Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis - review by Joan Smith

Joan Smith

Ladies Who Punch

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights


Jonathan Cape 368pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Helen Lewis doesn’t come across as a ‘difficult’ woman. She is thoughtful and hard-working, describing here how she sifted through many biographies, letters and archives to write this history of feminist pioneers. Some of this material, such as the memoirs of working-class suffragettes, proved immensely rewarding. Some of it didn’t: Married Love, the magnum opus of the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, is written in a style that Lewis dismisses as ‘bonkers’. It’s a surprise to discover that Stopes was an enthusiastic playwright and even had a play, bizarrely entitled Our Ostriches, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1923. Lewis admits that she tried to read it but couldn’t get to the end. Another Stopes script drew a sharp rejoinder from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Short of rewriting this play, I can do no more with it than cut 20 pages just to shew you how you should cut the rest,’ he told her.

There are many such anecdotes in the book, providing a chatty introduction to the likes of Stopes, Sophia Jex-Blake and Erin Pizzey for readers unfamiliar with their names. I would have thought that the last two were both relatively well known: Jex-Blake took on the universities that refused to admit women as medical students, arguing in 1869 that women were naturally suited to a career in medicine because of their experience of looking after the sick, while Pizzey founded the first refuge for victims of domestic violence in the UK in 1971. But I didn’t know about Lily Parr, who was born in 1905 and became a football star at the age of fourteen, benefiting from the phenomenal growth of women’s soccer during the First World War. It didn’t last: in 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing football on the pitches of professional clubs, arguing that the game ‘is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. It was half a century before this ban was rescinded, marking a grudging concession to players of what has now become one of the most popular women’s sports. Women like Parr are definitely worth rescuing from obscurity, even if some supporters of women’s football will have already read about her in Barbara Jacobs’s book (published in 2004) on the team Parr played for.

Feminists have been caricatured so often that it’s worth recalling the many obstacles placed in the path of women campaigning for equal rights. Lewis’s premise is that it’s not at all surprising that some of them were ‘difficult’, whether by temperament or as a result of harsh personal experience, or that some of them became embroiled in bitter quarrels with other feminists. I can’t help thinking that it attracts more attention when women fall out with each other than when others do, even though every movement for sweeping social change has suffered from internal conflicts and schisms; the French Revolution, after all, ended up with former comrades trying to send each other to the guillotine. It is undeniably true that some feminists have embraced strange ideas (Stopes famously became enamoured of eugenics) that arouse discomfort in the 21st century. But Lewis wisely counsels against consigning all their ideas to the scrapheap, arguing against the modern tendency to condemn writers and thinkers on the basis of one regrettable or poorly expressed opinion.

Divided into chapters with mostly one-word titles – ‘Work’, ‘Safety’, ‘Play’, ‘Sex’ – the book will be a useful primer for readers who don’t know much about the history of feminism and want to learn more. The book’s subtitle describes these struggles for equality as ‘fights’ – an eye-catching term but one that plays, unintentionally I think, into the idea of women being constantly at loggerheads with each other. Lewis eschews the fierce intellectualism of such feminist texts as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics in favour of something much more conversational; at one point she directly addresses the late Margaret Thatcher, rehearsing arguments that have been made many times before (‘you had a husband who supported your career’). It’s a strange addition to the text and perhaps a sign that the audience Lewis has in mind is used to getting information from social media rather than newspapers or books. Indeed her footnotes, while often amusing, sound like the knowingly clever one-liners people post on Twitter: ‘The current generation of women, with access to period trackers, is probably the first since Marie Stopes to have such a keen understanding of why their tits hurt and they just cried over a video of a Labrador making friends with a budgie.’

The effect of social media on this book can be felt in another way. In the past, feminists had to contend with scorn and hostility, even imprisonment and force-feeding in the case of the suffragettes. Personal attacks on women via the internet may seem small beer in comparison, but their volume and intensity and the visceral loathing directed at individuals – female MPs and journalists like Lewis – are recent and sinister phenomena. Although she is at pains to be reasonable throughout her book, it is apparent that she has endured a large amount of abuse for things she has written. Her description of one particular ‘trashing’ she experienced on social media (including a preposterous accusation that her rhetoric was ‘so hate-filled that people reading it would surely kill themselves’) is painful to read. No wonder she felt ‘wrung out’ by the time she started writing, and preternaturally sensitive to the barbs aimed at well-known women in the past. But Lewis is right to insist that feminism and feminists will always be difficult – and that’s something to celebrate.

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