“Difficult Women”: An Interview with Helen Lewis

Alex Manzoor 23 June 2020
Source: Twitter

Helen Lewis is a journalist and Staff Writer at the Atlantic magazine. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights. The book analyses both the struggles for gender equality in history and challenges the way in which we view the leading figures of these campaigns. Her book is one of many published in recent years on the topic of Feminism from authors like Caitlin Moran and Caroline Criado Perez.

Lewis notes that the success of ‘Caitlin Moran’s book created a market and told publishers that people were interested in reading this’ kind of book. She adds that ‘we all owe her a great debt for making people realise that they could sell books about Feminism’. However, Lewis wants this book to be viewed more in the light of what she calls a ‘1970s project’ about ‘uncovering hidden stories and engaging with history as a political process’. Her concern, and what the book seeks to address, is the way in which ‘the full difficulty of women has been left out of the history of more recent feminist accounts’. Her book is an attempt to address the way in which histories of Feminism frequently airbrushed the complexities of some of the most popular Feminist activists. Instead, her book seeks to shine a light on all aspects of these figures—warts and all.

‘the full difficulty of women has been left out of the history of more recent feminist accounts’.

‘We do not want to look too closely at our heroes because otherwise we will have to deal with the fact that we admire, or owe a great deal, to people who were imperfect’.

The story of Erin Pizzey, outlined in one of the most powerful chapters in the book, is a prime example of the kind of complicated legacy of a seminal Feminist campaigner. Pizzey was a pioneer who in 1971, with no money or official support, used a dilapidated council house in Chiswick to act as the first women’s refuge shelter in Britain. However, she has ended up as a supporter of the, often toxic, so-called men’s rights movement. Lewis points out that Pizzey’s work in the 1970s was ‘much more grassroots, much more in person and DIY, whereas now we sort of expect that what we do is lobby the government on other people’s behalf’. A reason why Pizzey did that was, frankly, because she was ‘odd’. In addition, Pizzey, like many other women in the book, ‘liked the idea that they had followers who respected them and that they were famous’. Pizzey, and Pankhurst, ‘had ambition in a way that is still slightly frowned upon and they wanted to put themselves forward’. In Lewis’ view, ‘she would not have founded the refuge had she not had that kind of personality’. What is interesting is that many of Pizzey’s colleagues described her as impossible to work for, the very same appellation which is frequently directed at women in a misogynistic way.

Another similar label placed upon women is that of being pushy or aggressive, something Lewis points out was suggested about many female politicians in modern times. For instance, the suggestion by one writer that the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman was “Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent feminist”. These insults are especially odd to Lewis because she argues it was Harman’s persistence that made her ‘incredibly effective as a politician’. It was this same persistence that allowed Victorian social reformers to achieve the reforms to society they desired. It was also what animated the stalwart advocates for Brexit in the present day, like the Tory MP Peter Bone, who campaigned for decades to leave the EU. Lewis suggests that he could just as easily be described as ‘Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent Brexiter’.

‘The level of persistence you must have is something that is really hard to keep hold of now because we feel like so much stuff is changing so fast that we ask: why can’t big social reforms change as fast?’

The internet has not acted as a useful tool for enacting the kind of change that Feminists want to see in society. Lewis views the ceaseless online debates and conflicts about the subject as ‘boring’. She argues that ‘lots of the twitterstorms you see about Feminism are not so much about advancing any particular Feminist cause but positioning someone as a good person’. She stresses that internet debates can make people feel that something has tangibly changed when in fact all that has happened is that views have been aired, which usually sees people retreat into their corners afterwards.

The title of her book is reminiscent of a moment in 2016 when the former Chancellor Ken Clarke referred to Theresa May, whilst unknowingly having his mic still on, as a “bloody difficult woman”.

‘What I thought was interesting about that was that it was both complementary and slightly fearful’.

Lewis is particularly preoccupied as to why ‘the Conservatives have managed to have two female leaders whilst the Labour Party, who are committed to egalitarianism with a fifty one percent female parliamentary party, can nonetheless not seem to get the final push’. She attributes one of the reasons behind this to the fact that ‘the Tories have a template of female leadership which Thatcher created’, something she describes as a kind of ‘warrior queen’ model like a ‘Boudicca’. This image, however, is largely one of ‘exceptionalism’ which perhaps lessens its radicalism as it implies that the emulation of the behaviour of male politicians is the way for women to get ahead. Nonetheless Thatcher’s position, and historically significant role as the first female PM, does clearly provide a striking example of a woman leading within a field traditionally dominated by men. Midway through the book there is a powerful and comprehensive two-page rebuttal to the idea, claimed specifically by Thatcher herself, that the three-term Prime Minister did not become PM “by being some strident female”.

‘The Tories have a template of female leadership which Thatcher created’.

‘I am fascinated in the stories that people tell themselves that make it okay for them to do bad things’. It is this quality that she believes allow people to perpetrate evil. Although we may want to assume that people are under a kind of spell of madness when they perpetrate some evil act, this is often far from the reality. She relates the example of ‘a police recording of the phone call’ of when a man rings the police after he had killed his wife, admitting his crime in a very ‘matter of fact way’ with a ‘half-laugh’. She describes this kind of response as ‘insane mundanity’, which she finds ‘more fascinating than a cackling villain’. Her point is around the importance of the power of narrative in changing behaviour. She relates this analysis of human behaviour and psychology back to ‘twitter-storms’. Such online events are akin to ‘witch burnings’ where people claim that they have to do such an action online to ‘make society better’. In fact, such people often end up looking like they are ‘just indulging in a kind of petty bit of bullying’. Lewis has been on the receiving end of criticism online from people with a wide spectrum of viewpoints. In 2018 she interviewed, for GQ, the controversial author, academic and clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson. Her interview, available in full on YouTube with over 12 million views, saw the pair debate topics including fascism, diet and the patriarchy. Although those who debate Peterson often find themselves being attacked by his supporters, Lewis was frequently praised by many of those sympathetic to the Professor for her rigorous approach.

On controversial topics in contemporary public life and the ongoing debates about the importance of free speech, Lewis is largely inclined to take the side of open discussions. Her reasons are partly personal. Lewis argues that her career as a journalist makes her ‘in favour of the idea that you have to talk through even incredibly difficult issues… as respectfully and carefully and evidenced based as you can’. She also adopts this position for pragmatic reasons because, as we have seen with the immigration debate in the UK, ‘if you do not talk about it’ then you leave the entire field clear for those people who will exploit grievances to inflame tensions.

‘If you tell people that they are wrong, and stupid and bigoted then they stop listening to you. You need to engage with them in a much better way’.

However, Lewis is not complacent about the free speech issue. She points out that the ‘“sunlight is the best disinfectant” line has got some pretty big holes in it’. The best instance of this is political adverts on Facebook that promote conspiracy theories about things like coronavirus. Her suggestion is that this problem needs to be solved by Facebook themselves. The ability, or frankly willingness, of this major tech platform to do so however is by no means assured. 

Lewis relates the story of one woman who asked her at an event how she should best campaign for Feminism in Tanzania. Her answer was that she was not in the position to tell someone what the important fights were in their local context. ‘All politics is local to some extent and Feminism should be’ as well. For instance, ‘if you are a student Feminist then actually looking at the things that are affecting women around you is not an illegitimate thing to do’. In general, she points out that there are so many frequently ignored and not ‘noisy’ ways to improve things; these activities can range from staffing a rape crisis line to working at a food bank.

‘It is not necessarily show-off stuff but it all knits together the fabric that makes people’s lives just that little bit better’.