Helen Lewis (Newspaper Journalism, 2005) was a part of an exceptionally talented year of graduates from City’s Journalism Department. Helen went on to follow her passion for Journalism immediately after graduating and was successful in securing a trainee position with Daily Mail. Although it was difficult to go through a series of placements around the country Helen’s talent was considerable and soon she found success as a Journalist.
Having written about feminism for nearly a decade, Helen has now addressed it in a more considered and substantial way in her first book Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights, now available for pre-order and releasing fully on Thursday 27th February. In the blog below you can get a glimpse of the difficulties and rewarding moments Helen experienced while writing the book as well as read of her starting years in City.
Can you tell me about your time at City?
It’s probably a bad reflection on my character that my most vivid memory of City is the horror of 9am shorthand classes, and therefore the inevitable rush hour interchange at London Bridge. It was a strong incentive to reach 100 words per minute as quickly as possible. My class included some great journalists, such as Alan White of Buzzfeed, Damon Wake of AFP, Sarah Weaver of the BBC and Devika Bhat, now at the Guardian. It’s weird to see their tweets and articles – Devika wrote an incredibly moving piece about miscarriage recently – and realise I’ve known them for more than a decade.
What happened after you graduated?
I got a place on the Daily Mail’s subbing trainee scheme, alongside another couple of people from the postgraduate course. That was reassuring as our training year involved a series of placements around the country, starting in the small village of Howden in Yorkshire. Going to City definitely helped me get that job – Linda Christmas, who ran the course at the time, was renowned as a talent-spotter, and so you came with a “pre-vetted” stamp – and to be prepared for a year living out of a suitcase.
Tell us about your most recent achievement?
I’ve just published my first book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, with Jonathan Cape. It’s the result of nearly a decade of writing about feminism, and more than a year’s research into the specific women I have written about. After returning repeatedly to the subject in columns and features, it felt good to address it in a more considered, substantial way. The thread through it is the idea of “difficulty” – both the struggle to make social change, and the qualities you need to achieve it. As I write in the book, “most revolutionaries are not . . . nice”. The Suffragettes conducted an arson campaign. The “strikers in saris” of the 1970s picketed factories and were accused of fomenting civil unrest. I finish with the story of three older women in Derry who bought abortion drugs off the internet and essentially dared the government to imprison them. You don’t get change by asking politely.
Through your research for the book, what has been the most rewarding experience?
Meeting and talking to some of the forgotten icons of the Second Wave of feminism, from Erin Pizzey – founder of the first women’s refuge in Britain – to Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly lesbian MP at Westminster. These were tough, complicated women and trying to present their stories in all their complexity was quite an undertaking.
What has been the most challenging experience?
Trying to marshall so much information into a 350-page book was always going to be tricky. I haven’t written anything like a comprehensive history of feminism, and my own biases inevitably show through: it is easier to write about women who left behind memoirs or gave evidence to public inquiries. It’s easier to study the letters of middle and upper-class Suffragettes than someone like Annie Kenney, who left school at 11 to work in a mill. I’ve ended up with a very personal, imperfect, quirky history of feminism, and I hope people embrace that.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Write as much as you can. It’s too easy to get stage fright when writing because every sentence is not coming out like Shakespeare. But the initial draft is just a starting point. Writing a book meant paying much more attention to structure than you would for a column or feature, so I would advise anyone contemplating a book to sketch out the idea thoroughly first. You can stop for digressions along the way, but you need to know what your end-point is, or it risks being a pointless ramble.
Thank you to Helen for sharing her story!
Signed copies of Difficult Women are available from Waterstones!