Changing the world

June 14, 2020

While widening our concept of feminism, Helen Lewis shows that the fight for rights cannot always be polite and sweet

In a world where we are used to seeing ourselves and our experiences through the filtered lens of Snapchat, Instagram and the like, the urge to search for the unfiltered reality is itself a difficult choice. Yet this is precisely what Helen Lewis attempts to unearth in Difficult Women, which as the subtitle indicates, is A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

Fights? Yes, you read that right. But good women do not fight, I hear you say. Yes, but goodness alone doesn’t always get stuff done. Or so we see as we go through the complicated lives of women to whom we owe many of the rights taken for granted today: vote, work and education to name a few.

Taking issue with the way challenging and at times contradictory aspects of the lives and practices of feminist pioneers are often airbrushed to depict a straightforward narrative of success, she argues for the necessity of embracing these women’s narratives in all their complexity in order to acquire a holistic understanding of the struggles they faced as well as to truly appreciate the magnitude of their achievements: “Women’s history should not be a shallow hunt for heroines... their legacies might be contested, they might have made terrible strategic choices and they might not have lived up to the ideals they preached. But they mattered. Their difficulty is part of the story”.

Through her account of the complex lives and beliefs of popular feminist icons, she highlights the reductiveness of the stereotypical “angel in the house” or the monster mould they are often ascribed to.

In the opening chapter, Lewis provides a definition of the term “difficult” which in our context refers to being a) complicated, b) tenacious, and c) a trouble maker, though the trouble here is of the kind that brings a “legal and cultural change” (p.5). In her opinion, the qualifier “difficult” also refers to “difficulty of womanhood itself” (p.4) and how women and their experiences are often relegated to the short end of the men-women binary where man is the norm and woman an anomaly. Readers see these levels of being “difficult” as we begin leafing through the chapters which are thematically arranged in eleven categories, ranging from the right to vote, work, safety, and education to the right to be difficult and a manifesto for the difficult woman. While the book is admittedly British in focus, as argued by the author herself, parallels can be drawn to the struggles and challenges faced by feminists universally.

Among the many ‘difficult’ women that are mentioned, is Caroline Norton, who played an instrumental role in the approval of the Custody of Infants Act (1839) often credited as the “first piece of feminist legislation” in England. It was through her incessant campaigning that the initial notion of marriage as a dissolution of a woman’s separate legal and economic existence was changed into a deal between equals. It is no wonder that the reader is astonished to find that the same woman equated the idea of a woman’s beauty to “consciousness of her inferiority to man” (p.18).

Similar contradictions in the life and activism abound in the depictions of other ‘difficult women’. For instance, suffragists, with all their achievements for women’s right to vote, were no peaceful fighters. They were pro-violence and considered militancy as an antidote to “evils of ladyism” (p.57), i.e. the conventional ideals of what is ladylike or not that was rampant at the time. Furthermore, in the chapter entitled “Education” we get to meet Sophia Jex-Blakes of the Edinburgh Seven, the first female students in medicine. Her road to medicine was fraught with discrimination of one form or another, so it is shocking to know that despite having experienced it all first hand, she was herself discriminatory in her practice and found boys of low social class unfit for being a part of the co-ed classroom.

However, the most intriguing of all for me personally was the account of Erin Pizzey who in 1971 founded the first refuge for women affected by domestic violence and abuse. This led to the creation of Refuge, the largest charity of its kind, with an annual income of £13.3 million. Despite her strong advocacy for domestic violence to be taken seriously for more than thirty years, the same Erin Pizzey has most recently been reported to consider feminism a lie and women as prone to violence as men.

Through her depiction of these complexities in the lives of selected feminists, Lewis brings to light the complexities within our notions of feminism as well as defending their place in history despite the difficulty of their narratives.

For a reader already familiar with some of these feminist icons the book may not offer new material as such, but for a beginner, it appears a very balanced view of the lives of the key feminist figures as well as providing a DIY list of further reads through all the references that the book is laced with. The writing itself is historically erudite and presents a combination of journalistic rigour, autobiographical subjectivity and witticism of a humorist.

My favourite bit was the footnotes, which read like hilarious asides. For instance, she footnotes her colleague Laurie Penny’s wishful suggestion of a day in a woman’s life when “everybody listened to her” with “If it happens, I’ll let you know” (p.310). However, the most important contribution that Lewis makes is in widening our concept of feminism, and womanhood itself and to show, through the manifesto at the end of the book, as well as the story of each woman that she shares, that the fight for rights cannot always be polite and sweet. To disrupt the status quo, it may cause a few ripples. But there is nothing wrong with that, because being difficult gets things done. And together, Difficult Women Can Change the World.

Difficult Women

History of Feminism in

11 Fights

Author: Helen Lewis

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House, 2020

Pages: 354

Price: £14.99

The writer is a Distinction holder in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, UK and currently works as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore. She tweets at @readlikematilda

Changing the world: Helen Lewis shows that the fight for rights cannot always be polite and sweet