Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis
Published by Vintage Digital on the 27th February 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do.

Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Helen Lewis argues that too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of feminism as a history of difficult women.

In this book, you’ll meet the working-class suffragettes who advocated bombings and arson; the princess who discovered why so many women were having bad sex; the ‘striker in a sari’ who terrified Margaret Thatcher; and the lesbian politician who outraged the country. Taking the story up to the present with the twenty-first-century campaign for abortion services, Helen Lewis reveals the unvarnished – and unfinished – history of women’s rights.

Drawing on archival research and interviews, Difficult Women is a funny, fearless and sometimes shocking narrative history, which shows why the feminist movement has succeeded – and what it should do next. The battle is difficult, and we must be difficult too.

In reading Difficult Women by Helen Lewis I was reminded of Roaring Girls by Holly Kyte which I read late last year. Both works introduced me to women who should be household names but, in the majority of cases, have been forgotten. As We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik pointed out, as women we need to both create our own new narratives and to remember the stories of our female forebears. Lewis' selection, other than law reform campaigner Caroline Norton, brought to my attention women from more recent years than those Kyte featured. Annie Kenney and Marie Stopes were familiar names - although I soon realised my ignorance of much more than that about their lives. What particularly shocked me though was learning about women such as strike leader Jayaben Desai, women's refuge founder Erin Pizzey, lesbian MP Maureen Colquhoun, ... These women were politically active within my own lifetime, yet I knew nothing about them! When is the Grunwick film going to be made? Surely it could be as big a hit as Made In Dagenham!

Lewis organises Difficult Women by topics with each chapter focusing on a theme such as Divorce, The Vote, Sex, Play, Work, etc. I liked that the progression is roughly chronological so I could understand how new changes built on what had changed before. I didn't agree with all Lewis' interpretations of events, but did appreciate her recognition that we need to remember each of these women as they actually were, rather than being tempted to airbrush out aspects of their characters that don't agree with our current worldviews. Personally I don't want my heroines to be made to appear perfect in every way because then I feel less encouraged to step out behind them. Realising that real women could effect such huge changes through sheer determination is inspiring, and knowing that they didn't always look fabulous whilst doing so or got some things wrong makes it seem more feasible that I too can have the courage to quietly rebel in my own way.

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