Updated: Oct 19, 2020
TW- Sexism, Racism, Abuse, Violence, Sexual assault, Child abuse, Imprisonment, force-feeding.
Helen Lewis’ book is brilliant with an even better concept- ‘Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights’, the blurb reads. The entire book is based on the concept that feminism has an imperfect history, one that has been erased in favour of feel-good activists. Lewis takes this from multiple sides of the argument exploring how this has led some figures to be taken out of history because of their now problematic views ( Erin Pizzey, who set up the first refuge in the UK, for example, is now strangely an MRA) , how this has caused some figures to be revered without a counter acknowledgement of their faults (The Pankhurst’s), how some have had their faults used as a reason to discount their entire achievements ( Pankhurst’s again) and finally how some amazing figures have been left out altogether ( such as the so-called ‘sari striker’ Jayaben Desai.)
It’s hard to explain without reading the book but the majority of the time Lewis carries this concept out with a vigour that is both inspiring and thought-provoking. There are aspects that left me feeling annoyed, but I will get to those later. I myself have been guilty of disregarding the suffragette movement- ‘They segregated Black Women’, ‘Not all women got the vote in 1918 ‘yet in doing this I wasn’t acknowledging all of the hard work they DID do. What Lewis manages to carry out in Difficult Women is showing that we must criticise these aspects of history, but we cannot airbrush them out because to do so, on one hand, creates a problematic pedestal and on the other hand devalues the fight that women went through. In an argument where there is a hard-worn line Lewis perfectly creates the balance between praise and criticism by exploring aspects of history through a critical lens.
It is worth mentioning that Lewis is a White cis-woman and her privilege can often shine through her work. However, she has the ability to acknowledge this and does so frequently both by stating her own privilege and the benefits that come with it and making necessary remarks on intersectionality and other forms of discrimination.
There are points where her privilege comes forward- notably around remarks towards trans individuals. Although, she does speak of trans people and the inclusion of them in feminism she never fully analyses her approach or wider feminisms approach. The point where this becomes tricky to decipher is where she firmly states that trans woman are woman and trans men are men whilst talking about the term TERF and her issues with it in the context of lesbianism being viewed as trans exclusionary. There is also a point where she includes the views of an individual who seems (this is never clarified) to be anti-trans and never expands on it.
The reason I became confused here is that Lewis repeatedly asserts her belief in intersectionality and makes a concerted effort throughout the book to be diverse and includes a range of gender identities in this but then seems to not analyse or criticise approaches when given the chance. As a cis woman it is difficult for me to know whether this comes from a place of willful ignorance, the desire not to speak on a subject she has little personal experience of or whether this is simply Lewis trying to maintain a balance but nonetheless it must be read critically from this viewpoint.
Aside from this, I loved Difficult Women for its exploration of history that mainstream culture isn’t educated on. From the Grunwick workers strike by Jayaben Desai to the first openly lesbian MP Maureen Colquhoun, Lewis takes on history and applies it to concepts that still affect us today. In doing so a weaving together of the past and present is achieved that enables us to critically examine the history we know and the history we don’t. Reading the stories of these women, these ‘difficult women’ gave me the language I didn’t know I needed- like why I don’t speak up enough, why even though my boyfriend helps with housework I instinctively see it as my responsibility and why I feel like I never have enough time. Difficult Women also forced me to analyse my own views- am I too quick to ‘cancel’ people? Do I silence myself because I am worried, I’ll say the wrong thing? Does my feminism sometimes focus too much on individual choices rather than acknowledging that there are complicated structures in which they are made? Yes, yes and yes.
This book is vital, educational and critical reading that both allows us to look more truthfully on the fraught history of feminism (and the world) whilst also giving a language to why we as women are so damn fed up. Here’s to the difficult woman-
‘Above all, she knows that no woman can fight all these battles alone, no matter how difficult she is. Sometimes she feels tired and worn out. But one thing saves her because a difficult Woman should always find herself some other difficult Women. They will help her remember that she- like hundreds of others before her, for hundreds of years before her- can use her difficulty to make a difference. Together, difficult women can change the world.’
I am a difficult woman; I know and love difficult women and I am
forever thankful to those who came before me and its about time we notice and appreciate their fraught history.