Skip to main content
Read page text


Annette Ashby, the first woman to be elected as a member of the Society of Engineers, Fulham, London, 1925


/ G E T T Y



/ E V E N





A G E N C Y / G E T T Y





jobs against ex-servicemen, funnelled into more suitably “feminine” areas of their chosen professions (obstetrics, family law, interior design and cosmetics research), held to exacting beauty standards and expected to comply with the “marriage bar”.

Still, some of the most difficult wars they waged were with other women, or with themselves. As Robinson explains, “It would not be fair to suggest that all pioneering women were joined in sisterly solidarity”. Royden faced early opposition not just from the Church of England, but also from the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who

The never-

ending story Battles for, and within, the women’s rights movement


DIFFICULT WOMEN A history of feminism in 11 fights

HELEN LEWIS 368pp. Cape. £16.99.

IT SEEMS SUCH A MODEST PROPOSAL as to be utterly uncontroversial: that female members of the human species should enjoy the same rights and opportunities as males, and should not live in fear of being exploited, beaten, murdered or raped by them. Reality tells a different story, however. Women are tortured, imprisoned, stoned, shot, “correctively” raped for asking for the right to vote, to drive a car, be educated, play football and be protected from violence in their own homes. And while some societies have made strides, particularly in the spheres of education and work, domestic violence is still the leading contributor to preventable death in women aged eighteen to forty-four in countries including Britain, the United States and Australia. Indeed, since the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect, the United Nations has reported a spike in domestic violence cases across the globe. What gains have been made, then, are fragile, contested

JUNE 5, 2020

dismissed her ambitions to preach as “unwise and naïve”. In one annotated photo that Robinson retrieved from the archives of the Medical Women’s Federation, a female student labels her classmates “brilliant”, “harmless” and “stupid to a degree”. “These people”, Robinson reminds us, “were not superwomen, just women, like us.”

This humanity comes through in her willingness to chart the evolution of her subjects. Enid Rosser Locket was called to the Bar in 1927, but disliked working as an attorney and decided to take up a post as legal adviser to John Lewis (of department and unevenly distributed. With the rise of the far right, and authoritarian rulers from India to Brazil, even slight gains could easily be reversed, and in some cases, such as reproductive rights in the US, are already being eroded.

This is the point, essentially, of Helen Lewis’s Difficult Women: it tries to understand why women’s equality is still so contested and why “feminism” is such a misunderstood and disputed word. Lewis explores these themes through eleven feminist “fights”, landmark nodes of dispute, over rights to the custody of children, and to vote, as well as more recent and continuing struggles for equal access to education, leisure time and sexual pleasure. To shift a status quo built on the subjugation of half the world’s population, and on which capitalism itself relies, particularly on the unpaid labour women do in the home, requires determined disruptors unafraid of attracting opprobrium or worse. Hence Ger-


Arianne Chernock’s The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the women’s movement was published last year

Jayaben Desai at the Grunwick strike, 1977

Sarah Lonsdale is a senior lecturer at City, University of London. Her book Rebel Women Between the Wars is forthcoming store fame). One woman enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women out of a “misplaced sense of duty” following her fiancé’s death during the war. She abandoned her training once she realized what a career in medicine entailed.

As much as the SDRA created new opportunities for women, then, it did not produce the immediate change that many expected (or feared). As Robinson tells it, this is in part because the legislation lacked teeth. The Civil Service, for example, was exempted from the terms of the SDRA; Cambridge refused to award women degrees until 1948. In part, though, this is because the structural and psychological impediments to female advancement were so deeply entrenched that many men and women alike continued to play by the old rules. Long after 1919, women seeking employment were far more likely to become secretaries, nurses, teachers or hairdressers than architects, engineers or lawyers. And they usually terminated their employment if they married and had children, presuming that they had the financial means.

This is the sobering side of Robinson’s account. But there’s a more hopeful story here too. In recent weeks, we have seen renewed calls for “difficult women”, punctuated by the publication of Helen Lewis’s book of that title. The mostly well-heeled and unassuming women featured in Robinson’s narrative might be surprised to secure that description, but they were difficult in their own way. In performing surgeries, designing buildings, representing clients, supplying electricity, securing university lectureships and preaching to those who would listen, they expanded what was possible – even if not always realizable – for the rest of their sex. Their form of difficulty involved taking the law at its word, then putting their heads down and doing the work. n maine Greer was considered “a bit of a nightmare” even by her fellow Second Wavers of the 1970s, the family planning activist Marie Stopes’s contemporaries viewed her as a conceited egomaniac (not only for her eugenicist views), and the British politician Harriet Harman, who did so much to emphasize the gender pay gap, was labelled, admittedly by the Daily Mail, “ear-drillingly insistent”.

Lewis herself has been trolled, and not just by people who think that feminism has “gone too far”, but by other feminists who have accused her of transphobia and of ignoring intersectionality in her work. While feminism is undoubtedly having a post-MeToo moment, it is also splintered. There’s “mainstream feminism”, “lean-in feminism”, “black feminism”, “queer feminism” and a host of other feminisms, many engaged in the “horizontal hostility” that so often blunts the force of minority groups: the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front phenomenon. This bothers Lewis, naturally, and she returns to the theme throughout the book, asking for all feminists to see that what unites them is stronger than what divides. Difficult Women examines British feminism. While the chapter on work features the Indian-born Jayaben Desai, who led the notorious Grunwick strike in 1976, there are gaps when it comes to the struggles of women of colour in the British colonies, and, post-Windrush, of black British women, who have faced both racism and sexism. Lewis acknowledges that her highly readable, and at times intensely personal study, covering her own divorce and fake orgasms, is subjective. She also acknowledges that, like many histories, it relies on written memoirs and archive material, which necessarily leads to the elimination of about 90 per cent of potential subjects, particularly before the Second World War.

The world is awash with books on feminism, from the popular to the academic, many engaged now in critiquing and interrogating each other. This must be healthy. Helen Lewis’s book, which calls for many more, shows us we are nowhere near done, and that sadly we probably never will be. n


My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content