Difficult Women by Helen Lewis review – clever and generous

An inspiring hymn to the feminists who fought for change illustrates why it pays to be demanding

Helen Lewis begins her book, subtitled “a history of feminism in 11 fights”, with a question. What, she asks, does it mean to be a “difficult woman”? You may not be entirely surprised to hear that I didn’t really need to read on to know the answer to this. Like many, if not most, of my closest friends, I’ve been a difficult woman for more than three decades now. Naturally, then, I find it strange and slightly alarming for a writer to feel she has to plead, as Lewis goes on to do, for understanding in the matter of the “complicated” woman. Surely this should go unsaid. If it’s entirely human to be multifaceted – for some aspects of your personality to be trickier and darker than others – isn’t it also beholden upon you to be sympathetic to such quirks and flaws in other people?

But this is where we are. Twenty-first-century culture has, as Lewis notes, a tendency – you might call it a mania – for disapproving of both contemporary and historical figures on the grounds that aspects of their lives or work are distasteful. Those considered to be too unpalatable are quickly written out of the story (AKA cancelled); others are carefully repackaged, their sharper corners having been, as she puts it, carefully sandblasted. More insidious still is the question of likability. Why do women have to be nice? When I was publicising my book about some female pioneers of the 1950s, I grew used to the moment at literary festivals when someone in a nubbly sweater and unlikely earrings would announce to me in a tight, little voice that, for all their achievements, she simply didn’t like any of the women whose lives I’d spent so long researching. I grew to despise this. I don’t even like the people I love all the time.

The women in Lewis’s book are all “difficult”. But this is their superpower. It makes them brave and bullish; it provides them with the kind of tunnel vision that changes the law and the landscape. They’re wild and interesting and singular, and because of this, there were times when I wanted much more of them (I also wanted to see what they looked like, and I hope her publisher will include photos in the paperback edition).

Difficult Women is a good book – inspiriting and energetic – but it is a diffuse one. Lewis has set herself a huge task, galloping not only through several centuries of women’s history, but through some pretty thorny territory: the vote, divorce, education, sex, abortion. There are times when she can only scoot along the surface. For me, too, there was a problem of familiarity. Younger women, and those less inclined to wear worsted knickers, may not know some of the stories she tells. But if you’ve already read biographies of, say, the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, or any of the excellent books about the suffragettes that have been published recently, you may feel impatient at times.

I enjoyed Difficult Women most when I could feel Lewis’s deep engagement – and when she was telling me something I didn’t know (or only half knew). The essay entitled Safety, about the refuge movement, is very good: searching, and bracing. Lewis wants to know why Erin Pizzey, who in 1971 founded the first women’s shelter in Chiswick, west London, has been all but erased from the record of the long struggle to raise consciousness around domestic violence; her account of the various schisms in the women’s movement of the 1970s – Pizzey, it turns out, fell foul of the thought police – and the way she connects such spats to our present purity politics is clever and compelling. It’s also poignant, Pizzey having been through hard times. Lewis is rightly disturbed by Pizzey’s ongoing support for the men’s movement, but she also has the pluck to ask: what are we going to do to change the behaviour of violent males? Are we making excuses for them if we show concern over feminism’s lack of interest in perpetrator programmes? (Answer: no, we aren’t.)

Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun with the Gay Defence Committee, London, 1977
Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun with the Gay Defence Committee, London, 1977. Photograph: Wesley/Getty Images

Even better is the chapter called Love, in which Lewis tells the story of Maureen Colquhoun, Britain’s first out lesbian MP; of Jackie Forster, the editor of the 70s lesbian journal Sappho; and of Forster’s lover, Barbara Todd, who would leave her for Colquhoun, with whom she still lives. If you want bravery, you will find it here, whether in Colquhoun’s work in the Commons (she wouldn’t settle for sex discrimination becoming illegal; she wanted all bodies who received public money to give half of their places to women), or in Forster’s campaigning journalism (under the auspices of Sappho, she raised money for women dismissed from the army for being lesbians, and ran a club for closeted wives), or in the simple fact of their determined openness at a time when most gay public figures remained closeted and homophobia was standard (Colquhoun described Todd as her “partner” in her 1975 Who’s Who entry). It is to the Labour party’s eternal shame that in 1977 it voted to remove Colquhoun as a candidate on grounds so spurious they would be unimaginable had we not just been through the Jeremy Corbyn years (she criticised the party’s record on race).

This is a capacious book. Among its pages are some pretty cherishable facts and figures (in the 1880s, women’s undergarments weighed the same as a newborn); quite a lot of sex and, er, non-sex (from Stopes’s masturbation diary to Anne Koedt’s radical 1970 paper, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm); and some useful provocations (a lot of current feminism, Lewis suggests, is simply “self-help under a thin, sugary glaze of activism”).

I liked this roominess: it speaks of open-mindedness and warmth. But what I loved most of all is her clear respect for those who went before us, particularly the second wave. Not for her the dismissiveness of some younger feminists for older women. Lewis understands that we are all products of our time; that we stand on shifting sands. In this context, respect seems like a rare solid thing and it should be given freely. Enough cudgels are wielded at feminism without us going after those who were, and are, basically on our side.

• Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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