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Helen Lewis on her Feminist Icons

Posted on 18th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

A celebration of women who have refused to be cowed and dismissed by figures of male authority, Helen Lewis's Difficult Women is a brilliantly accessible and enlightening history of feminism that takes in numerous pioneering activists and thinkers. In this exclusive essay, Helen discusses her personal feminist icons from the trailblazing days of female suffrage to modern day heroes.

The best thing about writing a history of feminism is getting to spend time with so many incredible women - some on paper, some in person - and finding such incredible material. The worst thing is remembering that at some point, you need to turn all of that incredible material into a single book.

During my research, I fell down a Suffragette rabbit hole, spending months reading about the women who campaigned for the vote, and neglecting my other chapters. The Suffragette movement lasted less than a decade - from the first militant action in 1905, to the start of the First World War - and there were only 1,500 of them. But - wow, what a story.

The Suffragettes terrified the government, which surveilled them, imprisoned them and force-fed them. They were half-army, half scrappy start-up. They devised their own colour scheme (purple, white and green), ran their own newspaper and awarded military-style medals to hunger strikers. They snuck into parliament and tried to storm the debating chamber. One flew an airship over London to scatter leaflets. Suffragettes slashed a painting in the National Gallery, poured acid on golfing greens and set fire to the Teahouse at Bellevue Zoo in North Belfast. They bombed the chancellor’s empty house. On the night of the 1911 census, they went roller-skating in Aldwych, reasoning that if women didn’t count - if they didn’t have the vote - they should refuse to be counted. Whatever you think of Suffragettes’ use of violence, it’s hard to disagree with the verdict of Labour MP Keir Hardie in 1913: “In spite of the sneers of Hon. Members behind me, if the same degree of courage, the same devotion to a great cause, was being shown on the field of battle, or under other circumstances, those exhibiting it would be held up as heroes for national admiration.”

The extent of Suffragette violence makes many people uncomfortable today - just as it made many people uncomfortable at the time. The law-abiding Suffragists, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, as well as many of the Suffragettes’ early supporters, distanced themselves as the militant actions became more extreme. It’s difficult to accept that one of our most basic freedoms, the right to vote, might have been won by terrorism. Still, there’s a lot that today’s feminists can learn from the Suffragettes’ discipline and focus, their absolute commitment to the cause, their ability to grab attention, and their incredible iconography. Even their name reflected how they subverted stereotypes of women: it was originally a diminutive, intended to belittle them. But they embraced it, arguing in their newspaper that “the ‘Suffragist jist [sic] wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it.”

The Suffragettes represent all the types of difficulty I explore in my book. Their struggle was hard. Their methods were controversial. And they tried to destroy the expectation that women should be passive and nice. “‘Militant methods have been good for the souls of women,’ argued Christabel Pankhurst. “They have swept away the evils of ‘ladyism’, of timid gentility, of early Victorian effeminacy as distinct from womanliness.”

Ultimately, this is what I look for in a feminist icon: seeing the scale of the challenge ahead, seeing that it won’t make you popular, and doing it anyway. Look around, and difficult women are everywhere. Last year, the Labour MP Stella Creasy was instrumental in bringing same-sex marriage and improved abortion rights to Northern Ireland - from the backbenches. (She also managed to have a baby in the middle of the general election campaign.) Samira Ahmed took the BBC to an employment tribunal, asking for equal pay with male presenters, and in the process exposed a whole rotten value system which could not see women - particularly minority women - as stars to be nurtured. The president of the Supreme Court, Brenda Hale, who I interviewed for the book, showed that older women can be the most quietly terrifying of all, as she kept the government in check when it tried to suspend parliament illegally.

Many of my own feminist icons are concerned with what it means to write while female. The work of the linguist Deborah Cameron shows how deeply sexism is woven into language itself. How can we see the full extent of our society’s stereotypes, bias and casual assumptions, when the tools we use to do so - our words - are themselves biased? We rarely call little boys “bossy” and we rarely call little girls “boisterous”. We don’t talk about “career men” or being a “big boy’s blouse”. Where being a “tomboy” sounds neutral, being a “sissy” is not. And there are whole lists of words that we apply to difficult women - that is, those who are too loud or unruly or ambitious or obstinate. Shrew, bitch, harpy, nag, gorgon, harridan, battleaxe, cow, gossip, hysteric, shrill.

And there’s another side to the story. Its best expression comes from Virginia Woolf, whose two great feminist essays - Three Guineas and A Room Of One’s Own - are just as sparkling, just as acid, as they were when they were first published. Woolf argues that women have always lacked the material conditions to tell their own stories. She imagines a sister to William Shakespeare, just as talented as he was. Judith Shakespeare tries to learn to read and write like her brother, but “her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers”. She runs away to London, but the theatre managers laugh in her face; she gets pregnant by an actor. Her mind is brilliant, but her body is female. She cannot be a genius. And so Judith Shakespeare, in Woolf’s imagination, “killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle”.

I re-read those Woolf essays at least once a year, because they remind me how far we’ve come - and how far there is left to go. When I travelled to Nepal in 2018 with a charity devoted to female literacy, I met girls who are living Judith Shakespeare’s life in the twenty-first century. Their families could only send one child to school, so they chose the boy. Or their brothers were let off housework to study, but they were not. Woolf also writes of her amazement at finding a phrase in a book - “Chloe liked Olivia” - and realising how little she had ever read about the relationships between women, rather than their relationships with men. In a year when Little Women was overlooked at awards ceremonies, that observation is still pertinent.

My final feminist icon is the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her TED talk, We Should All Be Feminists is now a global phenomenon, thanks to being sampled by Beyonce. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” says Adichie. “We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much.” Those words still give me shivers, and I love her definition of feminism: “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” It sounds simple, and yet feminism is endlessly difficult.

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