectives such as racism, sexism and class. We considered the curriculum that we had inherited and adjusted it for all the children in our schools. From 1988 such freedom was removed from teachers and the curriculum became defined as the knowledge and skills that children needed to acquire at certain points in their lives.
We also looked at how gender relations operated in classrooms. How boys dominated, demanded attention, and occupied the extremes of behaviour. We looked at how teachers prejudged children, by gender, race and class background within seconds of meeting them and considered how to change this. We looked at girls’ aspirations beyond school and tried to raise them. My first published book was on the subject of gender and pastoral care. I was an editor and had a chapter in it.
All this feminist work in schools is overlooked by Helen Lewis, as she focuses only on Higher Education and training men to be teachers in primary schools.
More curious for the overall story of feminist fights is her silence on the Greenham Common protest, a hugely significant political struggle and a very feminist form of activism, women protesting without men. It is mentioned once in relation to contradictory press coverage of the participants. I remember Greenham as an existential battle to remove US missiles from Berkshire, one led by women who sacrificed large parts of their lives to set up a camp around the base and stay there. I joined them in the Embrace-the-base event in 1982, along with my mother, and my sister and our three children. We had a banner quoting Mrs Thatcher on The Falklands: the wishes of the islanders are paramount.
Women also played a significant and differentiated role in supporting that other great political battle of the 1980s, the miners’ strike. The miners’ wives were heroic and inspirational in their attempts to support the fight against the miners’ unions.
One thing Helen Lewis does capture is the long tradition of divisions within the feminist movement, or rather feminist movements. Caring passionately about something means you disagree passionately with others who might also be engaged in change. We label each other and thereby exclude fellow travellers; sometimes we heap scorn and fury on them. Helen Lewis describes how, having become deputy editor of the New Statesman, she earned the opprobrium of many women, who were able to publicly voice their views on social media and in other fora.
I find myself wanting to avoid the current differences in the views about transgender people, not clear about my own opinions, not clear about the issues involved, but witnessing great hurt and anger in the exchanges.
Helen Lewis finishes Difficult Women with a call to put every advance, every step gained into the structures of our society and with a manifesto for difficult women. It begins like this:
The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean. She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it; demanding if the situation requires it; and obstinate, if someone tries to fob her off. She does not care if ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. She is unmoved by the suggestion that it’s ‘natural’ for women to act a certain way or accept a lower status. It probably isn’t, and even if it is – so is dying from preventable diseases. No one thinks we should succumb to cholera just because it’s traditional.
The Difficult Woman has strong beliefs … (329)
Her writing style is journalistic, which makes it lively. While she draws on her own experiences there is also plenty of evidence to support the arguments, referred to in the text, and listed in the final pages. She’s currently a staff writer on The Atlantic. Wikipedia reports that in 2012 she coined a useful note-to-self called Lewis’s Law
the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.
Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights by Helen Lewis, first published in 2020. Available in paperback from Vintage. 356pp