Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (The Sunday Times Bestseller)

Helen Lewis

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (The Sunday Times Bestseller)
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Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (The Sunday Times Bestseller)

Helen Lewis

Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do.

Helen Lewis argues that feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Too many of these pioneers have been whitewashed or forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of feminism as a history of difficult women.

In this book, you’ll meet the working-class suffragettes who advocated bombings and arson; the princess who discovered why so many women were having bad sex; the pioneer of the refuge movement who became a men’s rights activist; the ‘striker in a sari' who terrified Margaret Thatcher; the wronged Victorian wife who definitely wasn’t sleeping with the prime minister; and the lesbian politician who outraged the country. Taking the story up to the present with the twenty-first-century campaign for abortion services, Helen Lewis reveals the unvarnished - and unfinished - history of women’s rights.

Drawing on archival research and interviews, Difficult Women is a funny, fearless and sometimes shocking narrative history, which shows why the feminist movement has succeeded - and what it should do next. The battle is difficult, and we must be difficult too.


A woman is ‘difficult’ when she refuses to conform to society’s expectations. When she fights for her rights. When she is not the perfect stereotype of what is seen as a woman. A woman is difficult, that is, when she is a feminist. Helen Lewis explores what exactly makes a woman difficult – and why it’s not a bad thing.

Difficult Women offers insight into a series of feminist fights for independence and control. Ten chapters each cover a milestone of feminism – something women have fought for in order to be treated as equals. These chapters range from laws – such as the right to vote, to divorce, and to have abortions – to women entering male-only fields for the first time, such as the workplace, universities and professional sports. A range of feminist issues are covered including domestic labour, the mental load, the gender pay gap and domestic abuse.

Lewis’s writing style blends history, essay and creative narrative. She effortlessly weaves together different accounts of difficult women, and their interactions with each other, throughout time. Lewis encourages us to not airbrush our feminist icons by sweeping the uncomfortable truths under a rug, and instead to acknowledge who they are – complex women. She also highlights several difficult women who have been written out of history – who have been whitewashed, or didn’t conform to a cookie-cut role model of feminism. We learn of a lesbian politician who outraged her country, the ‘striker in a sari’, and the first female football teams, created during World War I.

Difficult Women is a historical work of the progress feminism has made, published in an era of backlash against #MeToo, particularly from populists and nationalists, and Trump, pushing back towards so-called traditional gender roles. Progress isn’t linear, and, Lewis argues, in difficult times, it’s time to embrace difficult women. Ultimately, ‘difficult women’ is a term for women who call out sexism. Difficult Women encourages you to be ‘difficult’ too.

Cindy Morris works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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