Writer Emily Menger-Davies reviews Helen Lewis’ Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, which reminds us that well-behaved women seldom make history.
You should never judge a book by its cover, but Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights does exactly what it says on the tin. The bold blue, black and yellow dust jacket reminds me of a superhero comic, unapologetically loud and prominent – bam! Let’s talk about feminism.
Helen Lewis begins by explaining what she means by a “difficult woman” Difficult here has two meanings, not just a grumbling insult but also a unique form of feminist praise. According to Lewis, it’s good to be difficult – these fights were won by women being difficult, sticking their elbows out and saying no, this just won’t do. Difficult also means imperfect. This is a warts-and-all history of feminism and presents these women for what they were: complex, flawed individuals who were often problematic and full of contradictions, which is what makes this book so objective and honest. Feminism is difficult, it is a movement that attempts to represent half of the world’s population and, naturally, the individuals within it will have conflicting views as often as they have shared ones.
The book presents 11 fights in the journey towards gender equality such as the right to vote, the right to higher education and the right to abortion. In doing so, it ticks the diversity box as the women detailed are varied in terms of sexuality, race and class giving it the big intersectional stamp of approval. It is meticulously researched and intelligently argued whilst also being extremely readable. Unusually for a non-fiction book, it is a page-turner. Lewis’ style is playful and engaging, and after each chapter you find yourself turning the page asking eagerly “but what happened next?”. My knowledge of history is so full of holes that I sometimes joke that I can enjoy historical novels because the fact that I don’t know what happened to these major historical figures makes it as gripping as if it were a detective thriller. However, in this book, I feel excused for my ignorance because these women aren’t often found in mainstream history books. Histories of men told by men leave not only gaps in our understanding of the past but a huge chunk of it left by the undocumented lives of half of the population. Women weren’t allowed to tell stories, they just had to be at home with the children, didn’t they? What Lewis proves over and over in this book is that, just because they weren’t supposed to, doesn’t mean that they didn’t.
What also makes this book so readable is the way in which Lewis is able to expertly and sensitively change emotional gears. After being moved to sadness and disgust at the chapter “Vote” which details the suffering the suffragettes underwent in prison, accompanied by a medical explanation of why doctors now consider force feeding to be a form of torture, you wonder if you have the emotional strength for the next chapter. But you do, because Lewis expertly sweeps up the pieces of your broken heart with witty stoicism to move onto something that will give you a wee giggle: “now, let’s talk about sex”. Interspersed with personal anecdotes and often funny footnote asides, she deals with the serious alongside the light-hearted in a way which demonstrates her talent as a writer, researcher and journalist.
Overall, this book is hopeful, and it is so, so educational. My only grievance is not to do with the book itself but is an issue to which I don’t know the answer. That is that those who would pick up this book will not need to be persuaded of its contents. I doubt many people, male or female, will read this book who are convinced that we don’t need feminism anymore or who dismiss these “difficult women” as bra-burning, hairy-legged, sour-faced women. This preaching to the converted problem raises the question of how to get what is often considered a “niche” area of interest into mainstream education – making it not just optional reading but part of our shared historical understanding, not just boiling history down to the bare bones of straight white men.
Fundamentally, Lewis stresses that these women don’t have to be perfect for you to admire them and to recognise that many of the rights you enjoy were fought for by them. Leaders are rarely perfect, and neither are superheroes.