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In praise of history’s difficult women

The story of the fight for gender quality is littered with unlikeable feminists. But do we need to like them to recognise their role In history?

I agreed to review this book some months ago, but much like when I wrote my university dissertation, I left all of the reading until the night before. Fortunately, this was a much less painful affair. For a start, in this instance I hadn’t just had acrylic nails applied for the first time, so I didn’t spend the evening crying into my keyboard. And, unlike the speed-studying of thousands of words on women’s work in the Georgian period, Difficult Women was a joy to read. I needn’t have feared that I might have been forced to skim some chapters: immersed, I powered through in one sitting.

As this book is about recognising the flaws of feminists past, I feel free to admit my failure of preparation – just as Helen Lewis feels free to admit in the book that she has faked orgasms (of course she has). And while I am confessing things: despite having written a feminist book, I have not studied in any real detail history’s great feminists – the same women I would happily claim were my heroes from the comfort of a stage. Thankfully, in Difficult Women, Lewis, the former deputy editor of the New Statesman, has done the studious work for me.

The book is structured around 11 feminist battlegrounds throughout history: divorce, the vote, sex, play, work, safety, love, education, time, abortion and the fight to just be, well, difficult. As the stories of these movements developed, I learned so many delicious facts about women whom I thought I knew. In fact, reading Difficult Women felt like sitting down with a friend and gossiping about other women in our circle. That speaks to the book’s central message: it is perfectly fine to find fault with a woman whom you also admire. Up and down the country there are WhatsApp groups pinging away, as women slag one another off – women who truly love each other – over something that has been said or done or even worn. In real life we are able to accept the flaws of our own brilliant women – in public discourse, not so much.

The book fully contextualises the women who fought for the right to vote, for better working conditions and for the right to enjoy sex and to protect their bodies from its side effects. In doing so, it allows them to be fallible. These were not “bloody difficult women” simply because they were taking on the status quo, but because they were also very difficult to like, for one reason or another. But in learning the things that I wouldn’t have admired about each one of these activists, I ended up liking them all the more. In my mind, they went from being the kind of women I would crowdfund to see immortalised in brass to being the kind of women I would have had a full-on flouncing fight with. Through Difficult Women, Lewis transformed them from 2D into glorious, chair-shaking, water-in-your-face 4D.

Take, for example, Erin Pizzey, the mother of the domestic violence refuge movement – a movement that I worked within for a decade. Over the course of this book, I came to realise that she’d actually be far more in tune with everyone’s favourite men’s rights activist, the Conservative MP Philip Davies, than she would with me. But Lewis rejects the idea, so popular in contemporary feminism, that either you are a hero or you belong in the bin. In doing so, she gives us an explicit and implicit look into her own experience of being a prominent feminist attacked for her imperfections. Ultimately, she suggests that we must resist the toxic need for moral purity from icons of the past and from those whom we seek to inspire us in the present and the future. After all, is it not the idea of the perfect woman that has been used time and again to hold us all back? 

I remember being on a stage at a feminist event and praising the work of the teenager Amika George, who campaigned to raise awareness of period poverty among schoolgirls, and sought to make it legally compulsory for schools in the UK to provide free tampons and sanitary towels. A fellow panellist scolded me for these comments, instead regarding George’s efforts as merely a sticking plaster on the far greater problem of a global poverty forced on women by capitalism. They might have had a point, but the likelihood of George overthrowing global capitalism seems, shall we say, a more unrealistic challenge. So should she have done nothing at all?

Difficult Women does a very good job of demonstrating just how many women have historically been considered “difficult” by feminists and modern-day progressives because they made incremental changes that would help only some women in the short term (but would eventually lead to helping most women in the long term). From the suffragettes who initially expanded the right to vote only to landed women, to the pioneers of family planning who spoke in favour of birth control but against abortion, it is clear that radical women at times took the path of slightly less resistance in order to change the future (often long after they were dead). But is it fair to discount their efforts because they couldn’t do everything all at once?

It is striking how many of these figures themselves loathed the puritanical elements of feminist movements, or resented the fetishisation of their intersecting characteristics, such as class or race. Take Annie Kenney, the working-class hero of the suffragette movement, who seems to have hated being reduced to a “mill girl” in most accounts of the struggle for votes for women. Who could blame her – she was one of the leading brains of the struggle, not working-class window dressing.

I am asked at a frequency more regular than my period: “Does the abuse targeted at women politicians make you want to give it all up?” My answer is always the same: absolutely not. I’ve just had to get used to the fact that some people hate me. The figures in Difficult Women all similarly resigned themselves to being despised, because they knew that unless they grabbed attention they would have been overlooked. And being called difficult was better than being ignored.

For some women, this meant accepting a public shaming in order to part with their husbands; for others, it meant they had to use to their advantage the fact that people underestimated them for wearing a sari. In the words of the former Labour adviser Ayesha Hazarika, one of the minds behind the Equality Act 2010, “At some point you have to be badly behaved. You have to kick off.” Lewis asserts that “any movement needs both provocateurs and pragmatists”: it is clear from these 11 fights that you will be called “difficult” if you are either.

For all this talk of difficulty, this is an easy read. In fact, it has some howl-out-loud funny moments, thanks to the eccentricities of the women described, and of the author herself. Throughout the book, Lewis uses footnotes as a vehicle for brilliant comic asides – including a particularly hilarious digression involving the Conservative MP Chris Grayling and a plant pot.

I am ashamed to say that there were women in this book whom I had never heard of, including Maureen Colquhoun, an openly lesbian Labour MP of the 1970s. Colquhoun is still alive today, but has been all nearly erased from history (everyone instead describes Chris Smith as the first openly gay member of parliament). Yes, she, too, sounds bloody difficult but also bloody unapologetically brilliant, and I will be writing to her immediately on finishing this review.

It is good to see that in recent times there has been a concerted effort by many to build up the library of the history of womankind and their achievements, so often scrubbed from the record. Helen Lewis does more than just tell their stories – she allows them to be complicated, something that women are so rarely permitted to be. While Donald Trump sits in the White House and Boris Johnson scruffs up his hair in No 10, we should recognise that men are able to be not just difficult, but deplorable, and it doesn’t seem to do them any harm.

I for one am happy to sign up to the book’s closing manifesto, which is less a policy prescription and more a long and varied list of all the things that every woman should be able to do and be without being considered difficult. Lewis insists that we should all be awkward, if the situation demands it – and it is clear from her book that this is the only way we are going to change anything at all. 

Helen Lewis appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 April

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights
Helen Lewis
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £16.99

Jess Phillips is MP (Labour) for Birmingham Yardley. She is the author of Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth (Windmill)

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose