Navigating contradictions: non-Fiction Storytelling in Helen Lewis’ Difficult Women

By grace carroll: Literature Columnist

Being a feminist in the 21st Century is very stressful. The political discourse can often feel, in a word, difficult, where the perceptive mind must weave through a myriad of different definitions, linguistic shifts and ideological intricacies.

Often this can feel like a new phenomenon, exacerbated by the age of the internet and social media in particular. But Difficult Women, the latest book from prolific journalist Helen Lewis, teaches us that this minefield is a tale as old as time. Over the course of eleven chapters, Lewis weaves together the stories of myriad feminist figures in non-fiction prose that often reads like an epic poem. By drawing together the conflicting lives and views of these difficult women through their contradictions, we get a sense of what feminism is as a whole – and why it must always be difficult.

Each chapter of Difficult Women begins with a bang, the opening note of a big band swing number, getting the reader fired up for the story to come. Be it the chapter on ‘Play’, which begins with the punchy quotation ‘’She had a kick like a mule’’, or the enigmatic opening to ‘Education’ – ‘it’s the sheep that makes the protest feel really insulting’ – Lewis presents feminist history as the exciting, dark and frequently bombastic story that it is. Rather than focusing on just one woman per chapter, Lewis paints a more complete picture of feminism by exploring its internal contradictions, surveying the issues through the eyes of many difficult women across time and space. The best example of this ‘non-fiction storytelling’ style comes in chapter 2, ‘The Vote’, which takes an ambitious swing at viewing the British suffragist movement from a myriad of different angles. The chapter begins with a focus on Annie Kenney, who is introduced the way a host might introduce the next act in a variety show:

‘If you have heard of the suffragettes, you will probably have heard of Christabel Pankhurst. But for now, it is the figure sitting next to her who should interest us […] She is the fifth of eleven children, born to a family of Lancashire mill workers.

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She was no great shakes in school, which she only attended for a few years. Her strong northern accent separates her from the genteel Pankhursts, and later in life she will become anxious that she has become caricatured because of it. […] meet Annie Kenney.’

After setting Kenney up as the hero of the piece, Lewis quite quickly introduces another difficult woman, who in many ways could not be more different: ‘Lady Con’ is described as aristocratic, upper class and privileged, establishing what is to become a running theme of this chapter – class conflict within the suffragist movement. By switching almost seamlessly between accounts of Lady Con’s activism – which included using her power and privilege to publicly uncover the horrific realities of force feeding practises in prisons – and Annie Kenney’s more militant tactics, Lewis accurately presents the suffragist movement through a story of different interconnected elements and independent agents working towards a series of goals. In doing so, Lewis draws the reader’s attention to the complexity of feminist history, whilst delivering this information in a gripping narrative style.

This gives you just a taste of what can only be described as a landmark text in both feminist history and non-fiction storytelling. Any group of people working together towards a common goal will inevitably encounter internal conflict, and too often cultural narratives of activist movements tend to gloss over these contradictions in order to present a more cohesive story. But we all know that the best stories aren’t always neatly packaged and tied with a bow: they are messy and multifaceted, with complex characters that reflect real people. Stories are the way in which we understand the world in all its complexity, and if more histories were told in the style of Difficult Women, political discourse would be all the richer for it.

MACKAYAN: difficult women