• Sarah Taylor

Review: Difficult Women, Helen Lewis

A indictment of cancel culture and a fresh examination into contemporary feminism


In a recent Desert Island Discs episode, Sharon Horgan (writer, actor and producer) describes the motivation behind the female characters in her breakthrough TV show, Pulling. “Generally” she explains to host Lauren Laverne, “you weren’t seeing female characters being allowed to be really flawed and messed up.” The women in Pulling, Catastrophe and Motherland – to name a few of Horgan’s writing credits – are funny, sharp and clever, and at times, not particularly likeable. “I wouldn’t say they were completely sympathetic,” Horgan adds, “… they were selfish or drunks or any number of faults, and that was okay.” The praise (rightly) awarded to Horgan’s depiction of female characters – “honest”, “real”, “messy” – reveals in itself the rarity of seeing well-rounded (read: unlikeable) women on screen.

The idea that women can be unlikeable shouldn’t exactly be revolutionary – women are, as mortals, pretty fallible beings. Yet portrayals of women tend to downplay any controversy or complications and instead focus on palatable characteristics. There is a tendency to smooth out women’s flaws and sanitise their behaviour. Even in historical retellings, women are depicted as inspirational feminist heroines devoid of any disagreeable character traits. In her 2020 debut book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Helen Lewis criticises this sanctification of women and tracks the contemporary feminist struggle through the actions of so-called “difficult women”.

Lewis, a journalist and former deputy editor of the New Statesman, is critical of the one-dimensional and feel-good portrayal of women, particularly “feminist heroines”. In the introduction, she refers to Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls – a successful children’s book which explores the “empowering” stories of a hundred women, including Coco Chanel. However, as Lewis notes, Goodnight Stories neglects to reveal that Chanel was the lover of a Nazi officer and may have also been a Nazi sympathiser and spy for Hitler’s Germany – not exactly “empowering”. Obviously a light-hearted book aimed at children isn’t going to emphasise Nazi sympathising, but Lewis argues that the same sanctification of women occurs in adults’ media and history too. By reducing women to “feminist saints” and stripping away any conflicting aspects from women’s narratives, we are left with a fairly binary view of good and bad. Good women are revolutionary, moralistic and well liked by everyone, and Bad women – well, let’s just leave them out of feminism.

Difficult Women tracks the feminist struggle through 11 different “fights”: Divorce, The Vote, Sex, Play, Work, Safety, Love, Education, Time, Abortion and The Right to be Difficult, weaving feminist theory with detailed and engrossing portrayals of women and their activism. Lewis narrows the focus to feminist achievements in Britain and Ireland, ranging from Sophia Jex-Blake’s drive to allow women to study at British universities in the 1870s to the successful Repeal the Eighth campaign in 2018, which removed the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland. Her journalistic skills shine through: the book is laden with interviews, personal anecdotes and witty footnotes. Difficult Women’s sources are extensively researched and analysed, with Lewis making use of letters, diary entries, archives and historical accounts to explore the women’s stories, alongside providing statistical and data-driven evidence.

Lewis begins by criticising the modern-day phenomenon of “cancel culture”: a practice of withdrawing support and publicly “cancelling” figures for things they have said or done which are deemed offensive, often via social media. There is a tendency, Lewis argues, to dismiss historical and contemporary individuals on account of their disagreeable nature. “We had barely anointed a new heroine,” Lewis writes “before we tore her down again.” In cancelling controversial figures, we not only negate their achievements but we also repackage feminism in a palatable and pale form. “Women’s history should not be a shallow hunt for heroines,” Lewis argues, and Difficult Women tells the stories of women “with views who are unpalatable to modern feminists”. In no way does Lewis argue that some of these women are good, nice or likeable. Instead, she is showing that women who can be mean, selfish and at times morally abhorrent (for example, Marie Stopes and her eugenicist principles) have nonetheless made worthwhile achievements in gender equality and broken down patriarchal barriers, and should not be “cancelled” due to some of their views.

A few of the women Lewis discusses are well known (such as Millicent Fawcett and Harriet Harman), but most of the figures and accounts were new to me. Some of this was out of genuine ignorance; for example, the history of women’s football and Lily Parr’s success in the early 1900s. Some of these women, however, have been pushed out of feminist histories on account of their “difficult” views. Take, for example, Erin Pizzey, the woman who founded the first women’s refuge, Chiswick Women’s Aid, in 1971. Pizzey’s activism provided safety for women and their children escaping abusive partners, and the house led to the creation of the charity Refuge. Yet there is no mention of Pizzey on Refuge’s website and Pizzey’s name has largely faded from memory despite the lasting legacy of the refuge movement. Furthermore, Pizzey herself, after years battling with the “formal structures” and “ideology-obsessed bluestockings” of the Women’s Liberation Movement, has denounced feminism as a “lie” and is now an advocate for the men’s rights movement.

Lewis’s interview with Pizzey, now in her eighties, is as poignant as it is uncomfortable. Pizzey argues that there are two types of domestic violence victims – those who are “innocent” and those who keep returning to their abusers as they hold an “addiction to violence”. Rightly enough, Lewis is shocked at Pizzey’s “idea that good, responsible, strong women leave – and those who do not have only themselves to blame.” Yet she is also sympathetic to Pizzey’s negative experience of “trashing” (character assassination) and conflicts within the feminist movement. Lewis admits to her own trashing experiences – mostly online, via Twitter – and the accusations made against her regarding her white, middle-class and privileged viewpoint.

Pizzey’s views on domestic abuse victims – and her support for men’s rights activists – are obviously dangerous and difficult. However, she also undoubtedly made significant contributions to feminism and to domestic abuse victims and women’s safety, and Refuge is now the biggest charity of its kind in the UK. Pizzey is the archetypal “difficult woman” and Lewis argues that her controversial views shouldn’t cast a shadow over her successes and contributions.

My main criticism is that Lewis should have explored a more diverse range of identities. Despite devoting an entire chapter to lesbian Labour politician Maureen Colquhoun (Britain’s first out lesbian MP), there is little discussion on other queer identities, such as trans women. Furthermore, the history she presents is largely white-based. When discussing women gaining the vote after the suffragettes’ activism, she doesn’t mention that this applied only to property-owning women over the age of 30 – the majority of whom were not women of colour – and there is hardly any mention of Sophia Duleep Singh and her contributions to women’s suffrage groups. By neglecting to explore this structural discrimination in voting, this chapter remains white-centric at heart.

The chapter ‘Work’ is devoted to Jayaben Desai, the leader of the Grunwick factory strikes of 1976. Where the chapter ‘Love’, on Colquhoun, focuses on a non-heteronormative woman, this one focuses on a woman of colour; Lewis again makes use of single-issue chapters rather than building a diverse and intertwining narrative throughout. Moreover, in the final chapter, Lewis notes the downsides of the well-known “wave” model of feminism, namely that it tends to simplify the narrative of feminist history. However, Lewis neglects to mention a more significant criticism of the wave theory – the fact that it focuses primarily on a white progressive narrative. As Kimberly Springer argues in “Third Wave Black Feminism”, the wave model “obscures the historical role of race in feminist organising” and neglects to include women of colour and their contributions towards feminism. It is interesting, and perhaps telling, that Lewis mentions one criticism of the wave model but doesn’t examine this one. As its main downside, Difficult Women could have benefited from a more rigorous and diverse definition of terms and a step-away from the normative white-centric narrative of feminism.

Nonetheless, Difficult Women posits relevant and useful questions, especially in the modern context of cancel culture. Do we have to like women to appreciate their contributions? Why do we expect a certain level of likability from women – but not the same from men? And is it right to erase people from history, despite their worthwhile actions, on account of their “difficult” views? It is dangerous to hold women to impossibly high standards of morality: women, like men, make mistakes and should not be overly penalised for this. Difficult Women sets out on a heavy task, and Lewis’s successes are in her detailed and inspiring descriptions of the “difficult” women and their lives, especially when it comes to uncovering and respecting women who have been erased from feminist history.

** Further links and sources (Some of these Lewis refers to, others I think are also relevant):