Journalist Helen Lewis tells Mark Broatch why feminism is not a self-help movement designed to make you feel better about your life but a political movement that must achieve political change
British journalist Helen Lewis was speaking at an event about equal pay and domestic-violence shelters when a 20-something woman casually said to her: "Yeah, but all that stuff is sorted."
Lewis, 36, was already worried about feminism. Worried for a movement that, while having become more open to some marginalised voices, appears to be more fractured than ever. About it congratulating itself on "changing the culture" despite few concrete victories or retreating into "shadow-boxing with outright bastards". Fearful of the backlash coming from the rise of populists and nationalists, from Putin to Bolsonaro to Modi, pushing a return to traditional gender roles.
Lewis kept coming across the idea of "difficult women". UK Prime Minister Theresa May was called one. A British television presenter who was groped on air while pregnant didn't complain, she said, because "No one wants to be difficult." Jennifer Lawrence was called "unruly" by a producer. Yeah, mocked fellow actor Emma Stone, "You were 'difficult'."
So, Lewis decided to write a history of feminism's battles, successes and challenges through the stories of "difficult women" of the past, particularly lesser-known trailblazers.
But who qualifies as one? In Difficult Women, Lewis reminds us of women like Annie Kenney, the working-class Lancashire suffragette jailed 13 times for trying to get women the vote; Erin Pizzey, who, in the 1970s with no money and little support, founded the first women's refuge in Britain; and Lily Parr, the 1.8m-tall teenaged footballer in 1919 with a foul mouth, a kick "like a mule" and a Woodbine permanently lodged in her mouth.
In the book, Lewis advocates a big-tent feminism, including the various, sometimes-at-odds waves of feminist thought. She champions "social, economic and political equality of the sexes" and tends towards trying to achieve equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes – giving people the best chance rather than trying to control the result.
But feminism is "endlessly difficult", she says. Younger feminists are sometimes intolerant of what they see as older women's conservative views on matters such as gender identity, sexuality, pornography, prostitution and transgender rights. And beyond intergenerational rifts, as the book outlines, there's a laundry list of arcane charges and denunciations that get thrown around on social media – cancel culture, whataboutism, class tourism, white saviours, concern trolls and purity politics among them.
"One of the hardest things about feminism is that it's such a broad movement – three and half billion people, with their own lifestyles and personalities."
After we talk, Natalie Portman walks the Oscar red carpet with the names of ignored female directors sewn into her jacket, only to have Rose McGowan call Portman out for employing few female directors in her production companies, then for Portman to subtly note that McGowan's financial settlement with Harvey Weinstein meant she was unable to take the stand in the sexual harassment suit against him.
Girl power? How female remakes of film and TV faves fail women
Sexuality superstar opens the workbook on the female anatomy
Cormack: Prime Minister Bridges or Prime Minister Ardern?
Lewis says women might have disagreements on many things. "But we can both agree that whatever your job is, as a woman you should be paid the same as a man doing the same job," she says. "Feminism can - and must - contain all these contradictions."
Difficult Women is split up into 11 "fights", such as the vote, sex, work, safety, education and abortion. It begins with divorce: her own. She was not yet 30 and already an editor at Britain's left-leaning New Statesman magazine. There were three fast-track grounds: desertion, adultery, unreasonable behaviour. Luckily, thanks to an agreeable ex, no kids or assets, she unhitched without a hitch. But she did so in 2013 what most women throughout history could only dream of doing, because for a woman getting divorced means that society considers you a full citizen in your own right.
In England, it took until 1926 before women could own property on the same terms as men. Previously, women were considered dependent on their husband, like a child. Rape within marriage was not outlawed in the UK until 1991. In New Zealand, married women at least were allowed to own property from 1860, it appears. Spousal rape was criminalised in New Zealand in 1961, it seems; marital rape not until 1985.
"I wanted to write about it because it was really germane to the theme of the book, which is about being disobedient. I had always been a 'good' girl. I'd worked hard at school, I'd gone to university, I'd got a good degree, gone straight into a career. I felt there was enormous pressure on me, and actually being free of that was quite liberating."
Also, a big problem with feminism is it's "very susceptible to shame and people feeling that they can't talk about certain things – whether that be female bodies or female experiences like childbirth or the menopause – because there is huge pressure in our culture to say that these things are private but they have huge impacts on public life too".
Acentury and a half ago, women could not vote, own property or control their own fertility. Finally, in 1918, after decades of peaceful and at times violent agitation by the suffragettes, the British voting rolls were extended to women – those with property and aged over 30. In this country, which followed English law from 1840, all women had gained the vote 35 years earlier, in 1893, thanks to the dedicated campaigning of women like our $10-noter, Kate Sheppard.
Now, though, everywhere you look, critics are trying to pull icons down, says Lewis. "Cancel culture" makes any feminist pioneer's reputation "fragile and provisional". The US television critic Emily Nussbaum nailed the problem: "When you're put on a pedestal, the whole world gets to upskirt you."
But women's history should not be a shallow hunt for heroines, Lewis writes. "Too often, I see feminists castigating each other for admiring the Pankhursts (autocrats), Andrea Dworkin (too aggressive), Jane Austen (too middle-class), Margaret Atwood (worried about due process in sexual-harassment accusations) and Germaine Greer ('where do I start?')."
Humans are flawed, struggling inside vast, complicated systems. Lewis was keen to restore complexity to feminism's pioneers, who were often not "nice", to recontextualise their struggles and tactics, to erase the airbrushing. Coco Chanel, for example, ran her own design house. She also had as a lover a Nazi officer, may have been a German spy and tried to remove a Jewish investor from her company.
"The real Coco Chanel was clever, prejudiced, talented, cynical – and interesting."
Marie Stopes wrote one of the first sex manuals and ran sexual health clinics; she also promoted eugenics. Refuge pioneer Erin Pizzey now advocates for the men's rights movement.
"I think there is a kind of feminist 'end of history', where we assume that we've achieved a final perfect understanding of things and thank goodness, we're not like these blighted people in the past. Those who got women into universities used to put the pretty women in the front when the inspectors came round, because the whole case they were trying to make was that this wouldn't turn women into hideous harridans who were unmarriageable; they made an argument on respectability.
"And it's easy now to say, 'well, that's an illegitimate argument strategy' but would you have tactically looked at that and made a different calculation yourself at the time? I think it's very hard to say that you would have done."
More battles lie ahead.
"For example, sexual violence. The conviction rates are extremely low and the processes are really long and drawn out. Which is unfair on both people who are accused and their accusers, to have people on bail for years, waiting for trial."
Another is unpaid caring labour.
"We've never really cracked the idea that women have moved into the workforce in a huge way since the 1970s and actually you need two incomes in order to buy a house."
Or who does childcare or elderly care with an ageing population?
"There's no way in the current system for all of that to take place. And as a result of that people are feeling incredibly overstretched."
Societies need decent paid maternity and paternity leave ("Most people who have children quite like them," Lewis notes), accessible abortion, equitable divorce laws, equal pay. Technically,, she says, there is equal pay in the UK but it turns out from recent court cases that we don't. The Equal Pay Amendment Bill is currently meandering through the New Zealand Parliament.
"Feminism is not a self-help movement designed to make you feel better about your life. It is a political movement and therefore it must achieve political change," says Lewis.
So, women need to unite over common issues, clear boundaries, concrete demands.
"There's that line from Frederick Douglass: 'Power concedes nothing without a demand.' Well, you need to have the demand. And then you need to look around and say, 'Who agrees with me, can I get more people to agree with me and then once we've got enough people who agree with me, this is what we're going to do.'"
Getting agreement is the hard bit. Some feminists, such as Julie Bindel, argue for a less-inclusive feminism. Bindel, who said Caitlin Moran's bestselling How to Be a Woman "should be consigned to the rubbish bin", is also writing a book about feminism. "I believe women should be liberated from male supremacy rather than constantly asking, 'How can we include more men?'"
Feminists also often differ on the issues of prostitution, pornography and transgender rights. Trans rights is one of the biggest, most controversial issues in feminism right now, says Lewis. A key question is whether trans women should legally be able to be in women's spaces, like changing rooms, refuges, prisons, shortlists and sports. Its proponents claim that everybody has an innate gender identity, she says.
"Which to me is an untestable spiritual belief. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be respected but it does mean that it's asking people to accept something really big. And to me something fundamentally conservative: the idea that I have, in some respects, a female 'soul' is not so far away from people in the 19th century who thought that women's brains were different and they couldn't go to university. So, people should absolutely be able to wear what they like, socially transition, very happy to call people whatever they want, that just seems to me a matter of basic respect."
On prostitution, Lewis prefers the Nordic model: you criminalise buying sex but not selling it. Most people in prostitution, she suspects, would prefer to have a job that is not so dangerous or stigmatised, so we should look at making sure those who want to get out can.
Apart from the grim messages of pornography and whether the biggest consumers of it – men – could "talk a bit more about ethical consumption", she is not a particular fan because it has all of the economic problems of internet journalism.
"People being ripped off, their content being scrubbed of identifying details, aggregator sites making a huge amount of money out of other people's work, and performers themselves having very short careers."
Such robust views mean Lewis has had a fair old trashing during the years. Some of the more printable epithets about her as a "difficult woman" are racist, transphobe, middle-aged – at 29 – absurdly posh, a blacklister of writers, ruthlessly careerist. One telling criticism pinned her as "white, straight and cisgendered, the top of the feminist food chain in terms of intersectionality".
In a footnote, she writes: "For the record, I wouldn't describe myself as either straight or cisgendered. 'Respect for how people identify' seems to only work one way."
I wonder if she thinks men can be feminists.
"Yes, but foot soldiers, not generals. I once wrote that the most feminist thing a man can do is pick up a mop."
Okay. And do men or women give her a harder time?
"When I interviewed Jordan Peterson in 2018, if you read the comments under the YouTube video, there's a lot of how ugly I am, how stupid I am, I've got terrible hair, these feminazis just don't know anything. In the words of the Big Lebowski, that's just your opinion, man. But if someone [within feminism] says you're racist or transphobic or homophobic, that's a charge I take incredibly seriously," says Lewis.
"Those are the things that hurt. So, I have been surprised that I have received as much trashing from women as from men."
Funnily enough, after I interviewed the controversial Canadian psychologist (who has since been reported as suffering a prescription drug addiction in Russia) I got no such slurs, I say. Lewis laughs and says the slagging was instructive.
"Rather than deciding there are good people and bad people; and we don't need to listen to the bad people, trying to understand why people think differently to you without necessarily thinking that they're bad. I don't think Jordan Peterson is a bad person, or that he doesn't have any insights at all.
"Therefore, I wanted it to seem like a conversation where I came to him with a level of respect and interest in his viewpoint." She laughs again. "I'm not sure whether he felt the same about me."
Has the criticism made her more defensive, or more understanding? "I've always had pretty sharp elbows. I think you need them to survive as an opinion writer."
When she was at the New Statesman – she now writes for The Atlantic – she ran a feature called What I Got Wrong, on people who'd had very strong opinions that they'd since changed and what changed their mind. She'd like to see more of that.
"Because one of the things about cancel culture is the idea that people don't change. Or something that someone said when they were 17 is representative of them now. Or we are represented by our worst moments when we flew off the handle with to try and stay open to criticism."
Frustration with "all this is sorted" thinking can also be applied to the fight for human rights and employment rights, with the rise of precarity and zero-hour contracts, she agrees.
"History has to be continually re-taught and renewed and refreshed in people's minds, otherwise it dies, it's powerless. It's very easy if you're young – I certainly did this – to think it's natural to basically have a 40-hour working week, of course the weekend has existed since the beginning of time. And that I can switch on my tap and clean water comes out or, if I get an infection, I can get antibiotics or you can be immunised against measles.
"One of the real problems about politics is that success breeds complacency. We're seeing that with Holocaust survivors, the last generations of them dying. That lack of a direct link to the past and witness is allowing people to subtly - and not so subtly - rewrite the history of the 20th century, downplay what happened. That's why I've always loved history; it's about reconnecting people to how the world has progressively got better.
"Unarguably we are less violent than we were before, fewer children die young, the average healthy years you've got is hugely better – across the world. There's terrible poverty still, but absolute poverty is reduced. And that didn't happen magically. That happened because a lot of people fought really hard to make it happen. That, to me, is an optimistic story in a time that often feels very pessimistic."
Difficult Women: A history of feminism in 11 fights, by Helen Lewis ( Jonathan Cape, $40). Out March 3.