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.
The book is full of Lewis’ short, sharp political observations: “Every feminist action provokes an equal, opposite reaction”; “campaigners have to be disruptive”; “The same force which radicalises so many women – the burden of unpaid caring labour – also hampers them from doing anything about it”; “Work is not what creates value for an employer. It’s what creates a society. It’s what takes up your time.”
Her footnotes are almost always as funny as they are informative. When writing about the historical resistance to women’s football, she quotes a newspaper letter: “Sir, if she can push an eight-pound baby through her pelvis, it can probably handle bumping into the opposing winger.”
Contrary to the trend of rah-rah feel-good feminism — epitomised by the bestselling children’s book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls — Lewis seeks to restore the complexity to female change-makers. We should resist the urge to sanitise our heroines, she argues, just as equal rights should not depend on being naughty or nice. We meet disruptors, such as the working-class suffragette Annie Kenney, who has been elbowed out of history books by the more genteel Pankhursts. Despite the customary image of suffragettes as ‘ladies-who-lunched-and-occasionally-committed-arson’ (like ‘the dippy absent mother in Mary Poppins’), the movement employed quasi-terrorist tactics to make itself heard. ‘Most revolutionaries are not nice,’ writes Lewis.
In Lewis’s book, the chapters are divided by causes rather than individuals, with each one highlighting a handful of figures, some dead and some living, instrumental in bringing about change. Difficult Women is smart, thoughtful and rich in detail. It isn’t a straightforward celebration, either. Lewis isn’t trying to repackage her subjects as heroines or rebels or badass babes. Her point is that pioneering or high-achieving women are multidimensional and are apt to be a pain in the arse. They can be mean-spirited, defensive, contradictory, downright reprehensible, but this doesn’t cancel out their achievements.
Difficult Women excavates and contextualises numerous stories and in this sense is partly a rectification. It packs so much in it can feel like a whirlwind tour but Lewis is an entertaining guide – assured, self-aware and extremely funny. Her humour, as well as her effortless blending of the personal and political, is reminiscent of Caitlin Moran whose endorsement appears on the back cover. Lewis’s wit is one of the book’s standout strengths – except for when it’s not. A staff writer at the Atlantic and a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, she makes no apologies for being a “difficult woman” herself.
The scope is so dauntingly enormous that any activist can only address a single issue, even if it’s an issue as vast and apparently intractable as economic parity or changing marriage customs. That’s why to write a history of feminism in an episodic structure like Lewis’s is a good idea, but inevitably a limited one too. It’s also why women fight so much: each campaigner is passionate about her own route through this terrifyingly unmapped terrain, and passionately disagrees with the choices of the others. But slowly, unevenly, oddly, we stumble on.
As Lewis observes, some feminists had views that were not only problematic to future feminists but to their contemporaries too. The book is described as A History of Feminism in 11 Fights and they range from the vote and divorce to football (during the Great War, women’s football was terrifically popular) and higher education. But it also includes the interesting question of time — who is entitled to leisure time and how do you get it when there are children? More than once Lewis quotes Hannah Mitchell’s observation that “no cause can be won between dinner and tea”. And she raises the question of whether the ever-longer working day for professionals may be one more way of excluding women from advancement.
Difficult Women is full of vivid detail, jam-packed with research and fizzing with provocation. It is sometimes too chatty, littered with “poor bastard”s, “for f***’s sake”s and “luckless sod”s. And some of the footnotes could go: we can share Lewis’s delight that Iain Duncan Smith is “a lifelong honorary member of Pratt’s” without hearing that he was “presumably… blackballed by the Incompetent T*** dining club”. We also probably don’t need to know that Lewis can “claim no insight into whether or not Chris Grayling has masturbated into a pot plant”. Or that “having a full bladder makes me 13% more annoyed by sexism”. Less is more, etc.
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.
I read Difficult Women with gratitude. It’s an authoritative benchmark of modern feminism, written by someone on top of her game. For some time now, warriors of my vintage have been a bit lost. Everything has got terrifyingly complicated in the politics of being female. What had seemed perfectly simple in the 1970s and 1980s — our bodies, our equality, our right to work like men — has evolved into a thing of scary nuance, beset by internal infighting, where gender and language are weaponised to a bewildering degree. For us, staying quiet seemed the only option. We had little idea what defined the boundaries of second, third or fourth-wave feminism and were too nervous to ask.