Difficult Women – Helen Lewis at the Aye Write Festival, Mitchell Library Glasgow, 20th May 2022

I would say I’m a pretty Difficult Woman. I’m sure most of you who know me would agree. Luckily, this has gone from being an insult to a badge of honour, in no small part due to Helen Lewis‘ book of that name. “Difficult Women, A History of Feminism in 11 Fights” is pretty much what it says it is. Political and legislative change in British history told through the stories of the women who made it happen. What makes Lewis’ book different from a textbook or a pop social history book is that she delves deeper into the lives, beliefs and actions of the women, discussing their shortcomings as well as their victories, their flaws as well as their virtues. I read it earlier this year and when I saw that she was due to appear as part of the “Aye Write” book festival in Glasgow (can we just take a moment to appreciate the genius of that name?) I decided to go along and hear her speak about it.

Unfortunately the friend I was due to go with had to cancel last minute due to illness, so I headed in on my own. I tried to time my entrance to arrive just at the start so I wouldn’t have to mingle or look too much like a lonely loser. It was all going well until a staff member sent me to the wrong event, I had to navigate back up the various floors and sections of the labyrinthine Mitchell Library and ended up getting to the door just as Helen Lewis was being introduced. My attempts to subtly take a seat in the back row while quietly taking off my coat were thwarted by a steward who asked, “Are you here on your own?” and requested that I move to make room for others who might arrive later. Others, presumably, with friends or partners who would want to sit together while I, Nora No-mates was just in the way. There should be a dating type app for folk who want to go to these events on their own. Maybe I’ll invent it and capitalise on my loneliness (more on that here), lemons and lemonade and all that. Anyway, I digress…

It was an interview-type affair with the host asking a series of questions which Lewis answered at length, often straying from the topic of the question or referring to other relevant matters so it felt more like a solo talk than an interview. The questions provided some structure but they weren’t strictly necessary as Lewis has a lot to say on a lot of issues and I’m sure we would all have been happy to just listen to whatever she wanted to discuss.

Helen Lewis speaks as she writes – direct, to the point and with well-researched facts liberally strewn throughout. She is eloquent and quick and funny. She writes in the kind of style that I aspire to, in fact listening to her made me almost regret not pursuing journalism as a career as I once aimed to. Ironically it was sexism and insane competition in the profession that put me off back then, but that is history without any fights. I wasn’t a fully-fledged Difficult Woman back then.

After an interesting and entertaining 45 minutes or so, it was opened up to the audience to ask a few questions. Sadly the event only lasted an hour, we could easily have gone for twice that I’m sure. Afterwards the author was at a table selling books and signing them so I queued up, purchased a paperback copy and waited my turn. I got the book signed with a personal dedication which was nice, and had a brief chat with Lewis. I told her that I already had a copy on kindle, but that I wanted a one on a shelf in my house so that my kids might pick it up one day and have a browse. We had a brief chat about the importance of teenagers today knowing about feminism, then it was time to go.

I do worry about the future of feminism. My eldest is coming up for 13 and while that age group do seem to have a strong sense of justice and equality, there is a feeling among them that feminism is a fight that has been won already. They see it as something that is part of history, not relevant to their present or future. I can see why – when I was at school girls had to wear skirts, we were segregated in PE into hockey for girls and football for boys and only girls got taught sewing. My kids won’t experience that, thankfully. They have LGBT+ clubs and gender-neutral toilets and all their tv programmes have an ethnically diverse cast. Yet the world still won’t treat them equally or fairly. They are going to need feminism and perhaps feminism will need them. The way things are going in the world just now we need as many Difficult Women as possible, not just creating hashtags and participating in social media campaigns but in protecting our legislative and constitutional rights. I hope that in 50 or 100 years time there are 11 more, in fact 50 more fights to write another book about. I hope feminism moves us all forward, that our young people take up the reigns and do revolutionary, amazing things with it.

There were several other events on in the Library and as I made my way out I saw a pile of Val McDermid’s new book on a table. I remembered that I’d bought it a wee while ago and made a mental note to read it asap. Then I saw the actual Val McDermid sitting at a table signing her book. As much as I would have loved to meet her I’m not sure she would have waited for me to run home to fetch my copy. I could have chanced my arm and asked her to sign Difficult Women, I’m sure she’d be delighted to be in the Difficult Women club. All the best ones are.

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