Ain't I a Woman?

I first heard of Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman reading British papers online; it was probably The Guardian tipped me off first. At some point I realised she's the woman who wrote that amazing Lady Gaga article (you can’t get to it on The Times unfortunately: pay-wall). The accolades and press for How to be a Woman began mounting, overseas. Yet North America seemed to take no notice. It wasn't even listed on any of the usual online shopping sites, the library didn't show any record either. Finally, I just gave up. In conversation with a friend last month, however, I learned that the Toronto Public Library had come through. (You can't buy a copy in Canada until May, apparently. Score one for the TPL!).

What you need to know about the mood and message of How to be a Woman is summed up pretty well in this quote:
In the same way that you can tell if some sexism is happening to you by asking the question 'Is this polite, or not?', you can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly inquiring, 'And are the men doing this, as well?'
If they aren't chances are you're dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as 'some total fucking bullshit.'
Moran's not shy about being a feminist, she’s a smart, talented writer, and she's funny as hell.
Frankly, more books need to exist that fall under this designation.

If you've spent more than one semester in a Women's Studies class, you won't find anything new or mind-blowing here. And if that's the case, you should approach this book as I did, more like a funny biography of an interesting character — a bit like Bossypants, but far more explicit about its pro-feminist agenda. And there certainly is an agenda here.
What I AM going to urge you to do, however, is say 'I am a feminist.' For preference, I would like you to stand on a chair and shout 'I AM A FEMINIST' — but this is simply because I believe everything is more exciting if you stand on a chair to do it
Moran wants the reader to know that feminism isn't scary, strident is a good word, and that all the shit that society proscribes for women is actually very, very difficult for most to figure out, let alone attain.

I certainly don't agree with everything Moran says, but not in a “this makes me angry” sort of way. More that I can respect and appreciate her approach, but I can’t reconcile it with my life or experience. For the most part, however, she's certainly willing to be more radical and second-wave-y than your average humorist or memoirist, and I really like that. For one, she really, really likes Germaine Greer (I was never able to make it a third of a way through The Female Eunuch though I should try again, probably). By way of another example, she's able to make the distinction between the empowering aspects of burlesque and pole-dancing classes, and strip-clubs which are decidedly the opposite.
But what are strip clubs if not 'light entertainment' versions of the entire history of misogyny?*

At some point I thought we were going to get into a bad area, when I read the chapter entitled "Why You Should Have Children," but Moran smartly follows this with "Why You Shouldn't Have Children." After all this talk of children, Moran bravely recounts her abortion. I say "bravely" because, as Moran notes, a lot of women won't admit to having had one. After writing about it in The Times, Moran received
a wonderful letter from a well-known feminist columnist who said that, although she had written about abortion many, many times, she had never mentioned her own termination.
'I always feared what would happen if I did. I presumed no one would forgive me. I thought it would — somehow — invalidate my argument.'
Moran's abortion was not done when she was a teenager, or a rape-victim, or any of those "acceptable" reasons for having an abortion, but as a mother of two already (mothers being a demographic I suspect are likely a surprising percentage of those seeking abortions).
A raped teenage girl seeking an abortion — or a mother whose life is endangered by the pregnancy is having a 'good' abortion. She still won't discuss it publicly, or expect her friends to be happy for her, but these women get away with barely any stigmatisation. [I suppose that depends on the company you keep.]
She makes no apologies for her decision and doesn't sugar-coat the experience. It's important she do this, she says, because it's the silence around abortion that lets others create the agenda for us, turn it into a "debate" instead of a real, common event that happens to real people. I actually had short email conversation with Katha Pollitt (!) about this once, how incredibly important it is that we be honest about our abortions, how the women who have had them need to speak up, and say that it's not the end of the world, that many of us have no regrets. Moran, too, has never once doubted that she did the right thing.

Finally, Moran talks about aging. The woman on the cover of How to be a Woman is, I suspect, a woman who said "no" to having all her wrinkles Photoshopped away. There are lines on that face, lines befitting a 35-year-old woman; no more no less. Being a down-to-earth saucy feminist, she is pretty much against — and somewhat confused by — plastic surgery (as she is against high-heels and other seemingly strange feminine frippery). In theory, of course, I agree with her. But she's also got a husband who, after one miscarriage, two kids, and one abortion, said to her "It seems wildly unfair that, for us to reproduce, you have to go through all this ... shit." (Did you swoon a little bit? Because I did when I read it.) I mean, for all she rightly rails against the Princess myth, hasn't she got a Prince Charming right there? For those of us who feel more insecure about relationships, or our ability to sustain them (as a child-free person, I always have a small patch of anxiety that says he'll leave me for a younger, bouncier breeder one day**), aging is fucking terrifying. It's all well and good in theory to say that "[l]ines are your weapons against idiots. Lines are your 'KEEP AWAY FROM THE WISE INTOLERANT WOMAN' sign." But for a good many of us, having anything on our face that says "Keep Away" can lead to a scary life alone. Or maybe that's just me. (I don't think it's just me.) This final chapter is really a show of how confident Caitlin Moran is, in her relationship and her life in general. No, she says, she doesn't have everything figured out, she's not perfect, but she's come a long way, and exists in an emotional place that is worth fighting for. This, of course, is what feminism should be doing for us; giving us the nerve to go with the wrinkles, to have control over our reproductive destiny, and to stand on the chair and say "I'm a feminist." For all that, I still want my Restylane.

*I have always felt uneasy when female friends have gone to strip clubs targeted at men, feeling like they're inherently supporting the objectification we're trying to get away from. I struggle with my thoughts about sex work a lot, but I usually boil it down to: I am pro sex-worker, but I can't be pro sex-work. It's always going to feel like commodified misogyny to me. While there are women, lots of women, who "willingly" enter into sex work, I always wonder if there were other options available, ones that paid as well or better, how many would still choose it? As Moran says
Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women, who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university... If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenage students are really notably not — then that's a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going
Having never been in the sex-work industry, I could be totally talking out my ass here, and I don't presume to speak for any sex-worker. I absolutely welcome opinions more formed and educated than mine on this matter.

**Trust me, I get that thinking is just as crap as the people who think I'll regret getting my tubes tied "one day." It's irrational and insecure and I cop to that. Doesn't mean it doesn't live in my head like a low-grade hum.


Anonymous said...

Cool perspective! I have another friend who finished this book recently and thought well of it, so when this article popped up in my feed I was looking forward to your thoughts on it!

As for admitting those irrational worries at the back of the brain … I think that’s pretty brave, and you’ll get nothing but respect from me for doing that. We all have such thoughts; it’s part of being human. Insecurity and irrationality go hand in hand with our capacity for wit and whimsy. What matters is not allowing such thoughts to consume one’s life.

Kerry Clare said...

Oh, I think I have to read this. Nice review.