Book Review: 5 things I’ve learned from ‘Difficult Women’ by Helen Lewis

A couple of months ago a student lent me this book, perhaps in response to my lamentations that I can never immerse myself in a non-fiction text in the same way as I can when reading a piece of fiction. My student made the right choice – by the time I was a few pages in, I felt inspired and challenged. This is a book that requires time to digest and reflect on in full, and so it has taken me a couple of months to make my way through Lewis’ thorough examination of both the more famous and the frequently forgotten events in the history of feminism. From the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes to the fraught pile-ons of the Twittersphere, Lewis traces the successes, failures, and pitfalls of a political movement that is perhaps more relevant than ever.

So what have I learned from reading this book?

  1. Feminists don’t need to be perfect

Instead of deifying the feminists she writes about, Lewis seeks to present them as they really were, and in doing so allows all of us to see that role models don’t have to be perfect. “We can’t tidy away all the loose ends and the uncomfortable truths without draining the story of its power,” writes Lewis. So this book illuminates the contradictions, mistakes, and frustrations of women who have fought for equality in order to show us that we are all capable of taking a stand: we don’t have to be perfect to do so. And, in fact, grappling with thorny questions, character flaws, and errors is necessary to authentically participate in genuine, lasting progress.

2. Feminism is complicated

As the range of figures Lewis writes about demonstrates, there is no one way to be a feminist, and perhaps no settled definition of feminism. In fact, the reality is that feminism is quite the opposite: each stance we take requires compromises or half-perfect solutions. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t strive for a better world.

3. Feminism needs to be assertive

As the book’s subtitle (“A History of Feminism in 11 Fights”) suggests, Lewis argues that “if feminism doesn’t frighten people with power, it is toothless”. And it is the structures of power which Lewis is interested in dismantling; elsewhere she challenges the “cultural scripts which we all follow without thinking”. Lewis’ account of these scripts is impressively comprehensive, as she explores their existence in the domestic sphere, the workplace, and in leisure time. She asks why even in a household where the chores are apparently evenly divided, women often complete those tasks which need to be done under time pressure (for example, cooking dinner). She questions the attitudes towards women in sport. She explores why the glass ceiling still exists in employment. For Lewis, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality, and this end-point can only be reached by unpicking the millions of words, gestures, and assumptions which are engrained in our daily lives.

4. Education is key

As a teacher, I know that education is essential for every single person to understand themselves and their place in the world around them. And so I find myself aligned with Lewis’ viewpoint that “education offers empowerment – […] the dangerous, liberating power of knowledge. Everyone deserves that”. The ability to read fluently and critically will allow us all to understand and challenge the micro-narratives mentioned above.

5. Feminism can help everyone

It would be easy to suggest that Lewis’ forthright defence of “difficult women” means that other genders will be disadvantaged. However, Lewis is at pains to point out that the fights that feminists engage in will benefit all. For example, if women stand up against stereotyping, Lewis suggests, then men will benefit as they will also be released from the shackles of gender conformity. Equality for women doesn’t mean that other groups will lose out.

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