Book Review: Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

Book cover for Difficult Women

Bomb-throwing suffragettes. The pioneer of the refuge movement who became a men's rights activist. Forget feel-good heroines: meet the feminist trailblazers who have been airbrushed from history for being 'difficult' - and discover how they made a difference. Here are their stories in all their shocking, funny and unvarnished glory.

It is a cliché that well behaved women seldom make history. It is, nevertheless, true. None of the women who changed the world did so in a polite and easy manner. Indeed, the whole book is a salient reminder that rights are never given to us - we have to take them.

It's a bit relentless, to realise that your history lessons in school never covered what really happened and who was really responsible. But it is good to look at the somewhat-unseemly side of our heroines to understand them more completely as people.

The book is, perhaps, a wee bit narcissistic - but then, the personal is political. With the greatest of respect to the author, does anyone care about her divorce other than the parties involved? It makes for a slightly contrived hook upon which to hang the essays. I understand the trauma of "Twitter spats" and how overwhelming a pile-on can be - but it seems odd to bring it up while talking about striking workers.

The subjects are mostly UK women - and the resultant limitations on diversity that occasionally brings - but that's a welcome relief from books which attempt to explain the world from a USAin perspective. It correctly identifies that some of the biggest barriers to intersectional feminism are feminists themselves. Lots of people would rather be "pure" and "correct" rather than effective. When looking at marriage equality, for example, I'd have loved a big-bang which made gay weddings the norm the day homosexuality was decriminalised. Sadly, it seems a lot more practical to introduce things like Civil Partnerships first to gently introduce an idea into society. The end result is that we get what we want a little later and after some refinement. Some extremists (on all sides) don't get this - and think any compromise is cowardice. It isn't.

It isn't a flawless book. And I don't think even the author would claim that she is without controversy. I recommend reading it in conjunction with A History of Women in Men’s Clothes for some more balance on how we ascribe modern definitions to historical figures. But it does a sterling job of uncovering some of the disturbing aspects of the women who changed the world.

The inclusion of a comment from rabid transphobe is troubling. While he has a cogent and moving argument about the need for abortion law reform in Ireland, his mere presence sours the chapter. The book itself doesn't appear unsympathetic to the Trans community - but it brings to the fore the limitations of those who were chosen to be included.

And, perhaps that's the point. It doesn't matter whether you like someone. Whether their motives were honest or their heart was pure. It doesn't matter if you'd hate to have them as a friend, or would gladly see them tarred and feathered. No one lives up to our ideals. No one from history meets our modern standards of ethics. These women were human - and there's nothing more problematic than that.

It is a revelatory book which should be read with a critical eye.

I'm reminded of the lyrics from the Into The Woods song "Last Midnight":

You're not good, you're not bad,
You're just nice.
I'm not good, I'm not nice,
I'm just right.
I'm the witch.

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