Women’s history has made great strides in academia over the past couple of decades. Work that has informed my politics, enabled me to celebrate Aemilia Lanyer’s Ode to Cokeham as inspiration, and cite Sheffield chartist poet Mary Hutton in my maiden speech in the House of Lords. Whenever I can justify it, I’ll explore the deeper reaches of the London Library or JStor, seeking new historical women to celebrate.
One of the things I’ve been disappointed about over the past decade or so is how little of this research has made it into popular histories. Mary Beard of course is an honourable exception, but most of the history that makes the best-seller lists, and dominates the podcast feeds, is still written by men – in the traditional empires, monarchs and battles format. (Whilst I do not wish in any way to deride the podcast histories of England, Rome and Byzantium that I’ve recently worked my way through, their treatment of the women in the stories is often scanty and very traditional.)
So where are the big sweeping women’s histories, the writers and podcasters bringing academic discoveries of women’s histories to the popular gaze in grand narrative sweeps?
One person who has been doing that is journalist Helen Lewis. Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights is everything that popular women’s history should be: fast-moving, colourful and inspiring.
There are some topics that you might expect. The suffragettes of course in the chapter about the fight for the vote. The battle for abortion rights, although it starts with Northern Ireland in 2016 rather than the traditional 1967 and David Steel. The battle to be allowed to “play”, with footballing legend Lily Parr of Dick Kerr’s Ladies, who scored her goals in front of crowds of up to 50,000 early last century.
Lewis’ work uncovers some women with whom I was wholly unfamiliar. One of these is Caroline Norton who in 1836 saw her reputation dragged through the mud, her children stolen from her and was unable to obtain a divorce from a husband who in our terms was clearly abusive of both her and the children. Her campaigning helped deliver the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act that at least allowed divorce cases to be heard in the courts, rather than allowing an Act of Parliament, even though there was a double standard when it came to adultery – men could divorce their wives for that alone, while women required an additional cause such as desertion, which continued until 1923.
Not just a narrative history, Lewis also draws some broader lessons from her accounts, some of considerable relevance to political campaigners on a wide range of issues today.
She notes that feminists’ victories are often downplayed, because the causes they fight for like equal pay or an Equalities Act come to be seen as common sense, as if the victories were an inevitable part of the march of history. Referring to Barbara Castle and Harriet Harman, Lewis says “women are battle axes and harridans when they are pushing for change, then irrelevant old biddies, or soft-focus saints, once they’ve achieved it”. I’m often to be found extorting campaigners for environmental and social justice to claim their victories, to celebrate wins and use them to demonstrate how campaigning works. Otherwise, as Lewis said, it can be too easily written out of public memory.
And as the title of the book suggests, Lewis also makes a crucial point that to win important victories, to be leaders on crucial causes, individuals don’t have to be – and very often aren’t – some kind of saints, or “perfect” characters. All too often in politics, individuals doing good work become targets for their own “side” because of views that are uncomfortable, or inconsistent, or that they expressed in the past. Reading about Erin Pizzey, and some of the things she did and said while founding the first women’s refuge in Britain isn’t necessarily comfortable, but that doesn’t mean the pioneering should not be remembered.
Some might be a little sniffy about Lewis’ personal approach – she begins with her own divorce and how important it was to her – but that helps with the accessibility of the book. It does explain how these historic battles relate to lives today. And of course that brings up, again and again, how far we still have to go: reflecting on pioneering doctor Sophia Jex-Blake, Lewis notes how they didn’t just want to become doctors themselves, but to provide appropriate care to female patients that their male compatriots were not providing. More than a century later, Caroline Criado Perez recently had to point out how much research was about men’s lives and bodies, ignoring and endangering women in Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men.
Yes this may be popular history, but it is history that can inform, inspire and help today’s campaigning. Lewis draws parallels between contemporary stereotypes of the Greenham Women as contradictorarily “burly lesbians” and “fey Tinkerbells” and the abuse suffered today by Mary Beard, who Lewis heard say how she was often described as “old, clapped out and obsolete”, while on the same platform journalist Laurie Penny noted she was dismissed as “young, naïve and stupid”.
That women in politics have always suffered is not perhaps a comfort, but makes it far easier to realise that critics will find something to attack in an individual if they don’t like the message: try not to let it get to you.