Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

Difficult Women by Helen Lewis – A History of Feminism in 11 Fights. The chapters are: Divorce, the Vote, Sex, Play, Work, Safety, Love, Education, Time, Abortion, and The Right to be difficult. This is not a history book, despite its subtitle. It is a feminist manifesto, in which she talks about her own experience too much. I liked the idea of showing the women who changed the world as they were and not whitewashed. I found the book a missed opportunity, as that idea was so interesting, a balanced view on real women with real lives, an “warts and all” approach.

She is puzzled why people who believe in equal opportunities do not see themselves as feminists. She thinks it is a PR problem instead of a problem with the movement in general. I am all for equal opportunities, but feminism today is, unfortunately, more about equality of outcome (which is just the opposite of opportunity) and random labels. It is also a us vs them attitude, as in women vs men, which I don’t think is particularly helpful. On top of that, in chapter 7, she talks about toxic attitudes on social media and the use of particular terms, which can catch anyone out, unless they spend at least an hour a day reading on the subject. Should this be viewed as toxic femininity or only masculinity can be toxic?

Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

For her, being Mrs. X is just a version of Offred from Handmaid’s Tale. At least she said that changing my surname to my husband’s doesn’t make me a bad person, which is, obviously… reassuring. Instead it makes me half accomplice, whatever that means. It’s an “oh, dear” moment. Not everyone who reads this book was brought up in Britain and so, taking the husband’s name does not mean the same for people who had a different life and were raised in other traditions. She said that she is the first generation of women in her family to go to university. For me it’s completely different, even though I’m a bit older than her. My mother, grandmothers, and aunts, worked and half of them had tertiary education (including a grandmother and two great-aunts), and were not depending on the man of the house. The difference is that I do not consider my experience as indicative of the situation in the whole of the country I was raised in and surely not for the whole world.
I think it is a shame that she decided to make her own views, as a woman who changed her name through marriage before getting a divorce and getting married again, this time kept her surname, archetypal for all women. This is one of the things that bothers me about feminists, that they assume and persist in the idea that what they experienced is, somehow, similar to what all other women lived through, when is not. Especially when they say that labels do not matter and then talks of “starting a family” as in having children. Right, because a man and a woman can’t be a family. I fully disagree with that statement, as we are a family, just happens to be a child-free one.

I learned a few things and I would have loved to learn more, like about the forced-feeding of Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton as Jane Warton. Unfortunately the writing style is not my cup of tea. I found it repetitive, including words like “difficult”, which appears a hundred times or so. It’s such a shame as I liked the idea she presented in the introduction, that feminist women were not perfect and a realistic history should be told, not the whitewashing politicization of today. If only the book would have been about that, a history of real women, without a diatribe about a woman who had an impressive career because she took advantages of what was on offer in her day and had a nanny. Also, why would having a nanny is a bad thing? Should women (also, who says that only women use nannies, when there are two parents to begin with) only use a crèche? What about a cleaner? Or only getting take-away is fine and nannies and cleaners are narratively related to the upper middle-classes, so “bad”.

Do not bother with this book if you want to read a history of feminism.

Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

Details about the picture: –
My rating: 2/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: not really, it is not was it said on the “tin”
Published by: –
Year it was published: 2020
Format: Audible Audio
Genre(s): Philosophy
Pages: NA

About the author: Helen Lewis studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University, before getting an MA in English Literature from the Open University while working night shifts in her first job. Lewis is now a journalist.
Website & Social Media Links: –

5 thoughts on “Difficult Women by Helen Lewis”

  • No…. this one isn’t for me. As for the topics you and Yvonne have discussed, I have several friends who purposefully chose not to have children and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. They’ve all told me they’ve been questioned about it plenty of times, though. I think there are a variety of reasons people choose to take or not to take their husband’s name and think it’s just a personal choice. Sometimes it’s a case of using one name professionally and their other socially. It certainly doesn’t equate “ownership”. And I’ve never been a fan of “Affirmative Action”. I would not want to be hired (or receive a school placement, or whatever) based solely on being a woman, black, gay, or any other designation. It should be based on merit or qualifications… not quotas. I’ve already heard a number of times about how Joe Biden has chosen the most diverse cabinet in history. That’s well and good, but I just hope he’s chosen people who are truly qualified.

    I commented on your last post about the miniatures, but it must have gotten lost in cyberspace. The book sounds wonderful and I would love to have it!
    Kelly recently posted…Instagram photos #9My Profile

    • I recovered this one, sorry about the one for the miniatures book. It was so exciting to read it.

      I noticed that too, that Biden’s cabinet is hailed as diverse. For me that is not reassuring at all. Did he pick the people who deserve to be there or the 2nd or 3rd best just to make a statement? When they won, the headline all over the news was that now it will be the first Black-Ethnic Minority Woman as Vice. Really? Is this all she is? I don’t think so, so why reduce her to something she had no control over: her gender and race? How is that any different from what a white supremacist would do? It makes one think she was just a pawn to attract black and Latino voters, which is crazy as a reason to pick someone. Also, some things are misrepresented, like Biden being the first one to appoint an openly gay man, when Trump did that before. It’s surprising, but it also shows how the court of public opinion works.
      I really hope the people who will go into the White House are the best ones, not only US needs this, but the whole world needs it too. With the recession, I hope US will keep its top place and not be overtaken by China. As someone born in a communist country, this is the stuff of nightmares for me.

      • I, too, hope the US can continue to dominate on the economic front. Folks can say what they want, but I think Trump did a good job with the economy during his term, and he stood up to China. (now, his relationship with Russia/Putin baffles me… I wonder what they have on him that he kowtows to them the way he seems to) Though I tend to agree with more from the Libertarian Party’s platform of beliefs, we’re (unfortunately) a two-party system, and I do think the Republicans have a better grip on economics than the Democrats. I guess I’m a capitalist at heart.
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  • Hi Anca,

    This definitely isn’t one for me I’m afraid, apart from the obvious fact that it sounds like a very self-centred rant by the author!
    Like yourselves, we are and have been for the last 43 years, a childless family, although we still have people who have that Aww! moment, because they assume it is because we couldn’t have children, rather than didn’t want to have children. In fact some have gone so far as to snub us, because they couldn’t have children and they think we are terrible for choosing not to have them!
    I also changed my name to that of my husband when we married, through choice I have to add, although that really was the only option back then. The idea of keeping my own name, or hyphenating the two names together, simply wasn’t an option we ever considered. that doesn’t mean Dave owns me though, and he would never have thought that way!
    I am also all for equal opportunities and believe that if a man and a woman do the same job, then they should receive the same rates of pay and benefits. However, I don’t believe that employers – any employers- should have to employ by gender, colour, race or religion, just to get the right mix and balance in the workplace – It should always be the best person for the job and if that carries the bias in any one particular direction, then so be it!
    Now you see how books like this can wind me up – rant over – thanks for sharing and i hope that your next book is a little less controversial 🙂 xx

    • It’s staggering that some people decided to question you on why you did not have children. Those with children are never asked why they had children as it is considered impolite. I agree with you on the jobs too and the name after marriage. We got married 13 years ago and we never thought of hyphenating either, and keeping my name was not something I would want to do. As you said, my husband doesn’t own me. Also, if I would have kept my father’s name, would that mean that I was his property? I don’t think so.

      I tried to read a book on a topic I’m not keen on, because I don’t want to read only books with views I fully agree. But this was so badly done, that I could give it only 2 stars and I wouldn’t recommend it. Thank you for your long comment, I appreciate it. xx

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