Review: How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This is something of a review-with-a-difference. Every so often, I do enjoy a foray into the world of non-fiction. And periodically this is reflected on The Book Habit. Today is one of those days. I have talked before about my general avoidance of all pleasure reading that intersects with my studies. Spending 9-5, 5 days a week, immersed in the world of human rights, I am generally keen for my free time to be as removed from this field as possible. Every so often, however, some deviation from this rule is required. Although my academic focus is not particularly related to the world of women’s rights, this is an area in which I have developed a notable passion. My awareness of Caitlin Moran, one of the world’s most forward-thinking feminists, was the result of my time as the Research and Campaigning Intern at women’s rights organisation, Equality Now. I have subsequently followed her work with dedication – her weekly columns for The Times are the few non-Guardian news pieces that I will read. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I finally got the opportunity to read her best-selling memoir/feminist masterpiece How To Be a Woman.

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 percent of British women – I used to think, What do you this feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all of that shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”

How To Be a Woman marked Caitlin Moran’s ascension into the hearts of women throughout the UK. Already established as a celebrated journalist and critic, this exploration of Moran’s feminist outlook also makes for an exceptionally hilarious autobiography. The book follows Moran through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, as she learns what it is to be a woman in the modern world. Moran is uncompromising in outlining her view of the female experience and her vision of feminism as something that should occupy everyone. For Moran, feminism is not a matter of gender division, but is rather a concern for the entire human community:

“After all, you can argue – argue until you cry – about what modern, codified misogyny is; but straight-up ungentlemanliness, of the kind his mother would clatter the back of his head for, is inarguable. It doesn’t need to be a ‘man vs woman’ thing. It’s just a tiff between The Guys. Seeing the whole world as ‘The Guys’ is important. The idea that we’re all, at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along, is the basic alpha and omega of my world view. I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘antimen’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’.”

Moran’s work is unapologetic. And How To Be a Woman is the sort of book that will cause many an argument. Yet it is, I believe, exactly these kinds of tense discussions that Moran is hoping to inspire. Her work challenges the notion that feminism is a concept consigned to the realms of history (beginning and ending with Emily Davison’s ill-fated activism at the Epsom Derby) or restricted to the Germaine Greer’s of the world. For many, the book will undoubtedly be difficult to swallow. It is vocal, with a faultless logic that will raise heckles. But Moran’s outlook is fundamentally sensitive – sensitive to the demands of a peaceful and inclusive global community, and sensitive to the ongoing inequality facing women world-wide. How To Be a Woman is a truly poignant reflection on the personal difficulties associated with growing up female. And its insights make it a valuable educational tool for both males and females.

“But the problem with battling yourself is that even if you win, you lose. At some point – scarred and exhausted – you either accept that you must become a woman – that you are a woman – or you die. This is the brutal, root truth of adolescence – that it is often a long, painful campaign of attrition. Those self-harming girls, with the latticework of razor cuts on their arms and thighs, are just reminding themselves that their body is a battlefield. If you don’t have the stomach for razors, a tattoo will do, or even just the lightning snap of the earring gun in Claire’s Accessories. There. There you are. You have just dropped a marker pen on your body, to reclaim yourself, to remind you where you are: inside yourself. Somewhere. Somewhere in there.”

I don’t believe that it would be possible for any woman to read Moran’s book without feeling a mixture of comfort, consolation, and sadness. It points to a commonality of experience that is both reassuring and extremely troubling. That women in the world’s most ‘progressive’ countries continue to face daily battles for equality is unbelievably worrying. But it is vital that this disparity be acknowledged. Moran’s contribution to this realisation is irreplaceable and highly necessary. How To Be a Woman reads as an extremely accessible memoir – easy and consistently hilarious. Superficially simple, it is actually a complex exploration of contemporary issues. It asks the questions that are so easily ignored. And, whether the reader finds herself in easy agreement with Moran or not, it challenges acceptance of contemporary standards. Brash and bold, this book has provoked both celebration and dissent. In all reactions, however, there is a recognition that something is fundamentally amiss in the way that society treats women. For this reason, How To Be a Woman should be read by all.

“What is feminism? Simply the belief that woman should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”


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