One evening, a couple of years ago, a friend and I were sitting in a café in the old centre of Lisbon, intrigued as people rapped on what looked like someone’s front door. A small eye-level window opened briefly before snapping shut again. Disappointed, individuals and groups alike turned and walked away. Not long after, two women knocked, the door opened and they went in. For the tiniest moment, we caught a glimpse of the perfect restaurant: ambient, stylish, bohemian — exactly the sort of place where we felt we belonged.
Helen Lewis’s account of 11 events that shaped feminist history has something of that. Her beautifully-written stories of “difficult women”, peppered with personal anecdotes and original research, are like an intelligent, funny and entertaining dinner conversation with like-minded people — it’s just that you have to be the right sort to be invited in.
It is never boring, with subjects ranging from divorce and women getting the vote to sport and the lack of free time. We get an unprettified account of some of feminism’s most important icons, some of whom are so “difficult” that important chunks of their histories have disappeared even from the footnotes. In a couple of cases, entire characters have been rubbed out altogether. Thankfully, Lewis resurrects them. It turns out that a woman, Maureen Colquhoun, elected in 1974, was the first openly gay MP (not Chris Smith). Jasmin Paris beat the men’s record in the 268-mile Spine Race across the Pennines by 12 hours in spite of having to stop and express milk because she was still breastfeeding.
My personal favourite is Lily Parr, an agile six-foot winger who played football during the First World War in a Preston factory team and was rarely seen without a cigarette in her mouth. She broke a (male) goalkeeper’s arm with the force of her shot from the edge of the penalty area.
These are vivid portraits of women who are easy to love today and were almost certainly admired in their own time. But what about the really difficult women, the ones that are hard to like, that don’t fit in? What about the ones who are a problem — not so much for the wider world but for feminism? Erin Pizzey, for example, who invented women’s refuges and completely changed social attitudes to domestic violence. She set up what became Refuge, a multi-million-pound charity that saves untold numbers of women’s lives every year. But Pizzey fell out with the women’s movement, became an advocate of men’s rights, and was swiftly dropped from feminism’s canon.
These genuinely difficult women are the ones we are most interested in, and reviving their stories is one of the stated motivations behind the book. But as with Pizzey, Lewis concludes that they probably weren’t real feminists in the first place. Lewis interviews Julie Bindel, who “thought Pizzey did not accept the idea that there was a system of oppression called patriarchy where men as a class oppressed women as a class”. Feminists, she believes, must always prioritise women, “even if you couldn’t stand them”. The author agrees but with the caveat that “a history of feminism isn’t the same as a history of feminists. Erin Pizzey’s difficult relationship with feminism does not mean that she has to be written out of the story.”
What turns off many women is that feminism is so overtly political — and unless you share those politics, you’re not invited
The same standard is not applied to Margaret Thatcher. Like her or loathe her (and my feelings about her as a teenager made me join the Labour Party), she really was a “difficult woman”. But in Lewis’s eyes, she is not worthy of the title. Instead of profiling her, Lewis berates her for the hypocrisy of disliking “strident” women when she was clearly strident herself, and for believing that “if you get anywhere it is because of your ability as a person and not because of your sex”.
There are a full two pages of invective: not only was Mrs T ambitious, she also had a husband who sacrificed his career for hers, and a nanny to look after her children while she ran the country. Because of the women who had gone before, she was able to benefit from a first-class education at Oxford — all allowing her to get on, in Mrs Thatcher’s words, because of her ability rather than her sex. “Sorry, Mrs T, but you were dead wrong.”
Really? Thatcher didn’t like feminists and she almost certainly preferred the company of men to women, but why is it OK for Erin Pizzey not to be a feminist but not our first woman prime minister? And isn’t achieving greatness “because of your ability as a person and not because of your sex” what feminism is aiming for? The problem with Mrs Thatcher is that she was the wrong sort of woman and the wrong sort of Tory. She was therefore also the wrong sort of “difficult”. This goes to the unexplored heart of feminism’s problem today. It’s not so much that it is seen as a luxury for the privileged, and usually white, middle classes (although it is). What turns off many women who ought to be feminists is that it is so overtly political — and unless you share those politics, you’re not invited to join in.
The most revealing interview is with Ama Agbeze (pictured above), captain of the England women’s netball team, who recounts the difficulties that professional sportswomen face. Lewis asks her if she is a feminist. Agbeze says no, she isn’t. She didn’t like the label (or any label for that matter). She qualifies this by saying that she believes everyone and everything should be equal and fair. Her idea of a feminist was Charlie Dimmock. Lewis says, “I made a face. Charlie Dimmock? The presenter of the BBC gardening programme Ground Force, who notoriously did not wear a bra?” Lewis is clearly gobsmacked — and Agbeze is clearly embarrassed. Lewis doesn’t question why she finds the idea of Charlie Dimmock being a feminist faintly ridiculous. She does, though, ask of Agbeze “why does the label repel her?” in spite of believing in all the things feminists believe in. Lewis never explores the answer and blames not feminism but “feminism’s PR problem.”
For a movement that aims to speak for all women, feminism is remarkably exclusive
Feminism’s problems run a lot deeper than PR. For a movement that aims to speak for, and carry with it, all women, it is remarkably exclusive in its membership qualifications. How feminism can include more people like Agbeze, women who aren’t necessarily from the red end of the political spectrum, is the difficult conversation that the women’s movement needs to have.
Modern feminism operates an access policy that is as subjective and exclusive as that little restaurant in Lisbon, which currently wouldn’t allow Charlie Dimmock or Margaret Thatcher in. My friend and I did get in and we had a lovely time, just as I did reading Difficult Women. It’s just that it didn’t move the argument on, it tackled none of feminism’s biggest challenges today and it didn’t help open the door to a wider group of women.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe