'As a woman, you get screwed over at every stage: Helen Lewis talks feminism and nice women

Image credit: Joanna Paterson

It’s a sunny afternoon, and in the hustle and bustle of the Cambridge Literary Festival’s HQ at the Union, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, is taking some time out to reminisce with me on the stairs.

“We had proper things to be upset about in my day, and I genuinely think this”, she says, reflecting back on her time as a student at university.

“Having the Iraq War and tuition fees were the best possible things that could have happened for student activism, because everyone really knew what side they were on, there was a very clear enemy and we were all united in the fight against someone else, and I don’t think there’s a defining issue that everybody feels viscerally attracted to, and that makes it harder.

“One of the great things about activism is that feeling of solidarity and that feeling you have of fighting alongside people and changing things is an achievement. It’s much harder now for students now to get that sense of solidarity and achievement.”

In her mind, this is the key problem with students: “I think every generation of young people comes slightly to an ‘end of history’ fallacy, where you think that everyone else above you was wrong, and thankfully you’re here to be right.

“I think as you get older you kind of mellow, but you also realise that you don’t start from nothing in activism. I always think about this with Germaine Greer. She’s crazy, and she’s said some really crazy things, and she’s not a person that I find a very easy person. But somebody who was pleasant and accommodating and didn’t want to upset anybody wouldn’t be Germaine Greer.

“Nice women don’t make history, and something like women even being in universities at all – that happened because [of] suffragettes and people of that era, who you might not agree with all their other policies, but you’re building on the work of other people, you’re always building on other people.”

At this point, I can sense that we’re touching on some nerves here. Helen Lewis is one of a group of feminists harassed online for being so-called ‘TERFs’ – trans- exclusionary radical feminists – a charge that centres on Lewis’ commissioning of so-called TERFs to write for the New Statesman.

She claims it’s a misnomer: “I’m perfectly happy with people living in a different gender from the one they were born in, and I’m very up for using people’s correct pronouns and names. That all seems to me like common politeness, and that’s been the case for years now.

“You have to maintain your belief that we are on the same side – I want to fight for trans rights.

“Just because there are some bits of gender ideology that I disagree with, doesn’t mean that we’re in any way on a different page when it comes to the struggles.”

This all comes down to Lewis’ concern that feminism should try harder to be for all women. “Contemporary feminism very much excludes older women.

“Something like the pension inequality campaign, that’s not going to catch on in the same way that something like non- binary rights does because it doesn’t affect 20-year-olds.”

“You think it’s all kind of solved, and then you get near 30 and you realise that they haven’t solved that, actually, and there

will have been situations in which I didn’t get a job because someone thought ‘oh, she’s knocking on a bit, she’s probably going to take some time off and have a baby’.”

“Feminism’s something that grows throughout your life. As you go through your life you realise you get screwed over at every single stage, and you probably won’t viscerally feel it until you’re in the bracket that’s getting screwed over in that particular way.”

A cheerful assessment. 

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