Book reviews / History / Non fiction

Book review: Difficult Women

I swear, I spent half the time reading this book trying not to cry at all the wonderful (and difficult) women and the other half trying to think of a better word than “motherfucker” to express my anger at historical injustice.

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 fights, written by Helen Lewis, is a great read. I say that still being incredibly fidgety and angry about the education chapter. It’s not a chronological history, but tells stories about particular fights in the UK to advance the rights of women. I even knew some of the stories as they intersected with my PhD (like Marie Stopes being…eccentric). I found this quite interesting as my angle looked at it from a secularist point of view, which often coincided with advancing the rights of women.

I was surprisingly emotional about the chapter on sport, even though Lily Parr died before I was born. I think whenever I come across these stories of women being as good or better at something and then just being crushed because of the inevitable weight of the patriarchy, it just makes me so angry for the opportunity that was denied to these women. It makes me want to go watch some women’s football, because I want to support them because of the 50 years they were denied playing the sport professionally. It was very timely reading that chapter, given the current court case in the US over gender discrimination and the resignation of the US soccer president.

The chapter on education had me loudly shouting obscenities and infuriatingly reading sections to my partner. It just makes me so angry, no matter how many times I come across it in history, that so many barriers were place in front of women. Whenever they met and succeeded tests, new barriers were put in place until battered down once more. I remember being incredibly angry about this article, mentioned in the book. Seriously, fuck the patriarchy. As someone who has immensely enjoyed higher education, I feel acutely upset that in another time that opportunity would have been denied to me.

The conclusion of Difficult Women talks about structures. It reminds me of when I was a union rep and how after a while it’s impossible to unsee all the differential power dynamics and the structures that reinforce inequalities in the workplace. But, usefully you understand the things you need to do to effect change. It makes me feel prouder of our women’s network at work and helping to work on the gender pay gap. I realise that we have immense privilege to have the support and time to work on this, but I hope with being open about it means that somewhere else might benefit from the work we’ve done (and will continue to do).

Anyway, hopefully I’ll never stop being angry at injustice, no matter how sweary that makes me.

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