I have a new best friend, a new girl crush, a new hero. You must, you must, you must, you MUST read this book. I don’t care if you’re a dude or a lady.
Up until college, I emphatically and uncaringly said I was a feminist. I was down with women’s rights and the vote, ergo: Feminist. Done. Simple. And then one day in the cafe outside the university’s theater, while we were all blearily caffeinating ourselves, I said something scathing about a new women’s group on campus that was for-traditional-values-anti-women’s-liberation or something and had written a soul-crushingly stupid and self-righteously-irritating editorial in the college newspaper about A Woman’s Place Being in the Home, and the talented, intelligent, funny, and lovely woman waiting for her caffeine drip with me quietly and firmly said “I don’t consider myself a feminist.”
I literally gaped at her, stunned into silence. I had assumed anyone in this day and age who claimed to be anti-feminist was just a wing-nut, ignorant and backwards and embarrassing. All women, surely, were feminists; how could they not be? Equal rights and opportunities for all of humanity: that’s what feminism was about, right? So when I heard this talented, intelligent, funny, and lovely woman say with a hint of pride that she wasn’t a feminist, I shut up and started looking around and listening.
Wow. How had I missed this? “Feminism” had been slandered with “Feminazism”, which is seriously just the most horrible thing you could say to someone asking for a bit of respect, and also for, perhaps, the same salary as her male colleague. Seriously, tell me again how I’m a Nazi for wanting my female physician whom I trust with my reproductive health and consequently the fate of humanity to be paid the same as her male co-workers. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
But even though part of me knew these stupid and lazy and vile attacks on feminism were just that, the sheer, insidious persistence of the comments and attacks started to wear me down. I stopped blithely assuming that everyone was a feminist. I started trying to modulate my opinions to make sure I didn’t offend anyone, or worse, invite sarcastic, withering comment. Sexism is still alive in this 21st century first-world nation, but it’s sneakier and meaner. We’re all supposed to laugh and joke about it, and if we get offended, we’re the horrible people (Nazis, anyone?) who simply can’t take a joke. If we feel rattled or unnerved or upset, it’s our problem.
Enter Caitlin Moran, whom I want to buy 500 drinks and get to be my friend.
How to Be a Woman is part memoir, part manifesto, part primer, part ode. She talks about her unconventional-to-put-it-lightly childhood (she was a journalist at a music magazine at 16 and briefly a TV presenter at 18), hitting all the high notes of being a woman in each charmingly titled chapter:
“I Start Bleeding!”
“I Become Furry!”
“I Don’t Know What to Call My Breasts!”
“I am a Feminist!”
“I Need a Bra!”
“I Am Fat!”
“I Encounter Some Sexism!”
“I Am in Love!”
“I Go Lap-Dancing!”
“I Get Married!”
“I Get into Fashion!”
“Why You Should Have Children”
“Why You Shouldn’t Have Children”
“Role Models and What We Do with Them”
I mean, yep. Those are the things we have to deal with, as women.
The underwear chapter. I . . . I seriously think I am in love with this woman. On one page she lays out so perfectly how fun, lovely, luscious, sexy, and satisfying the best underwear can be, and how it can just make you feel so freaking GREAT about being a WOMAN. And then on the next page she tells a story about a friend of hers suffering from too-tiny knickers that I will not spoil for you, but which made me gasp, clutch my Kindle to my chest, and shake in silent, full-body, hysterical laughter for the entirety of the A-train stretch from 125th St. to 59th St. Her lovesong to her bras is the song in my heart.
She talks about what we read in magazines. How we went from Riot grrrl to the Pussycat Dolls. What it’s like to go to a German bar/sex club with Lady Gaga and have Gaga march up to the bar to order everyone’s drinks for them. How the next day the tabloids crow “Gaga Insiders Fear For Her Health!,” when Caitlin and the five-odd members of Gaga’s party that night recall only sheer, delighted happiness and fun. How her editor instructs her to call Kylie Minogue back after an interview and ask Minogue when she thinks she’ll have children. How she (Caitlin, not Kylie) decided to have children. How women are made to feel about children:
No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer and crippled by it. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Newton, Faraday, Plato, Aquinas, Beethoven, Handel, Kant, Hume. Jesus. They all seem to have managed quite well . . . Batman doesn’t want a baby in order to feel he’s “done everything.” He’s just saved Gotham again!
How she decided to have an abortion. How she feels about strip clubs (spoiler: not great). How she feels about pole dancing classes (spoiler: great– “Any action a woman engages in from a spirit of joy, and within a similarly safe and joyous environment, falls within the city walls of feminism. A girl has a right to dance how she wants, when her favorite record comes on.”) How she fell in love with her husband. How she gave birth. How she reacts to tabloid photos:
We’ve become so conditioned to the tabloid view of female appearance that even the most hard core feminists might find themselves having the trigger reaction of “Jesus, Winslet– your hair looked better when you were going down with 1,517 souls on the Titanic. Run a brush through it, love”–before they suddenly come round and shout up to the heavens, “DEAR LORD! WHAT have I BECOME?”
I felt simultaneously empowered and enlightened reading this book, which is pretty much the opposite of how I feel reading, say, InStyle, or even watching Sex and the City. These things make me wonder if I’m living in a different world than everyone else, and if I’m doing everything wrong. For me, feminism isn’t about “I get to do whatever the hell I want, and I love shoes!” It’s not about “Women are better than men, and men are hapless lumbering morons, and women should rise up and seize power.” It’s not even about “I must support all women, because I am a woman, and to criticize is WRONG.” For me, feminism is about “I am treated the same as everyone else. If I am an asshole, I will be treated like an asshole. If I am not an asshole and am good at my job, applying for a small business loan, going to a doctor, called to minister, or applying for health insurance, I will be treated as fairly as everyone else.” Caitlin’s phrase is “One of the Guys.” If you find yourself thinking “‘Hang on–I’VE JUST HAD SOME SEXISM THROWN AT ME. THAT WAS SOME SEXISM!”‘ she suggests confirming it by asking yourself if it would be socially acceptable for a guy to treat another guy the way he just treated you. If you were not treated as just One of the Guys, then you weren’t treated right. She says,
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 worldview. I’m neither “pro-women” nor “anti-men.” I’m just “Thumbs up for the six billion.”
This is how I feel when someone snarls at me “Oh, sorry, I didn’t hold the door for you, because I know you’re a feminist and would’ve bitten my head off.” Chivalry in this day and age gets to work both ways, folks, and it’s called MANNERS. If I see a dude wheeling a hand-truck full of cases of beer, or a woman carrying heavy groceries, or a couple struggling with kids and a stroller, I’m going to hold the door for them or step aside to give them room on the sidewalk, regardless of the fact that I’m a woman and the person on the receiving end of my chivalry might, gasp, be a man. If treating someone to dinner seems like it would be a friendly gesture or a welcome kindness, then by all means offer to treat that someone to dinner, regardless of gender. Feminism didn’t kill manners. Feminism demands them.
I’ve seen more than one article on some of my favorite women-oriented websites that offer to tell men what modern, savvy, forward-thinking women really want, and ALL of them say “Guys? Don’t give her flowers! Come on, then she has to put them in water! What a pain! And then they die! We don’t care about flowers!” And then I wail, “noooooo, GIVE ME ALL THE FLOWERS. Flowers, flowers, flowers for Sweets. I love me some flowers.” I LIKE certain domestic, traditionally woman-oriented things. I LIKE flowers and baking and pretty underwear and reading books. I also like pole dancing and earning my own paycheck and supporting myself and paying my own taxes and bills and not having children at this point in time, because guess what? I am (doubtlessly) an endlessly fascinating individual with my own mind and talents and shortcomings and strengths. It works both ways: Do I assume that all men loooove football and video games and hate the symphony? I don’t, because that would be ridiculous. I know many men who do like those things, and I know many who’d rather do other things. You MUST apply the same rules to women. We’re all different! Humanity is varied! Treat others as you would like to be treated! Thumbs up for the six billion, indeed! Let’s all be strident feminists!
How To Be a Woman
Harper Perennial, July 17, 2012 (U.S. edition)