With provocative images, words, and language, Caitlin Moran advances her feminist agenda in what is clearly a prescriptive book, “How to be a woman”. Some people in my book club were not amused; perhaps by the crude language. But let’s face it; would you rather have yet another preachy feminist book or a sarcastic, sardonic, witty, and funny one?
The book is part memoir and is interspersed with her own experiences of growing up in a crowded home, with five younger siblings. A home so crowded that Moran concludes that it is “far more sensible and much quicker to cry alone” about all the issues accompanying “growing pains”, as she grows from a girl to a woman. When it comes to subjects concerning women, Moran tackles them all, controversial, provocative, and seemingly superficial; from teenage angst, obsession with the body, sex, love, work, motherhood, cosmetic interventions, and yes also birth control and abortion.
Regarding the teenage angst of discovering hair growing in odd, inconvenient places and the pain and cost of waxing, she says, “we’ve got to a point where it’s basically costing us money to have a vagina”; and panties and thongs that are constantly getting skimpier and more inconvenient, they “should be bombed back to the stone age”. With the same fervor, she tackles uncomfortable, bad for the legs, high heeled shoes and dozens of highly expensive brand name handbags that women must have. As for clothes, Moran says, “women are judged on what they wear in a way men would find incomprehensible”. “Normal women buy clothes to make them look good; whereas the fashion industry buys models to make the clothes look good”, says Moran.
And then there are deeper societal issues. Sexism, she says, used to be overt and everywhere. Now there is subtle sexism and it is more pernicious and damaging because there is an “element of doubt involved”. And if you previously did not know it, by the time you read her account, you will be convinced that pregnancy and childbirth are not for the faint of the heart.
Recounting her own experience, Moran says, “My water is unbroken – they break it with a crochet hook. My contractions have stopped — they jump start them with a pessary. My cervix is unyielding — painfully, they sweep it, just as a contraction starts. It is a sensation a little like being diced, internally, at the start of a slow murder”. This is just a start of the description of her difficult childbirth process, during the birth of her first child. I will skip more gory details here. However, speaking in favor of motherhood, Moran says, “once you have experienced that level of pain, the rest of your life becomes easy. However awful an experience, it’s really not wasted”. Moreover, if you do get mentored in a women friendly environment and can use the magic of gravity then the task of child birthing becomes “simple, amazingly simple”!
Regarding child rearing, Moran says, “the sheer emotional, intellectual, physical, chemical pleasure” of children, being “high on ridiculous love” is “awe-inspiring”. “It’s like being mugged by Cupid”, she says. But Moran does not shy away from saying that for all women and at all times, this may not be the most appropriate vocation. She says, “Our view of motherhood is still so idealized and misty — Mother, gentle giver of life — that the thought of a mother subsequently setting limits on her capacity to nurture and refusing to give further life seems obscene”. In fact, Moran candidly shares her own moment of decision, when abortion was just the right choice, in her life. She says, “the stakes are far, far too high. I can’t agree with a society that would force me to bet on how much I could love under duress”.
“How to be a Woman” takes a stand against sexism, without being moralistic and without apologies. From provocative observations of women’s lives, from the impact of wearing high heeled shoes to getting Brazilians, to being pressured into having an unwanted child, Moran weaves a narrative of what it means to be a woman, in a society where sexism exists. And in doing so, Moran reclaims the word “feminism”.