In 1981 the noted British sociologist Olive Banks published a work called Faces of Feminism: A Study of Feminism as a Social Movement which provided an overview of feminism from the 1840s up to the end of the 1970s. She identified three feminist traditions: the equal rights tradition of the Enlightenment, the moral impetus of evangelical Christianity and socialism of both the Utopian and Marxist varieties. This framework provided a useful background for the developments of second wave feminism although it was to become less useful as feminism began to fragment from the 1990s onwards. However, now we in the UK have another kid on the block presenting another face of feminism; she is Caitlin Moran and her call to feminism entitled How to be a Woman has been the surprise best seller of this summer. Moran has an interesting background: she is the oldest of eight children, was home educated in a council house in Wolverhampton, joined the music weekly Melody Maker as a journalist at the age of sixteen, was briefly a TV presenter at the age of eighteen and has subsequently put in a solid eighteen years as a columnist for The Times. She is therefore a seasoned media communicator who hasn’t (yet) learnt to keep her mouth shut about the kind of things that women have to go through. Thankfully, she has decided in this book to focus her intellect on making the case for feminism and its relevance to 21st century lives.
But the feminism that Moran advocates is not of the considered, careful-not-to-offend-anyone variety but a shouty strident feminism that dares anyone to disagree. The passion evoked reminds me of the heady days of the late 1970s when feminism was exciting as well as threatening, hopeful about the future as well as critical of the past. She uses her own experiences – of being fat as an adolescent, of masturbation, of getting breasts and ‘becoming furry’, of having her first period, of suffering sexual rejection and falling in love, of being married, having children and having an abortion – experiences that many of us have had but have rarely admitted to. She reminds us of the difficulty of naming ‘difficult’ sexualised parts of the body without sounding either prissy or slutty. All this provides the context for what she admits is a ‘rant’ about the need for young women (and men) to become strident feminists.
Her narrative begins at the age of thirteen, when she started to ask herself a huge number of questions about what it is like to be a woman. However she is not only interested in describing, often hilariously what is actually happening to her body or is expected to happen in her gendered fantasy world, but also what should and could change about being a woman. And here, feminism emerges. But Moran is critical of today’s feminism which she says has shrunk to ‘a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics read, would read , and discussed at 11pm on BBC4’ (p12) and that it is far too important to be restricted to this small group. For Moran who is irreverent and definitely not an academic though she acknowledges feminism’s history and influences, feminism is ‘serious, momentous and urgent’ but also thrilling and fun. For her, today’s feminism should include the popular stuff that concerns many women such as what to think of pornography, Lady Gaga, OK magazines, £600 handbags, hen nights and big weddings as well as the serious ‘big stuff’ such as pay inequality, female circumcision and domestic abuse. She wants zero tolerance of patriarchal bullshit, to look at it in the eye for a minute and to start laughing. Not quite the anticipated revolutionary behaviour of previous feminist waves – Moran reckons we’re on to our fifth wave which should therefore be relabelled as an ‘ongoing tide’ – but ground-breaking nonetheless.
So what does Moran’s feminism embrace? She urges her readers to stand on a chair and declare ‘I AM A FEMINIST’ (in capital letters) because if they cannot do this, she says, they are just bending over and saying ‘Kick my arse and take my vote, please, the patriarchy’ (p72). She reckons that previous centuries were poisonous to women, which is why so many were unhappy and full of self-loathing but women’s time has now come. She is particularly admiring of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch which she says is ‘scornful of any inherent bullshit’:
She [Greer] writes paragraphs like piano solos and her rendering of feminism is simple: everyone should be a bit like her…New; fast; free. Laughing, and fucking, and unafraid to call anyone out – from a boyfriend to the government – if they were stupid and wrong’ (p77)
And here lies the book’s strength and weakness. One suspects that Moran, like Greer, wants feminists to be like her – kick ass, fearless and up for it. Feminism is re-defined as the ability to act individually and to take on the world. Feminism is portrayed as attractive and empowering, fun and exciting, dare-devil and dangerous. It is no wonder that the book is walking off the shelves. But the downside is that there is little to feed the little grey cells about the whys and wherefores of female oppression; for example, on the role of capitalism in creating the demand for £600 handbags, on the relationship between male power and domestic abuse, and on why collective action and sisterhood have been seen as so important for modern feminism. But as a raddled, cynical, mostly second-wave feminist, I loved the book – for its readability (though enough with the capitals and exclamation marks already) energy, humour, shoutiness and most of all, hope. If you haven’t already done so, make this your first reading of the holiday. It’ll cheer you up no end.
Gaby Weiner, GEA Chair
2 thoughts on “The New Face of Feminism: Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman”
I’m up to p117 of this – it became something I had to read even though I found the style almost made me give up before I’d started. I throughly endorse Gaby’s points – it’s singularly unreflective so far – although I’m glad Caitlin’s written it, I feel rather ‘yes, but…’ about it. So far, she uses humour to make some very valid points and also uses it to distract the reader from asking too many questions.
Thanks for this great review Gaby – it makes me want to read the book. I wonder if any of my undergrad or Masters students will have read it – it might make teaching them about feminism easier. Feminism has such a negative reputation. Last year I had a couple of great dissertation students who used loads of feminist work in their research and who took an explicitly feminist approach yet both are reluctant to call themselves feminists.