Prime Minister Theresa May was once publicly referred to as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ by one of her own MPs, Kenneth Clarke. May revelled in it and used the label to raise her feminist credentials. But the more I read about ‘difficult women,’ the more I think May was undeserving of the accolade. Her brief time at No. 10 Downing Street left many of us wondering about her competence as she fumbled her way through Brexit negotiations that left all sides unhappy.
In Helen Lewis’s book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, the author looks at the lives of 19th and 20th century women who were judged as difficult women, but who were clearly breaking barriers, often risking their lives and destroying their and their families’ reputations. These stories make Theresa May look like a lightweight, if not a fraud among difficult women.
Among Lewis’s choices are the many little-known suffragettes, who spent years in prison for rioting, and women who weren’t allowed in universities, but having been accepted went anyway – with sympathetic male escorts. Lewis also writes about Marie Stopes, who was a palaeobotanist and campaigner for women’s right, perhaps best known for her book on the female body Married Love (1918), and for being the founder of Britain’s first birth control clinic. To Lewis’s credit, she points out that Stopes wasn’t a complete inspirational heroine. Stopes was a gushing admirer of Adolph Hitler, going so far to send him some of her love poems, and she was a strong advocate for eugenics. Lewis writes about her because she was complicated and because women’s histories tend to be selective in our modern search for feel-good role models and pioneers.
Bringing this topic back into the 21st century, I did a search on ‘difficult woman’ in the News on the Web Corpus of some 14 billion plus words, mostly from written language but including news transcripts. The Kenneth Clarke quote loomed large. Other women referred to as ‘difficult’ were Winnie Mandela, Megan Markle and Patti Smith, along with many people’s mothers. I did another search looking for occurrences of ‘difficult man’ in the news corpus. I expected to find fewer occurrences of ‘difficult man’ than ‘difficult woman,’ but the opposite was true. ‘Difficult man’ occurred 20% more frequently than ‘difficult woman.’ Why is this? I suspect, first of all, it’s because men are more likely than women to appear in the news. Examining the contexts of these occurrences more closely, I noticed that ‘difficult’ was often used to label the woman as if she belongs to a type of woman that didn’t need any further explaining. That’s who she is, and our culture understands what that means. Difficult man often appeared in phrases such as ‘a difficult man to pin down’ and ‘a difficult man to track down’ – the busy, important man – and in sports contexts, ‘a difficult man to mark’ and ‘a difficult man to stop’ – the heroes of the male-dominated sports news (oh, don’t get me started on that one – the lack of coverage of women’s sports).
Writing about this topic probably makes me a difficult woman. With this in mind, I’ll close with a quote from Helen Lewis: ‘Being a feminist unavoidably involves being a killjoy, because it involves puncturing the cosy bubble of consensus. That’s difficult, and it can make you seem difficult for doing it.’