I will be reviewing this book for Shiny New Books in the fullness of time, but I wanted to review it here as I have a personal connection to it and wanted to record my more personal feelings about it.

I’ve been working for Helen Lewis as a transcriber (so typing interviews she’s done as a journalist into Word documents for her to use in her articles; I do a lot of this work and am known for being able to capture the voices of the subjects accurately). When she turned her attention towards writing this book, she asked me to work on transcriptions for it, and I had a very informative and enjoyable time doing so over a year or so. Then, I was fortunate enough to be invited to her book launch, at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair, and managed to make it there (this was at the end of February so very lucky timing) and was thrilled to meet both Helen (I very, very rarely get to meet my clients) and a couple of the amazing women whose voices I typed out so many months ago. So here’s my personal review, and I’ll link to my Shiny one when it’s published.

Helen Lewis – “Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights”

(27 February 2020)

Helen Lewis has the admirable aim in this book of looking at feminism’s more difficult women, the ones who have been shaped to fit the narrative when they didn’t quite fit it or, if they didn’t fit it at all, eased and erased out. Women like Erin Pizzey, who founded the first women’s refuge (obviously a good thing) but then fell out with everyone, decided some women are addicted to violence and ended up claiming there’s no such thing as gender issues in domestic violence (Lewis gives the stats that proves that wrong) and being an activist for men’s rights. She’d always been a hero of mine (for the first bit) and it was good to have her slotted back into a history from which Refuge themselves have deleted her. Difficult doesn’t always mean dodgy, but some of these women really didn’t fit in with the mores of their time, let alone those of today’s often changed times. Other contributors include the sons of women murdered by their husbands or who have killed their abusive husbands pushing out the issue of coercive control into the mainstream to counter the patriarchal idea of the man who is pushed to the limit by a wife who is insufficient or not playing the game in some way.

She acknowledges early on that the subjects and battles (for divorce, for the right to university education, for the right to abortion) are chosen personally, and the book is full of her experiences and witty asides addressing the reader directly. The personal is political here and rightly so, and it makes the book feel brave but also approachable. The inclusion of women of colour and transwomen is woven through the book and where a chapter talks about straight couples because, for example, there just isn’t the data yet on same-sex divorce, this is made clear and the reasons explained.

The interviewees, as much as the subjects of the book, are not afraid to talk about tricky subjects from the off: when introducing Marie Stopes’ archivist biographer, for example:

It took me ten minutes after meeting Lesley Hall to start talking to her about penetration. (p. 84)

Is that difficult, or just brilliant (Ms Hall also mentions that Stopes “did not play well with others” which goes for many of the subjects of this book!).

I was lucky enough to meet Ms Hall at the book launch and she was indeed doughty and marvellous and very open to talking about all sorts! The real highlight of that party was meeting some more of the interviewees, hearing their familiar voices and knowing I had typed their words out!

This is a great and timely read. I particularly enjoyed the humour in the book: Helen’s point-by-point taking down of Mrs Thatcher’s assertion that “I reckon if you get anywhere it is because of your ability as a person and not because of your sex” in four funny but incisive paragraphs.

The description of a Difficult Woman at the very end is a masterpiece and I wish I could quote the whole thing: I encourage you to go and get a copy and read it!

Did you manage to read this along with me? What did you think of it?