Book Club Review: Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

On Monday night (13th April 2020) we hosted our usual weekly book club but with a very special guest. Helen Lewis, author of Difficult Women, joined us to answer some questions and talk about her book.

I’ll be the first to admit I was apprehensive about reading this book. Having been a staunch advocate of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, I wondered whether Lewis was essentially doing the history-gap version. There are so many history books out there, and many about feminism, would this add value? I also wondered whether this would be another white middle-class feminist history that was exclusionary and problematic. I’ve now realised it’s impossible to not be exclusionary and problematic. I had definitely pre-judged what this book was going to be.

You can read what the book is about in the blurb. Yes, this is a history-type book. Lewis’ writing spans from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day and discusses some pretty cool, but difficult and problematic women. I found the book to be a bit of history I kind of knew (I did a History and Politics degree focused on Feminist Theory), but there were a few surprises and new people I didn’t know. Most importantly, I found myself amazed by some of the conflicting beliefs of these women, which now (and even at the time) don’t make sense. How could a woman know that it is wrong for marriage to be about a man’s ownership of a woman, and still think women were second class citizens to that very man? How do we get behind the history of a woman who advocates for a women’s right to decide on her body and directly challenges the patriarchy, but is a eugenicist? Or, how can one pivot so suddenly from being an imperative part of setting up women only refuges for domestic abuse and then to go on to be a men’s right advocate?

Are you enticed by this book yet?

At the club we had great fun discussing sport v fashion, transgender women in sport, motherhood, lesbianism, ‘Himplifying’, chick lit and more. Sign up to our next book club HERE to get involved in discussions like these! It was after, when we had finished that led to me rescinding my initial judgement of the book.

What gets drawn out as the book goes on is the way Lewis places herself in these fights, because they are mostly all still very applicable, and clearly are to her life. So, you ask, how intersectional can this book really be, and how can one experience of womanhood speak to everyone? Well that’s just it, Lewis isn’t trying to do that. At the beginning, the reader is told to go and fill in the gaps for themselves. Lewis had to leave women out, she had to talk from her personal experience, and no, she bloody well couldn’t be perfect at it all either. That is really what this book is about. That is what politics and history are really about. Imperfection.

“People are complicated and making progress is complicated too”. Lewis says it on her first page, “everyone is problematic”. We all have our experiences, which means that we all have beliefs that we either evaluate and revamp throughout our life, or stick firmly to. Sometimes, we choose to focus on one area, and one fight which means we can’t focus on another. We can be contradictions in ourselves, and we can challenge, be challenged and question.

Hosting the event, and essentially advertising the book, I got criticism about my feminism (I can’t even imagine the messages Lewis gets on a daily basis). So then I was surprised to find that when I posted about a different book, I was criticised yet again by another, different group of people about my feminism. This has started since Women’s Writes began to grow, since we became more public and have started putting ourselves out there more as feminists.

The more we share here at Women’s Writes, the more voices we are seeking to elevate. However, no matter how diverse we hope we are being, we are always, always (according to Twitter), leaving out another, or giving a platform to a ‘bag’ feminist not a ‘good’ feminist. I’m apparently I’m a ‘white liberal woman’ (on the assumption of a group on Twitter) and if I pick up a book by another white liberal woman I am only exploring reflections of my own experience and this is deplorable.

This has led me to the belief that Lewis had something very right in her book.

In my opinion, feminism is fractured, and as feminists, we can be petty and competitive in our response to others. Yes, feminism needs to be broad enough to deal with the fact that other identities hold women back as much as their sex and if you identify with more than one or two of these, you’re probably going to have a harder time than someone with fewer. That does not, in my opinion, justify the competitive attacks, the Twitter storms, the cancel culture, the online abuse that we see hurled across the internet at one another.

I’m guessing we are all striving for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie believes in – the “social, economic and political equality of the sexes”, and yet we all have different ways to get there, or ways we believe are ‘right’ to get there.

Let’s say, hypothetically, there is a white lesbian cis-female feminist, who is focusing on sexual violence, lad culture and problematic institutions. This is incredibly important feminist work. But, they are also transphobic. Problematic? Yes – incredibly so. Absolutely. Does this take away from their work on sexual violence? I don’t think so. Now, let’s say that those criticising this feminist, are themselves feminists who are vital advocates of the trans community in government, and are fighting for fair and equal legislation for legal gender and name changing, for access to medical treatment and care, for bathroom rights and more. Incredibly important work. Yes. But, they are racist, and particularly exclusionary of black transwomen. Problematic? Yes. Hugely. Does this devalue the work they do for other trans people? I don’t think so. The chain continues.

Perhaps it’s even more subtle than that. How many of us have engaged in ‘lad’ talk and behaviour, despite being utterly against it, to feel more accepted in a friendship group or workplace envionment. How many of us have just smiled politely while being called ‘love’ and ‘dear’ by men we have never met? Or, how many of us don’t even bother correcting the server in a restaurant when they bring over the check and give it to our male companions, only to have them pass it to us once the server has gone? We can all be guilty of contradictions. I have yet to find the perfect feminist it seems.

So where does that leave us? Me? Am I a difficult woman? I hope so, because I hope I fight for equality. Yet, I may have contradicting views. I’m confused, I’m trying to learn, and I’m asking questions. I’m listening to other women’s stories, hearing what they have to say and trying to share this. I know the principles I want to achieve align with a lot of other feminists, but our way of getting to that point differs, or our understanding of the key components of those principles differ. I try to show empathy in every interaction I have with another feminist.

I know that, if I bow to pressure and start trying to get every blog, every tweet, every book I share to be ‘perfect’ feminism, I’d never share at all. None of us are perfect, and we have to stop putting each other on a pedestal. You don’t like a book I share, or a quote I tweet? Talk to me, tell me, but don’t be horrible. I’m a person on the other end of the internet. Considering #BeKind was trending not 2 months ago, people have forgot that this applies to all people, in all areas. We need to extend kindness towards the compromises we make, every day. Be kind to ourselves when we are learning, and be kind to others when educating them. Let’s avoid the petty and competitive arguments and hate. Instead, let us strive to move forward with constructive discussion and debate, and kindness.

So yes, I’d say that Difficult Women by Helen Lewis gave me a lot to think about and ponder. It is a good book for questioning assumptions, opening the debate on feminism and debunking this myth of perfection.

Words by Sophie McDermott

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: