Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights. Book Review

November 19, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

How many friends and relatives can you buy the same book for as a Christmas present, without getting into trouble for your lack of imagination?

Difficult Women has everything – a great and funny writer in Helen Lewis, and a fascinating and page-turning introduction to the history of northern, mainly UK, feminism.

Here’s the pitch:

‘Women’s history should not be a shallow hunt for heroines. Too often I see feminists castigating each other for admiring the Pankhursts (autocrats), Andrea Dworkin (too aggressive), Jane Austen (too middle-class), Margaret Atwood (worried about due process in sexual harassment accusations) and Germain Greer (where do I start?). I recently read a piece about how I was ‘problematic’ for having expressed sympathy for the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. My crime was to say that his confirmation hearings had been turned into a media circus – and even those accused of sexual assault deserve better. The criticism reflects a desperate desire to pretend that thorny issues are actually straightforward. No more flawed humans struggling inside vast, complicated systems: there are good guys and bad guys, and it’s easy to tell which is which. This approach is pathetic and childish, and it should be resisted. I want to restore the complexity to feminist pioneers. Their legacies might be contested, they might have made terrible strategic choices and they might have not lived up to the ideals they preached. But they mattered. Their difficulty is part of the story.’

With that intro, she devotes a chapters to each issue, and one or more ‘difficult women’ who led the way on it, but interweaves it beautifully – and unstintingly – with her own experience (of everything from divorce to faking orgasms):

Divorce (Caroline Norton)

The Vote (Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney and Constance Lytton)

Sex (Marie Stopes)

Play (Lily Parr (left))

Work (Jayaben Desai (right))

Safety (Erin Pizzey)

Love (Maureen Colquhoun, Jackie Forster)

Education (Sophia Jex-Blake)

Time (Selma James)

Abortion (Kitty O’Kane, Colette Devlin and Diana King)

The quality of the writing and fascination of real people’s stories make it a gripping read (which is not something I can say for many of the books I review on FP2P) and hugely educational (in the good sense). Here’s one of her closing observations:

‘Spending time with my own collection of Difficult Women has been instructive. It has helped me to shake off the habit of mixing love with admiration. I admire the achievements of Marie Stopes, but freely concede that she sounds like a nightmare. I admire the suffragettes, but I am deeply ambivalent about their use of violence. I admire Jayaben Desai, even though her protest failed. I admire Erin Pizzey, even though I wish she kept better company [advocating for the men’s rights movement]. All of these women belong in the history of feminism, not in spite of their flaws but because we are all flawed. We have to resist the modern impulse to pick one of two settings: airbrush or discard. History is always more interesting when it is difficult. We can’t tidy away all the loose ends and the uncomfortable truths without draining the story of its power. Everything is problematic. The battles are difficult, and we must be difficult too.’

Splendid. Hope I’ve solved your Christmas pressie problem. You’re welcome.

November 19, 2020
Duncan Green