Book Review: 'How to be a Woman' by Caitlin Moran

The first time I ever heard Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be A Woman’ mentioned was in the postscript of Holly Bourne’s ‘Am I Normal Yet?’ – the book that was my gateway into feminism. It was funny and relatable to me as a young teenager, and managed to deal with the delicate topics of mental illness and misogyny in a way that kept me turning pages. Bourne says that Moran’s work ‘really did change [her] life’ in regards to feminism, so I was super excited to read it when I found it in a bookstore. Yet, it turned out to be different from what I was expecting. 

Image of Caitlin Moran. She has long dark hair with a blonde area near the top of her head. She is wearing a red and blue button up flannel shirt. 

Being a woman who grew up in the 2000s, I found it difficult to relate to Moran’s 1980s childhood, and found more similarities in Bourne’s books which I loved. Moran argues that humour is necessary for dealing with feminism, which I agree with, and the jokey tone certainly comes through. The complete openness when it comes to talking about sex, porn and pubic hair is definitely a breakthrough in feminist literature. Conversations about these topics need to be normalised and Moran does not hold back.

The structure of the book is simple: there are 16 chapters, each dealing with a different problem that women encounter chronologically through the course of their lives. She gives anecdotes about her own experiences with these problems, then gives her opinion. For example, Chapter 10 is entitled ‘I Get Married!’. She gives five reasons why she thinks weddings are a sham, and backs up her points with an anecdote, including the story of her own wedding. Her points are valid. Weddings are way too expensive and hyped-up, and a room full of everyone you love can only end in disaster.

Moran had several very interesting theories throughout the book. She describes feminism as ‘broken windows’, with the idea that if one window is broken in a house, people are more likely to break the other windows. She argues that misogyny takes the form of thousands of micro aggressions, and the more broken windows there are, the more this can build into bigger problems like rape and large-scale inequality. Her argument that the hiring of domestic help is not women oppressing other women completely swayed me, because, as Moran puts it, “WOMEN DID NOT INVENT DUST. THE STICKY RESIDUE THAT COLLECTS ON THE KETTLE DOES NOT COME OUT OF WOMEN’S VAGINAS… AND IT IS NOT MY TITS THAT HAVE SKEWED THE GLOBAL ECONOMY TOWARDS DOMESTIC WORK FOR WOMEN.”

Societal opinions surrounding strippers and sex workers are incredibly complex, and Moran tackles this in a way that I find I can fully agree with after being on the fence for a long time. My instincts told me to be wary of the strippers that say they do it for their own enjoyment, because they paint a positive picture of stripping and sex work, a career that encourages human trafficking and the predation on vulnerable women. On the other hand, I advocate for women always having the right to choose, including in her line of work. But Moran sums up all my contradictory thoughts in two sentences: ‘I can’t believe that girls saying “Actually, I’m paying my university fees by stripping” is seen as some kind of righteous, empowered, end-of-argument statement on the ultimate morality of these places. 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.’ Finally, I understood what I had been thinking – this is something women are doing that men are not, and I believe that these differences in culture and opportunity drive wider sexism.

There were several points I felt I could not agree with Moran on at all. She accepts that Germaine Greer’s views on transgender women are unacceptable, but still puts this as ‘Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues!’ And of course, The Female Eunuch is a key feminist text, but I’m still not sure I could call someone that agrees with the oppression of another group ‘my heroine’ on a subject of equality. I skimmed past this idea the first time I read it, because as I’m not transgender I can’t directly relate, until I thought about it in a different way that allowed me to understand what it is that Moran’s comment was supporting. I am not white – so, what if Moran had said that Germaine Greer was her heroine even though she was a racist? I would’ve been furious, because I think it shows a complete insensitivity to the importance of solidarity of the oppressed. Therefore, how could I support someone who oppresses the LGBT+ community?

Another thing: Moran doesn’t see sexism as being ‘men vs woman’, but ‘winner vs loser’, and says that ‘as a sex, our achievements are modest to those of men’. What she fails to realise is, women have achieved in the past. They either weren’t acknowledged, or were stifled by rape and abuse, marriage or societal gender norms. Think about all the women who fought in Sparta! Mozart’s sister, Marianne, who was a child prodigy on the harpsichord but had to give up her career to get married! How Agnodice became the first female physician! The frequency with which I see articles written about women who had been erased from history is astounding. ‘History is written by the victors,’ as Winston Churchill said, so how can we believe that women were secondary in history when history was written by the men who only gained true control later on?

My overall uncomfortableness with this book was that Moran seemed to fit all feminists into one box, and argue that this is the sort of feminist we should all be. The problem is, I’m not like her – sex-obsessed and shouty – and just because I allow my feminism to manifest in different ways, it doesn’t make it less valid. We’re still all fighting for the same thing. I feel that although she was a great advocate of the sisterhood, this wasn’t a branch of feminism I could relate to with my current lack of life experience. 
Did the book teach me how to be a woman? In this day and age, with such rapid change and differences in age and culture, I don’t think there is any right way to be a woman. However, this was a funny and thought-provoking book, which I would recommend to any woman who needs a confident and self-assured voice teaching feminist lessons.

By Sana


'Am I normal yet?' by Holly Bourne - postscript


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