Erin Pizzey in the home she opened for battered women in London, in 1978
Erin Pizzey in the home she opened for battered women in London, in 1978 © Getty

I have worked for two really terrible bosses. Both were whimsical, egotistical, erratic, tyrannical, unjust. Both were notably bad about working with women. Yet both were women, and both leading feminists, with significant milestone achievements behind them.

So I was well acquainted early with the truth eloquently addressed in Helen Lewis’s new book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights — that social campaigners who make things happen, who effect change, can be brilliant and inspiring, yet also awkward, uncompromising, fallible, contradictory and sometimes just plain hell to be around. In her vocabulary, “difficult” is an accolade.

And rightly. It’s a smart idea, to address the unwieldy subject of feminist history through a series of milestone battles, and Lewis is out to show that it was often the sheer bloody-mindedness of the women who fought those battles that determined their success. Being nice gets you nowhere, she emphasises in her introduction; the idea of feminist saints is not only laughable but probably unhelpful.

In sections related to Divorce, Sex, Work, Play, the Vote, Education and more, Lewis focuses on one or two (usually flawed) heroines who made important strides in that issue. Not only were these pioneers rubbing against the social conventions of their own time and place, but the passage of time and changes of general opinion can also make them difficult for us to swallow.

For instance, the famous advocate of birth control, Marie Stopes, was a believer in the then-fashionable doctrine of eugenics — discouraging the reproduction of less-than-perfect human beings — and determinedly anti-abortion. While the first is beyond distasteful, the second seems wilfully, maddeningly inconsistent. She fell out with other organisations working towards the same goals; who knows how much she actually hindered their work. Yet her name rings down the years: as Lewis says, “We don’t need to like Marie Stopes to value her.” Lewis could go further and speculate that perhaps the way we judge Stopes, and others like her, now is actually a measure of their own achievements.

The lens of history also falls unforgivingly on Caroline Norton, who in the 1830s bravely fought court cases that led to divorced mothers’ rights of access to their children — yet all the time believing that women are essentially not the equals of men. The magnificent Sophia Jex-Blake, who battled to become one of Britain’s first female doctors and went on to do fine work in the field of women’s health, was also capable of making now-unthinkable remarks about fellow medical students, “boys of low social class” who were “unfit” for such education.

Oddest of all, perhaps, is the story of Erin Pizzey, one of the few British feminists to become a household name in the 1970s after she opened the first refuge for battered women. Fighter, campaigner, media monster, Pizzey “single-handedly did as much for the cause of women as any other women alive”, wrote Deborah Ross in 1997; refuges in the UK now shelter some 4,000 women and children a year.

Yet not only was Pizzey at odds with the highly politicised feminism of the time, she later fell out so completely with its basic ideals that she now works with men’s rights activists. She has called feminism a “lie” that has created a rift between men and women, and believes that both sexes are equally “capable of extraordinary cruelty”.

Among the protagonists of British feminism (the book is largely UK-centric) Lewis has deliberately chosen the more flamboyant characters. Her chapter on suffrage focuses on Annie Kenney, the working-class woman who campaigned and suffered alongside Christabel Pankhurst, but who was largely written out of the record for reasons of class snobbery. There are a couple of passing mentions of the great Millicent Fawcett, the non-violent suffragist who doggedly achieved progress through the dull, constitutional route (with the help of her MP husband Henry) — but where’s the fun in that story?

The book is chatty and breezy, with plenty of personal anecdote — we hear about Lewis’s own divorce before the first chapter is done. The style probably helps to convey chunks of factual information, but can come over as patronising (sorry about that word — shall I call it “femsplaining”? There is a lot of femsplaining here). And her jokiness can grate, as when she mentions in a footnote that she doesn’t watch porn “partly [as] an ethical decision and partly because the sofas are so hideous”.

Bookjacket of 'Difficult Women' by Helen Lewis

Yet despite the lacunae inevitable in such a giant subject, the book covers a vast amount of ground and has some thought-provoking moments — as in her chapter on Time, which posits the lack of leisure in women’s lives as a significant historic inhibitor to the progress of feminism.

And Lewis certainly doesn’t skate over women’s deep unkindnesses to each other. From the internecine wars of the suffragists to the furious tongue-lashing meted out to Pizzey, to the vicious online trolling of Lewis herself, this is not a pretty part of the story. It relates, however, I think, to one thing the book lacks, which is a discussion of feminism itself.

Although she quotes a couple of (widely differing) definitions, Lewis takes feminism as a given. But feminism is not a thing. It’s not an organisation, like the Labour party. Or a set of beliefs, however disparate, like Christianity. It’s really not a “movement”: that implies at least a degree of organisation. Feminism is a worldview so fundamental and far-reaching that it encompasses every aspect of human interaction, yet there are no rules, no doctrine, no action plan, no agreed leadership.

The scope is so dauntingly enormous that any activist can only address a single issue, even if it’s an issue as vast and apparently intractable as economic parity or changing marriage customs. That’s why to write a history of feminism in an episodic structure like Lewis’s is a good idea, but inevitably a limited one too. It’s also why women fight so much: each campaigner is passionate about her own route through this terrifyingly unmapped terrain, and passionately disagrees with the choices of the others. But slowly, unevenly, oddly, we stumble on.

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, by Helen Lewis, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 354 pages

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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