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Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights

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Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do. Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Helen Lewis argues that too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do. Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Helen Lewis argues that too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of feminism as a history of difficult women. In this book, you’ll meet the working-class suffragettes who advocated bombings and arson; the princess who discovered why so many women were having bad sex; the pioneer of the refuge movement who became a men’s rights activist; the ‘striker in a sari’ who terrified Margaret Thatcher; the wronged Victorian wife who definitely wasn’t sleeping with the prime minister; and the lesbian politician who outraged the country. Taking the story up to the present with the twenty-first-century campaign for abortion services, Helen Lewis reveals the unvarnished – and unfinished – history of women’s rights. Drawing on archival research and interviews, Difficult Women is a funny, fearless and sometimes shocking narrative history, which shows why the feminist movement has succeeded – and what it should do next. The battle is difficult, and we must be difficult too.


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Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do. Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Helen Lewis argues that too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do. Feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Helen Lewis argues that too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of feminism as a history of difficult women. In this book, you’ll meet the working-class suffragettes who advocated bombings and arson; the princess who discovered why so many women were having bad sex; the pioneer of the refuge movement who became a men’s rights activist; the ‘striker in a sari’ who terrified Margaret Thatcher; the wronged Victorian wife who definitely wasn’t sleeping with the prime minister; and the lesbian politician who outraged the country. Taking the story up to the present with the twenty-first-century campaign for abortion services, Helen Lewis reveals the unvarnished – and unfinished – history of women’s rights. Drawing on archival research and interviews, Difficult Women is a funny, fearless and sometimes shocking narrative history, which shows why the feminist movement has succeeded – and what it should do next. The battle is difficult, and we must be difficult too.

30 review for Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights

  1. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    Feminism is a fight for equality-- it doesn't come from or aim for perfection. Here, Helen Lewis gives a welcome intro to some of the women who might not always have got it right, but still tried to get it done. This is her attempt to make sure progress doesn't erase the struggle. We need to know how we got to now and who fought for the rights we take for granted in order to take their successes and move them forward. It's a determinedly provocative book, a call for everyone to look harder at th Feminism is a fight for equality-- it doesn't come from or aim for perfection. Here, Helen Lewis gives a welcome intro to some of the women who might not always have got it right, but still tried to get it done. This is her attempt to make sure progress doesn't erase the struggle. We need to know how we got to now and who fought for the rights we take for granted in order to take their successes and move them forward. It's a determinedly provocative book, a call for everyone to look harder at the world around them, understand diverse voices by listening to what they say, ACT for equality. There's so much more to do, but in reading this you can be bolstered by seeing what can be achieved when women decide to be DIFFICULT. ARC via Netgalley

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lou

    Difficult Women is a perfectly fitting title for this book; not because they were difficult but because it is definitely how they would’ve been portrayed at the time. Difficult in this sense actually means empowered, inspired and not afraid to speak the brutal truth. Not simply accepting that women should just put up and shut up about the lack of rights we have or once had in comparison to men. I am a firm believer in egalitarianism (equal rights for everyone) so I would class myself as a femini Difficult Women is a perfectly fitting title for this book; not because they were difficult but because it is definitely how they would’ve been portrayed at the time. Difficult in this sense actually means empowered, inspired and not afraid to speak the brutal truth. Not simply accepting that women should just put up and shut up about the lack of rights we have or once had in comparison to men. I am a firm believer in egalitarianism (equal rights for everyone) so I would class myself as a feminist but also someone who seeks equality across the board. I have read many, many books on this topic yet this was so refreshing and original showcasing those who have often been neglected in terms of their achievements. Sometimes fact-based nonfiction can be dry and a slog but I found this was eminently readable and raced through its thoroughly enjoyable pages like I would a fiction book. I urge those of you who wish to learn more about the history of feminism to pick this up. It’s well worth your time. Many thanks to Jonathan Cape for an ARC.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Vishy

    I discovered Helen Lewis' 'Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights' when I was browsing in the bookshop last week. There was only one copy in the bookshop and the book looked very fascinating and I couldn't resist getting it. In 'Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights', Helen Lewis tries to gives us an unconventional history of feminism. She looks at feminism in the past 150 years through 11 different themes, or fights as she calls them. Many of the themes are familiar I discovered Helen Lewis' 'Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights' when I was browsing in the bookshop last week. There was only one copy in the bookshop and the book looked very fascinating and I couldn't resist getting it. In 'Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights', Helen Lewis tries to gives us an unconventional history of feminism. She looks at feminism in the past 150 years through 11 different themes, or fights as she calls them. Many of the themes are familiar to us, like the right to education, the right to vote, the right to equal pay etc. But the fascinating thing about the book is this. Though Helen Lewis mentions some of the feminist pioneers, she mentions them mostly in passing. What she does is, she goes and searches for and discovers the feminists who were well known or who played important roles during their time, but who are forgotten today, either because they have complex, inconvenient histories, or they fell out with other prominent feminists and so have been written out of history, or they were not considered feminists during their time, or they have just been plain ignored. These are the difficult women that Helen Lewis writes about. What follows is an wonderful list of amazing women and their inspiring achievements – like the footballer Lily Parr who was so famous for her football skills that she and her team used to draw crowds of 50,000 during the 1910s, Jayaben Desai who led one of the biggest worker strikes in the '70s demanding better pay and benefits, Erin Prizzey who has been written out of feminist history today but who during her time ran the first refuges in Britain for victims of domestic violence, Maureen Colquhoun the first ever lesbian MP from Britain whom everyone seems to have forgotten now, Sophia Jex-Blake who alongwith six other women fought for the right of women to pursue a medical education and inspite of the universities trying every trick to deny them that education, how she and her friends finally won and became the first female doctors in Britain – the book tells the stories of these and other amazing women. When I read what Colette Devlin – who as a 67-year old, fought for abortion rights alongside two other friends in Northern Ireland – said : "I believe that I have a legal duty to uphold good law, but I have a moral duty to disobey bad law." I got goosebumps. 'Difficult Women' is a beautiful, wonderful, inspiring book, which is guaranteed to make you angry and happy, and give you goosebumps. I am glad I read it. Have you read 'Difficult Women'? What do you think about it?

  4. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    This is an excellent primer on and fascinating insight into the history of feminism (UK-focused but global in reach) that I would gleefully shove into the hands of younger people in particular. I considered myself pretty across most of the topics discussed but still feel I learned a great deal, especially about lesser-known women (learning about Lily Parr, all along, was the key to getting me interested in sport!) and the infighting endemic to any struggle for progress because PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE This is an excellent primer on and fascinating insight into the history of feminism (UK-focused but global in reach) that I would gleefully shove into the hands of younger people in particular. I considered myself pretty across most of the topics discussed but still feel I learned a great deal, especially about lesser-known women (learning about Lily Parr, all along, was the key to getting me interested in sport!) and the infighting endemic to any struggle for progress because PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE and women have to be particularly so to get anywhere worthwhile! What a wonderful beacon this book is to embrace complexity and resist sanitising/ignoring/whitewashing the women's movement. I tabbed so many quotes and I want to print out the 'manifesto for difficult women' at the end to keep it on me at all times. Most of all I just really appreciated Lewis’ humanising and deeply felt portraits of the thorny and glorious women involved in the fights for feminism, because they made me feel more connected to a movement I’ve been feeling alienated from lately. Also laudable is Lewis’ push for continued collective action on specific fronts, rather than getting bogged down trying to have the best and wokest brand of feminism. She puts it well: “Since we live in a deeply individualist society, debates over women’s choices… will never struggle to get airtime. In this climate, the most radical thing we can do is resist turning feminism into a referendum on [our] choices. Let’s swim against the tide by talking about what we can do together.” Throughout this book Lewis calls for a feminism that makes demands on power, rather than what she calls “feminism-lite” - the kind that would ask women ‘lean in’. Fuck that. She writes: “If feminism doesn’t frighten people with power, it is toothless.” Lewis herself presents some difficult opinions I have no doubt some will find hard to swallow (and I wonder if at times she reigned those in so that this book would have a wider appeal). She is also very funny, especially in her footnotes. I feel more intellectually rounded and motivated for having read this, and I would recommend it to anybody seeking to understand what it really took to get to where we are today.

  5. 5 out of 5

    4cats

    Difficult Women looks at the history of Feminism, in particular it's history in the UK, although she does cite examples from around the world. The chapters look at divorce, love, the vote, education, sex, safety, work, play, abortion, time and the right to be difficult. Lewis highlights many forgotten women who challenged society and fought to be seen as equal to their male counterparts. This is not a rose coloured view of feminism, these women had to be 'difficult' and vocal in their fight, she Difficult Women looks at the history of Feminism, in particular it's history in the UK, although she does cite examples from around the world. The chapters look at divorce, love, the vote, education, sex, safety, work, play, abortion, time and the right to be difficult. Lewis highlights many forgotten women who challenged society and fought to be seen as equal to their male counterparts. This is not a rose coloured view of feminism, these women had to be 'difficult' and vocal in their fight, she also accepts that although we can admire what these women achieved we also can see that they are flawed, as we all are. As a read, this is easy to read, entertaining, inspiring and most importantly educational. It's a fascinating read, some of these pioneering women you will have heard of, others have been forgotten, she offers insights into their personal lives as well as what drove them in their fight for change. A worthy read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Melanie (Mel's Bookland Adventures)

    Feminism is complicated and so are the women who fight for their rights. It is rare to read a book on this subject that does not hail the movement's heroines as perfect women, that speaks about the complicated issues that dominate the movement or even dare touch the subjects of the fighting, cancelling and namecalling of feminists amongst each other. It's a subject fraught with division. I think that Helen Lewis did a great job of giving glimpses of just how complicated and complex feminism is a Feminism is complicated and so are the women who fight for their rights. It is rare to read a book on this subject that does not hail the movement's heroines as perfect women, that speaks about the complicated issues that dominate the movement or even dare touch the subjects of the fighting, cancelling and namecalling of feminists amongst each other. It's a subject fraught with division. I think that Helen Lewis did a great job of giving glimpses of just how complicated and complex feminism is and how far there is to go. Yes, at times, she struggles a bit to make the chapters more coherent, but sleeping on it I guess this was inevitable. I did disagree with her on certain things, but this is definitely a book that invites the opinion of others to the table. It was the first book on this subject in a long time that told me things I had not heard about before and where I felt that one can be a complex woman and still have a place at the feminist table. As a very clever friend of mine once said: "You will get more things wrong in life than right, but the things you get right will make all the difference."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Will

    I'm a Big Fan of Helen Lewis. I've read her writing for the New Statesman for years, listened to her on the NS podcast, and have seen her speak publicly twice (including an event for the release of this book). So it's no surprise I thought this was great. But I did. As the name says, it's a history of feminism through 11 'fights'. Some of these are what you'd expect - fundamental rights to vote, get divorced, equal pay, abortion. And some of them are a little less prominent in our collective hist I'm a Big Fan of Helen Lewis. I've read her writing for the New Statesman for years, listened to her on the NS podcast, and have seen her speak publicly twice (including an event for the release of this book). So it's no surprise I thought this was great. But I did. As the name says, it's a history of feminism through 11 'fights'. Some of these are what you'd expect - fundamental rights to vote, get divorced, equal pay, abortion. And some of them are a little less prominent in our collective history - the right to safety (at women's refuge centres, set up in the 1970s), lesbian-specific discrimination, university places for women and the understanding of female orgasms. The narrative of 'Difficult Women' is also really interesting. She looks at pioneers of the women's movement that have since had key aspects of their politics erased, or simply been ignored, because they don't conform well to modern politics. For example, the Pankhursts are well known now. But how many people know that their tactics would arguably be described as terrorist-like in the modern era? Who knows about the woman who set up the British refuge centres, Erin Pizzey - could it be because she rejected contemporary mainstream politics of 1970s feminism, and now associates with men's rights activists? The first openly gay MP is often quoted as Chris Smith, but what about Maureen Colquhoon, who was outed 9 years earlier - how many prominent lesbians are there in British history? The structure of the book in these 11 chapters is great, so you can read one evening about Jayaben Desai leading a British Asian women's strike in the 1970s (who knew?), and then pop off to sleep and learn about something completely different the next night. Fascinating and different. 4.7 / 5

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jess

    ‘The idea of role models is not necessarily a bad one, but the way they are used in feminism can dilute a radical political movement into feel-good inspiration porn.’ A wonderfully unconventional history of feminism that rejects the static image of female revolutionaries as suffering saints. Lewis has a sharp and witty style, and her objective is clear from the onset: championing lesser known figures, such as Marie Bonaparte (who conducted pioneering research into female sexual pleasure), Caroline ‘The idea of role models is not necessarily a bad one, but the way they are used in feminism can dilute a radical political movement into feel-good inspiration porn.’ A wonderfully unconventional history of feminism that rejects the static image of female revolutionaries as suffering saints. Lewis has a sharp and witty style, and her objective is clear from the onset: championing lesser known figures, such as Marie Bonaparte (who conducted pioneering research into female sexual pleasure), Caroline Norton and Erin Pizzey, and all their complications. Whilst the early chapters are highly readable – ‘Sex’ is particularly fascinating, detailing ‘the myth of the vaginal orgasm’, hell yes – the later instalments lose their authority. Lewis’ prose strays occasionally into irrelevant anecdote and becomes increasingly saturated with fact and quotation to the point where her voice no longer guides the reader. It seems that she attempts to shoehorn in as many obscure figures as possible; so many ‘difficult women’ jostle for attention in these later chapters that Lewis ultimately loses her thread of argument. As a result, the engagement wanes exponentially; I skim-read from about the halfway mark. It is an incredibly important argument that Lewis hopes to make here, and her intentions are honourable – but the lengthy execution lacks focus. With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dana Stabenow

    A lively history of the struggle for women's rights in the UK that will make you wish Lewis would migrate to the US to write one for us, too. With lots of snark without getting nasty, Lewis creates a series of vignettes of various rights (divorce, the vote, gay rights, equal pay, etc.) each based around the life and times of a single iconic woman and always a "difficult" one. Great epigrams and great footnotes, too. An informative and amusing read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sonya Dutta Choudhury

    If you have ever found someone a ‘difficult women’, this is the book for you to understand why. And for anyone called a ‘difficult woman’ this the perfect book to laugh and cry over and understand why. A book that tells the stories of why feminists fought each other, why Brigitte Schultz hates the phrase ‘me time’, what the Cat and Mouse Act is and much more , all in 11 sparkling chapters that irradiate the history of the fight for equal rights for women. From suffragette Christabel Panthurst to f If you have ever found someone a ‘difficult women’, this is the book for you to understand why. And for anyone called a ‘difficult woman’ this the perfect book to laugh and cry over and understand why. A book that tells the stories of why feminists fought each other, why Brigitte Schultz hates the phrase ‘me time’, what the Cat and Mouse Act is and much more , all in 11 sparkling chapters that irradiate the history of the fight for equal rights for women. From suffragette Christabel Panthurst to footballer Lily Parr to writer activist Selma James, Helen Lewis makes a compelling case for fighters for women rights through the last few centuries. She does a deep dive into their writings, their diaries, their letters, talks to people who researched them or knew them in person. The portraits that emerge of these challengers , their obstinacies and blind spots, their energy and their doughty ability to dispute on, makes this book an erudite and absorbing read. One of my favourite stories comes early in the book. About the infamous El Vino law in England , that banished women to a back room away from the bar, where they waited patiently for table service. And this till as late as the 1980’s. Which is when journalists Tess Gill & Anne Hook schemed, strategised and invoked the courts to change this outrageous law. While the El Vino story has a funny ridiculous aspect to it , the stories of suffragettes being force fed are heart rending. It is chilling to note , looking at the history of laws like El Vino or the Cat and Mouse law, how laws were framed deliberately excluding women , from everything from work to playing football. Difficult Women is packed with history, with varied voices, with opinions, with recommendations for reading. With cogent arguments on so many things. Including why Brigitte Schultz hates the phrase ‘me time’, and ending with a manifesto on how to be a difficult women ! Because no one ever changed the world by being nice.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Em

    A few days into self-isolation I posted a picture on Instagram of my quarantine reading pile (with compulsory yawning cat in the background). Within a few hours my oh-so-witty teenage brother had commented, referring to the fluorescent yellow spine of Helen Lewis’ new book: “‘Difficult Women’ I didn’t know you had a biography.” He thought he was delivering a devastating burn but the joke was on him because I took that as the highest of compliments. Helen Lewis “reclaims the history of feminism” A few days into self-isolation I posted a picture on Instagram of my quarantine reading pile (with compulsory yawning cat in the background). Within a few hours my oh-so-witty teenage brother had commented, referring to the fluorescent yellow spine of Helen Lewis’ new book: “‘Difficult Women’ I didn’t know you had a biography.” He thought he was delivering a devastating burn but the joke was on him because I took that as the highest of compliments. Helen Lewis “reclaims the history of feminism” by repopulating it with forgotten activists, difficult women who refused to conform to societal expectations, often to the point of offending even modern sensibilities. Lewis argues that “we have to resist the modern impulse to pick one of two settings: airbrush or discard. History is always more interesting when it is difficult. We can’t tidy away all the loose ends and the uncomfortable truths without draining the story of its power.” Uncomfortable truths are what make Difficult Women stand out. Lewis’ most striking example is Erin Pizzey, who set up the first women’s refuge in Britain off her own bat with no official help or funding. Her work changed social attitudes to domestic violence, so by all accounts she should be immortalised in the Feminist Hall of Fame. However, later in life Pizzey fell out with ‘mainstream’ feminists such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, both personally and ideologically. To cut a long and fascinating story short (the full one is in chapter 6, Safety), Pizzey is now a Men’s Rights Activist, a notorious anti-feminist movement whose leaders say things like “a feminist is a loathsome, vile piece of human garbage.” Understandably, this doesn’t endear Pizzey to feminists, especially not those writing the history of the movement in order to further its cause. But as Lewis says, our habit of covering up such unsavoury behaviour or cutting its perpetrators out of our histories entirely is neither truthful nor helpful. Erin Pizzey’s work directly resulted in the 276 refuges with over 3000 beds throughout England in 2017, and thousands of women are indebted to her for that. We cannot forget the good work she did, but by the same token, we should not cover up her position as editor of the MRA website A Voice for Men. Erin Pizzey, like all of us, and like feminism itself, is complicated and contradictory. Each of Lewis’ chapters deals with a different aspect of feminism’s complicated history, with the gritty bits left in. On top of learning about historical figures that have been left off the school curriculum, my biggest take away from Difficult Women is the importance of feminism’s fight for everyone to have the freedom to make their own decisions even if – and this is the crucial part – others such as myself do not agree with those decisions. This includes women having access to safe abortions even if they aren’t what many would deem ‘good’ abortions (the result of rape or medical necessity) and are instead considered ‘bad’ abortions (the result of carelessness). Equal rights cannot be contingent on someone’s perceived morality or popularity. Feminists need to fight for the rights of all women, even the ones we don’t like. Helen Lewis puts it best: “There is only one argument to make, and it’s the one Kitty O’Kane made when knocking doors for Repeal the Eighth: ‘Trust women… How far do you expect a woman to have to suffer so that you can decide on her behalf?’ Isn’t that revolutionary? Trust women. Even when they’ve messed up, even when they were drunk, even when they’re sleeping around, even when they are any one of the million other flavours of ‘difficult.’ Trust women.” Lewis has given me a lot of food for thought, and I have a new appreciation (often paired with revulsion) for difficult women in feminist history. What I have learnt will inform my politics and make me think twice before endorsing the ‘cancel culture’ that expects women to be perfect and unproblematic at all times. Anyone who’s ever questioned the feminist canon of saints and sinners should read Lewis’ book, and have their mind opened to people’s complexities. Trust women to be difficult.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Claire (Book Blog Bird)

    This was such a great book. I 'read' it on audiobook and it was narrated by the author, which I think really made it. Throughout history, feminism has been fought by difficult women. Difficult in the sense that they have been awkward and annoying (according to the patriarchy) in order to achieve their aims because when you're fighting for a cause, you don't really get anywhere by being liked. People like the status quo - it's comforting, even if you're not really benefiting from it - and when so This was such a great book. I 'read' it on audiobook and it was narrated by the author, which I think really made it. Throughout history, feminism has been fought by difficult women. Difficult in the sense that they have been awkward and annoying (according to the patriarchy) in order to achieve their aims because when you're fighting for a cause, you don't really get anywhere by being liked. People like the status quo - it's comforting, even if you're not really benefiting from it - and when someone tries to change it, a lot of people get upset. The women Helen Lewis focuses on are also have also been difficult to like by fellow feminists. Lewis makes a really salient point in this book, in that one cause cannot hope to speak for 3.5 billion people. My experience of the world, as a woman, is going to be totally different from how a disabled, black woman experiences it and what I need from feminism will be different too. There's no one single aim in feminism, but there is crossover with fights for equal rights for other marginalised groups. She also points out areas where feminism has clashed with fights for other rights (e.g. transgender rights). Although the chapters each focus on are different aspects of the feminist movement (time, abortion, sex etc) I'd never heard of most of the women mentioned. I now want to go out and find out more about them! Lewis's writing style reminded me of that of Caitlin Moran and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - intelligent and incisive and approachable. Have the women in Lewis's book been effective? Undoubtedly, yes. Are they nice people? Not always, no. Feminism isn't about being nice, though. That's the point. It's an imperfect fight for the right to be imperfect.

  13. 4 out of 5

    J8J8

    Fantastic. Witty. Interesting. Intelligent. Honest. These are definitely the words that for me, best describe this book. The first book I have ever read about feminism and what it seems, a great starter or introduction to the subject in cause. Difficult women is a book not only about women but also about men, about society in general. It covers many of the fights battled by women throughout the centuries in a insightful and interesting way, with many practical examples and experiences (mainly on Fantastic. Witty. Interesting. Intelligent. Honest. These are definitely the words that for me, best describe this book. The first book I have ever read about feminism and what it seems, a great starter or introduction to the subject in cause. Difficult women is a book not only about women but also about men, about society in general. It covers many of the fights battled by women throughout the centuries in a insightful and interesting way, with many practical examples and experiences (mainly on England and Ireland). Like one of the pillars of feminism, it is a book that was conceived to target every member of society regardless the gender, age, skin color since patriarchy is a problem that goes beyond the gender. Anyone can read it. Everyone probably should read it. Difficult women was and will always be a book that lead to a internal change in terms of how I see society, men and most specifically, other women. It talks about the most basic fundamentals of the movement itself while also advancing interesting questions about the future, past and present and how the past influences every day life of the society we live on. Terribly blunt and clear, this book strips down the fairy dust of all the fights and women that have been worshiped throughout many generations until the days of today because the movement, feminism, isn't perfect, neither were the women fighting for several rights like the vote, sexual freedom, the ability to work etc. But again... This fight is also about fighting the tirany of niceness, the tirany of perfection imposed to women and it is a book beautifully achieved in that regard. Strongly recommend it! Absolutely loved it!!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Jane (Literary Flits)

    See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits In reading Difficult Women by Helen Lewis I was reminded of Roaring Girls by Holly Kyte which I read late last year. Both works introduced me to women who should be household names but, in the majority of cases, have been forgotten. As We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik pointed out, as women we need to both create our own new narratives and to remember the stories of our female forebears. Lewis' selection, other than law reform campaigner C See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits In reading Difficult Women by Helen Lewis I was reminded of Roaring Girls by Holly Kyte which I read late last year. Both works introduced me to women who should be household names but, in the majority of cases, have been forgotten. As We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik pointed out, as women we need to both create our own new narratives and to remember the stories of our female forebears. Lewis' selection, other than law reform campaigner Caroline Norton, brought to my attention women from more recent years than those Kyte featured. Annie Kenney and Marie Stopes were familiar names - although I soon realised my ignorance of much more than that about their lives. What particularly shocked me though was learning about women such as strike leader Jayaben Desai, women's refuge founder Erin Pizzey, lesbian MP Maureen Colquhoun, ... These women were politically active within my own lifetime, yet I knew nothing about them! When is the Grunwick film going to be made? Surely it could be as big a hit as Made In Dagenham! Lewis organises Difficult Women by topics with each chapter focusing on a theme such as Divorce, The Vote, Sex, Play, Work, etc. I liked that the progression is roughly chronological so I could understand how new changes built on what had changed before. I didn't agree with all Lewis' interpretations of events, but did appreciate her recognition that we need to remember each of these women as they actually were, rather than being tempted to airbrush out aspects of their characters that don't agree with our current worldviews. Personally I don't want my heroines to be made to appear perfect in every way because then I feel less encouraged to step out behind them. Realising that real women could effect such huge changes through sheer determination is inspiring, and knowing that they didn't always look fabulous whilst doing so or got some things wrong makes it seem more feasible that I too can have the courage to quietly rebel in my own way.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ioana-Maria Puscas

    Very important topic and stories. The book has the merit of highlighting the plight and fights (most often, against the odds) of important feminist figures but I found it to be absolutely terribly written. I had to do extra research after each chapter to understand better what particular cases, movements or feminist figures represented. I found the writing to be very chaotic, overloaded with useless examples and interposing random facts in the middle of a story. You're better off reading other b Very important topic and stories. The book has the merit of highlighting the plight and fights (most often, against the odds) of important feminist figures but I found it to be absolutely terribly written. I had to do extra research after each chapter to understand better what particular cases, movements or feminist figures represented. I found the writing to be very chaotic, overloaded with useless examples and interposing random facts in the middle of a story. You're better off reading other books on these subjects or online sources.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    While I’ve always considered myself an advocate for feminism (seeking female mentors to build an ethos in life and work promoting standards of equality) I’ve never formally studied feminism. “Difficult Women: Feminism in 11 Fights” provided the necessary “buckle up” moment with a deep dive across 11 topics highlighting lesser known pioneers. It’s packed with historical and statistical information solidified through insights and interviews provided by the author. Helen Lewis did a fantastic job in While I’ve always considered myself an advocate for feminism (seeking female mentors to build an ethos in life and work promoting standards of equality) I’ve never formally studied feminism. “Difficult Women: Feminism in 11 Fights” provided the necessary “buckle up” moment with a deep dive across 11 topics highlighting lesser known pioneers. It’s packed with historical and statistical information solidified through insights and interviews provided by the author. Helen Lewis did a fantastic job in providing a diversity of thought and approach across feminist heroes rising to the challenge divided by topic/cause in each chapter. I appreciated how She covered so much ground in an informative and engaging manner! While I didn’t agree with every point made, reading this book allowed me an opportunity to pour a strong cup of coffee and form an individual opinion - a luxury not given for many in this book. Lewis states near the end that there will be many areas in which we may find ourselves at odds intellectually or ethically with one another, nevertheless we must engage and seek justice where injustice lives. I recommend this book for those wanting an overview of feminism, but as a heads up, it does focus more primarily on the UK area. The good news is that the concepts and approach can be applied globally. 4.5/5

  17. 4 out of 5

    thewoollygeek (tea, cake, crochet & books)

    A wonderful insight on great female figures in history and I say great because it covers so many largely unknown and uncovered (in books) women. It’s so interesting and educational even to someone who reads a lot of feminist histories. An inspiring book, one that shows is how much further we still have to go, but how far we have come too. Books like this are needed to remind people and encourage the fight onwards. Thanks to netgalley and the publisher for a free copy for an honest opinion

  18. 4 out of 5

    sillypunk

    SO ANGRY AT THE PATRIARCHY: https://blogendorff.com/2020/03/18/bo... SO ANGRY AT THE PATRIARCHY: https://blogendorff.com/2020/03/18/bo...

  19. 4 out of 5

    Zora

    A good idea, well executed.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    I almost did not read this book. I had so many books out from the library in March that I probably would have been unable to read them all before they had to go back. I don't even recall requesting this book. But then lockdown happened... This is the book about feminism that I did not realise I wanted and NEEDED. I knew within pages that I was going to give it 5 stars and have pre-ordered a copy of the paperback. And my two favourite chapters were ones on topics that are not my usual interests... I almost did not read this book. I had so many books out from the library in March that I probably would have been unable to read them all before they had to go back. I don't even recall requesting this book. But then lockdown happened... This is the book about feminism that I did not realise I wanted and NEEDED. I knew within pages that I was going to give it 5 stars and have pre-ordered a copy of the paperback. And my two favourite chapters were ones on topics that are not my usual interests...the fights for women to play sport ( I hate playing sport) told mainly through the story of footballer Lily Parr and another on women claiming their identity as lesbians focusing on an inspiring Labour MP who I had not previously heard of, Maureen Colquhoun. I think that a display in the British Library is the only other place I have ever come across references to female football players in the first decades of the twentieth century. And it is insane that certain radical trans commentators pick on lesbians because many won't consider trans women as sexual partners but don't also comment on straight/gay men who don't want to sleep with trans people either. Sexism can come from people who would be horrified to have such a label applied to them. The author clearly recognises the differences between sex and gender and it is refreshing to come across a writer who is not afraid to challenge the current orthodoxy of refusing to make arguments based on biology for fear of being 'exclusionary'. She points out that feminists have fought hard to bust taboos about women's bodies. "We can welcome transgender people into feminism without junking the idea that biology matters". Spot on. What I most like about the book is the attempt to contextualise the women that she focuses on. Helen Lewis does not try to minimise them (or worse obliterate their contribution) because they do not all hold "modern" woke opinions: "I admire the achievements of Marie Stopes, but freely concede that she sounds like a nightmare. I admire the suffragettes, but I am deeply ambivalent about their use of violence. I admire Jayaben Desai, even though her protest failed. I admire Erin Pizzey, even though I wish she kept better company. All of these women belong in the history of feminism, not in spite of their flaws, but because we are all flawed. We have to resist the modern impulse to pick one of two settings: airbrush or discard. History is always more interesting when it is difficult. We can't tidy away all the loose ends and the uncomfortable truths without draining the story of its power. Everything is problematic." People are multi-faceted and feminism is complicated. And it is hard enough being a woman without being attacked by people on the same side. But if you want to know more about British feminism and pioneers in the campaign for gaining women the right to custody of their children, gaining the vote, in improving access to education, work rights, abortion and multiple other topics, this is a great place to start. I just hope that this book is not a casualty of the lockdown situation and the Covid19 crisis as it was published just before the crisis really took hold.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    Covering really important topics throughout history for women, particularly the last one hundred years, this book covers the waves of feminism we have seen and what each one is done and the fights it’s been in to make sure we have the rights we have today. Lewis really delves into these areas so well and uses excellent moments in history and case studies to highlight women’s stories that make this book so easy to fall into and hard to put down. Some chapters are harrowing to read, especially ‘Sa Covering really important topics throughout history for women, particularly the last one hundred years, this book covers the waves of feminism we have seen and what each one is done and the fights it’s been in to make sure we have the rights we have today. Lewis really delves into these areas so well and uses excellent moments in history and case studies to highlight women’s stories that make this book so easy to fall into and hard to put down. Some chapters are harrowing to read, especially ‘Safety’ for me, which focuses on the safety of women and domestic violence women have to endure. I myself found this chapter this most difficult to read, however also one of the most illuminating as I recognised in moments what I have seen for myself. And illuminating is something that keeps going on throughout the book as it shines a light on women I haven't heard the stories of, and now want to know more. This book does contain difficult women, problematic women, women who may not be considered heroes to some, but that doesn’t stop them being important to the women’s movement and this book is clear about what these women believed in but also the impact they had - women such as Marie Stopes for example. I appreciate the honesty the author has when it comes to the women who are shown in this book, something that in looking for the inspirational often gets hidden. A great book that covers so many perspectives and allows for intersectionality, in a way that makes it readable and very easy to read. For me this would be a good place to begin if you wanted to know about these areas of women’s history and politics as though Lewis does cover big topics, she does explain everything well and it makes for a greater immersive experience.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    If you are just to read one book this year, this should be it. Helen Lewis introduces us to some of the women that have made huge contributions to feminism, and who despite all that remain unknown to many. ‘Difficult women’ is an insightful read that will cover the two waves of feminism and topics such as divorce, vote, education, time and others, in an engaging and entertaining manner. Lewis’ book brought some of the women omitted from history, out of the shadows. Figures like Erin Pizzey, Caro If you are just to read one book this year, this should be it. Helen Lewis introduces us to some of the women that have made huge contributions to feminism, and who despite all that remain unknown to many. ‘Difficult women’ is an insightful read that will cover the two waves of feminism and topics such as divorce, vote, education, time and others, in an engaging and entertaining manner. Lewis’ book brought some of the women omitted from history, out of the shadows. Figures like Erin Pizzey, Caroline Norton, Marie Stopes, Selma James and Annie Kenney are some of the names mentioned. They have fought for changes in legislation and change in attitudes, yet often get omitted from history textbooks due to having been defined by their personalities, life choices and political beliefs. Their victories and the progress they have helped to create seem to be obscured by the fact that they are women who don’t comfortably fall into a neat category of being ‘perfect’ but instead to the dismay of others, into one of being ‘difficult.’ And then Helen puts into the words: ‘A history of feminism isn’t the same as the history of feminists.’ Even if we don’t agree on those feminists attitudes and beliefs, where they have changed the history needs to be credited and their efforts remembered and reading this book is a perfect way to start. ‘Difficult Women’ was informative and something that I needed to read. It showed me the various little freedoms that I enjoy and had taken for granted, where once they were seen as unobtainable.The book served as a reminder to not become complacent and fight for the what we see as still not being fair in today’s society. I highly recommend it. **Received the ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

  23. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Theaker

    This is a fast-paced, boisterous and unapologetic run through the history of British feminism. It comes at a good time, when mainstream feminism seems to have lost its way a bit, sensible pleas for intersectionality in feminist thinking having been bowdlerized, especially by self-proclaimed male feminists, into the idea that women should be kind and put everyone else's interests ahead of their own. Helen Lewis, an experienced journalist and regular guest on The News Quiz and Have I Got News for This is a fast-paced, boisterous and unapologetic run through the history of British feminism. It comes at a good time, when mainstream feminism seems to have lost its way a bit, sensible pleas for intersectionality in feminist thinking having been bowdlerized, especially by self-proclaimed male feminists, into the idea that women should be kind and put everyone else's interests ahead of their own. Helen Lewis, an experienced journalist and regular guest on The News Quiz and Have I Got News for You, looks at a series of fascinating women who changed our country and its laws for the better, with their intelligence, determination and bloody-minded refusal to give up. Her central idea is that we should resist the temptation to categorize every historical figure as either devil or saint, problematic or paragon, and understand them in the round. She writes that for feminists, "victory is often bittersweet: the new reality quickly feels normal, obscuring the fight required to get there". With each chapter the book makes us realise how recently those victories were won – regarding divorce, the vote, sex, play, work, safety, love, education, time and abortion – and identifies where there are still battles to be fought. She ends with a statement on the right to be difficult and a manifesto for the difficult woman. It's the ideal book for any teenage girl chafing at the sexism she encounters, since as well as helping her to appreciate the women who did so much to improve her situation, it will encourage her to believe that she too has the right to be difficult, and can change things for the better.

  24. 4 out of 5

    David Cutler

    This is a terrifically good book. It finds a perfect tone using Lewis’ journalistic skills to enliven hugely important, though often neglected passages of history and combining it with her own journey as a feminist. It is always leavened by her trademark humour. Her point is that we don’t need to like all these women but by God were they needed. Not only did they need to be unyielding to the misogyny that surrounded them but they often had spectacular and long lasting bust ups with the other femi This is a terrifically good book. It finds a perfect tone using Lewis’ journalistic skills to enliven hugely important, though often neglected passages of history and combining it with her own journey as a feminist. It is always leavened by her trademark humour. Her point is that we don’t need to like all these women but by God were they needed. Not only did they need to be unyielding to the misogyny that surrounded them but they often had spectacular and long lasting bust ups with the other feminists. I found her interview with Erin Pizzey poignant, still in the heat of the battle almost fifty years after she started Chiswick Women’s Refuge but to the horror of some taking up the cudgels for Men’s Rights. I certainly shed a tear at the pride of the first out MP Maureen Colquhoun in reading her letter of apology from her Labour Party branch about ditching her when it was expedient. Again and again the lesson is that these gains were at deep personal cost. The way in which the book is organised around key battles works really well, starting with divorce and ending with abortion. It’s all interesting and well done but I found the chapters on lesbian rights and division of work in the home especially interesting . If I can be allowed one caveat I found the final chapter and the epilogue the least successful. I am not sure the author had anything more to add by this point.But very strongly recommended overall.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Annkathrin

    This book does a brilliant job of looking at feminism with a critical eye, by inviting us to learn about the complex people who championed it and what their efforts achieved. It does not airbrush away the flaws or ignore the uncomfortable sides of the movement, or those who drove it forward. The way the book is structured - looking at 11 different spheres of life influenced by the struggle of women to improve them (divorce, education, love, sex, safety, etc) - is beautifully done, and I learned a This book does a brilliant job of looking at feminism with a critical eye, by inviting us to learn about the complex people who championed it and what their efforts achieved. It does not airbrush away the flaws or ignore the uncomfortable sides of the movement, or those who drove it forward. The way the book is structured - looking at 11 different spheres of life influenced by the struggle of women to improve them (divorce, education, love, sex, safety, etc) - is beautifully done, and I learned a great deal about issues, laws, and individuals throughout history of which I'd previously been ignorant, or had only heard a simplified version. Lewis writes in an accomplished yet human way, laughing at the ridiculous, but underlining the serious. Her work seems to be well-researched and she leaves room for the contrasting voices of different people, acknowledging controversial issues and trying to examine them through the subjective views and experiences of others before adding her own opinions. Whatever you think of feminism, feminists, or the state of gender equality, anyone can enjoy and learn from this book. It's important to remember that quiet and compliant people do not achieve positive change, and that as difficult as society likes to paint them, the women in this book made ripples and waves from which many of us - regardless of gender - benefit today.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Vikki Littlemore

    Difficult Women is a really fascinating, concise history of Feminism, told in unusually intimate detail. What I really enjoyed was the level of personal and human detail, rather than the usual factual, dusty accounts. For example, the vivid details of women's experiences, and direct accounts of their trauma, such as the horrific process of violently force-feeding the suffragettes, which I had never properly considered, because I've never heard it described in a first-hand account. Helen Lewis wr Difficult Women is a really fascinating, concise history of Feminism, told in unusually intimate detail. What I really enjoyed was the level of personal and human detail, rather than the usual factual, dusty accounts. For example, the vivid details of women's experiences, and direct accounts of their trauma, such as the horrific process of violently force-feeding the suffragettes, which I had never properly considered, because I've never heard it described in a first-hand account. Helen Lewis writes with great humour, and looks at ancient history from a very modern viewpoint. She also includes the words of women who were there, and lets their own voices describe history in a way that nobody else could imagine. This is a really important book, particularly for girls and young women, or for men to gain a better understanding of what women go through every day. It examines the major battles that have been fought, and are still being fought today, and illuminates a cast of characters who are both well-known, and unsung heroes (and villains). It's an excellently written, intelligent, and thoughtful summary of the important points in female history, written in a digestible and companionable way, and one that everybody should read. I highly recommend.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marya

    I knew nothing about the history of feminism on the other side of the Atlantic, so all of the stories were new to me. But what was most interesting was the author's personal reflection on feminism. To her, feminism is more about the results of the actions and how the initial causes aim to relieve the effects of or smash the system that is sexism. Were any of these women feminist saints? No. Did they succeed in furthering feminism's agenda? Yes. Kendi's book on Anti Racism makes a similar point o I knew nothing about the history of feminism on the other side of the Atlantic, so all of the stories were new to me. But what was most interesting was the author's personal reflection on feminism. To her, feminism is more about the results of the actions and how the initial causes aim to relieve the effects of or smash the system that is sexism. Were any of these women feminist saints? No. Did they succeed in furthering feminism's agenda? Yes. Kendi's book on Anti Racism makes a similar point of not sacrificing results in order to achieve ideological "purity" (and the purity of the movement's leaders). That book was a dictionary to social justice movements. Difficult Women is a nice continuation in the sense that it illuniates some case studies of what those definitions may look like in the real world.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this ARC. I've read quite a few books about feminism and women's history, so I came to this feeling I knew most of the big stories about the fight. Boy, was I wrong. The majority of the women mentioned in this book I'd never even heard of, and I'm so glad Lewis wrote about them. The structure of the book, laying out how all the issues intertwine and winning one fight lays the groundwork for the other, was brilliant and thoroughly engaging. And above all, Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this ARC. I've read quite a few books about feminism and women's history, so I came to this feeling I knew most of the big stories about the fight. Boy, was I wrong. The majority of the women mentioned in this book I'd never even heard of, and I'm so glad Lewis wrote about them. The structure of the book, laying out how all the issues intertwine and winning one fight lays the groundwork for the other, was brilliant and thoroughly engaging. And above all, this book was hopeful - highlighting many of these less well-known feminists helps you to see that you don't have to be perfect to help the cause. A must-read for everyone.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Orr

    This book gave me a really good overview of some of the biggest (and often unremembered) feminist fights. What I loved most about this book was the ethos behind it, that we need to be okay with difficult. We can't try to make things simple, we have to work with the grey and the unknown. The fight for equality isn't about a simple right and wrong, its messy and complex and that's okay. It was an insightful, thoughtful, funny and accessible read. * I received this book for free from Netgalley in r This book gave me a really good overview of some of the biggest (and often unremembered) feminist fights. What I loved most about this book was the ethos behind it, that we need to be okay with difficult. We can't try to make things simple, we have to work with the grey and the unknown. The fight for equality isn't about a simple right and wrong, its messy and complex and that's okay. It was an insightful, thoughtful, funny and accessible read. * I received this book for free from Netgalley in return for an honest review*

  30. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    I enjoyed the potted, thematic history of major feminist battles and Helen's nuanced approach to recognising the flaws in feminist trailblazers. It's a pretty accessible text so the feminist analysis/critique is sometimes a bit familiar but would be good to recommend to people who are newish to feminism. Helen seems strikingly second wave in her focus on structural legal changes and biological differences, which I found interestingly different from my perception of the fourth/fifth wave's curren I enjoyed the potted, thematic history of major feminist battles and Helen's nuanced approach to recognising the flaws in feminist trailblazers. It's a pretty accessible text so the feminist analysis/critique is sometimes a bit familiar but would be good to recommend to people who are newish to feminism. Helen seems strikingly second wave in her focus on structural legal changes and biological differences, which I found interestingly different from my perception of the fourth/fifth wave's current focus on gender deconstruction.

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