On “how to be a woman”

I’m in the middle of a self-prescribed novel-devouring time in my life, with a hefty stack of books on my bedside table, their spines fresh and (mostly) un-bent (thanks Amazon for cheap used books that are ‘Like New’!). The thinking goes that somewhere between E.M. Forster and Joan Didion and War and Peace (which I’m saving for winter, to be read by a roaring fire with a mug of hot tea), I’ll come to some kind of slow, deeply-felt understanding of truth and beauty and writing and living. Omm.

I’m eight books in now, and I woke up the other day needing something different. So I started into the one non-fiction tome I had on my list: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Thanks to Phoebe & Catherine for the recommendation!)

Maybe I’m at a vulnerable place in my life, but man, this book spoke to me. Or rather, it made me laugh, which is arguably even better. It’s the grown-up version of the Angus, Thongs & Full-Frontal Snogging series (funny, silly books for and about British teenage girls), and it’s also a flat-out feminist manifesto for our time. Everyone should read it. Here is the most important passage:

“But of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain rod really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’

I understand.

So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants.

a. Do you have a vagina? and

b. Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

If you answered ‘no’ to the first question, try this: (a) Do you know someone who has a vagina? and (b) Do you want her to be in charge of it? If you said “yes” to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist too! Now, back to Moran:

Because 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 think feminism IS , ladies? What part of ‘liberation for woman’ 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 that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”

—Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

I spent a good deal of my senior year in college talking about feminism with my peers—analyzing the debate around it, trying to pinpoint when and how it came to be problematic, discussing if it was even relevant anymore, deciding how to “fix” it so it would “work” for more people. There were Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminars. There were speakers and events about Shulamith Firestone and Sheryl Sandberg and sex.

So in the midst of this muddle, it’s nice to have Moran spell it out so plainly. This part of the debate is just not worth having.

The debate that is worth having is the one about sexism and equal treatment. I’m lucky: to my knowledge, I have yet to be discriminated against in any noticeable way for being a woman. (Aside from online commenters dissing my photo attached to a story I wrote, but ça va, that’s the Wild West of the interwebs for you and a whole other can of worms.) I have run in circles full of strong, leading women and equally talented, conscientious men. I’m young and admittedly can’t really see a glass ceiling for myself. Which doesn’t, obviously, mean it’s not there. That’s the point: you can’t see it.

So as many of my friends (and, eventually, me too) strike out into larger circles with more complicated social dynamics, I hope that all of us—men and women alike—don’t forget to keep one hand raised, checking for that invisible glass, making sure that when we feel it coming down to meet us we push back. Feminism isn’t scary: it’s just that simple act of pushing back, of taking a stance, of holding our ground with chin up. I think that is how to be a woman.


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