How to Be a Woman

A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with a group of smart, progressive women and the conversation turned to the differences between men and women. One of the women was recounting a story in which she was going to meet a man somewhere and told him she would be in a taupe SUV. He had no idea what taupe even meant, and she told him he should have asked his wife. She would certainly know and would probably have a few pairs of taupe shoes because of course every woman has multiple pairs of taupe shoes. I laughed along, as you do, but on reflection I realized that I don’t have any taupe shoes–actually, I’m not entirely sure how taupe differs from tan. Clearly I need instruction on how to be a woman. So Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman to the rescue!

Moran’s book is actually not a manual on how to tell taupe from tan or how to choose the best purse to go with your belt and shoes or to make sure you’ve got your body hair situation under control. Just the opposite, in fact. Part memoir and part manifesto, this book recounts Moran’s own realizations about how she wants to live her life and what she chooses to value and how the fact that she is a woman enters into that. Moran makes no bones about the fact that she’s a feminist, and a Strident Feminist at that, and she wants to see more women and men being Strident Feminists. But stridence need not mean humorlessness, and Moran fills her story with humor—raunchy jokes, sarcastic remarks, witty observations, and comical stories.

Although Moran focuses on feminism, this isn’t a serious work of feminist theory. It’s more about the day-to-day issues Western women often face, as observed and experienced by Moran herself. So you get hitting puberty, learning about sex, experiencing sexual harassment, and having babies, as well as trying to find suitable clothes and dealing with weight. Moran’s reflections on all these experiences and the wider issues they raise are idiosyncratic and personal, not based on extensive research. Readers with different experiences may not always agree with her (I didn’t), but it’s clear that she has thought through her ideas.

But I’m perhaps making this book sound too serious. It’s a thoughtful book, to be sure, but what I enjoyed about it was how funny it is. Here, for example, is Moran on women’s clothing:

But now it seems you find “the dress”—but “the dress” must have “the belt,” and a complimentary but not overly matching bag must be found, which works with not only the correct hosiery but also something to “throw over,” if you become chilly. It’s like fucking Dragon’s Quest—an endless list of things you’ve got to run around and try to find, possibly in a cave, or under a sage. The thing you “throw over” can’t be an anorak, or a picnic rug salvaged from under the stairs, by the way, but a deconstructed cardigan, a hacking-style jacket, a £200 pashmina, or a “shrug,” which unfamiliar item seems, to my untrained eyes, to be a shrunken cardigan made by a fool. It all looks bloody knackering. It’s going to cut into my bread-and-butter-pudding-making time severely.

This. This is why I continue to live by my basic uniform of neutral pants or skirt, patterned or colorful shirt, neutral jacket or cardigan, and neutral shoes. (And always the same purse—I’m too lazy to switch my stuff from purse to purse.) I have a couple of pairs of bright shoes and a few dresses (with neutral belts, jackets, or cardis) to liven things up, but trying to assemble outfits of more than that is more trouble than I’m interested in taking. If I’m going to play Dragon’s Quest, then I need to be questing for a dragon.

I laughed in total agreement with Moran about a lot of these sorts of personal decisions. And I’m happy to report that, for the most part, she doesn’t seem to treat making different decisions as an inferior choice. There are some cases, Brazilian waxing for example, where she does have a strong opinion, and she doesn’t mince words about it. But most of the time, she seems to want people to do what brings them joy, whether it’s to wear a dress with stillettos (even if you’re a man) or to not bother plucking your unibrow (even if you’re a woman).

Moran spends a lot of time talking about sex, and those who are easily offended might not be able to cope with her bluntness. Here, again, she’s all about doing what gives you joy. Oddly enough, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, who said in The Four Loves: “Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false goddess.” Now I’m pretty sure that Lewis and Moran would disagree about a lot of things when it comes to sex, but I think they’re on the same side in that it should be fun and too often isn’t. The desire for joy in sex is one of the reasons Moran objects to strip clubs but not burlesque shows. The other being that, in burlesque shows, the women are in a position of power and seen as having a good time in their own right, unlike the women trying to earn a buck at a strip club. And incidentally, the fact that women are paying for their university educations by stripping does not make it a good thing. As Moran says, “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.”

Although I didn’t always agree with Moran, I enjoyed reading what she had to say. My only really serious complaint is that she tends to universalize some aspects of women’s experiences in a way that could cause some women to feel left out. I felt that way a few times, but it helped to think of this more as a memoir than as a treatise on womanhood today. That way of thinking also helped me get around some points where I felt her research had some gaps or where I simply wanted more depth. This book is about one woman’s experience and how that experience might sync up with other women’s and how we might together make some progress for all women who’ve faced similar indignities. Considered in that light, it’s pretty effective, and plenty entertaining.

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31 Responses to How to Be a Woman

  1. I don’t own any taupe shoes either. I loved this book, though I didn’t think that all our problems could be solved by being nice (many could be, however!).

    • Teresa says:

      Being polite would certainly help, but no it won’t solve everything. It is interesting to consider whether some people might respond better to being told to avoid being rude than to avoid being sexist.

  2. I enjoyed this too, but sometimes against my better judgement. I think you’re right to point out the personal tone of the narrative. For me too that is its really strength and value.

    What annoyed me greatly was the way Moran kept gesturing towards and criticising feminist discourse from theory to history, suggesting that it was outdated or pointless. It seemed to me that she hadn’t read widely enough on these things to comment so disparagingly; the only feminist she seems to have read is germaine Greer. She lost me entirely when she dismissed the work of feminist historians and ranted about there being no great females in history, saying we should just admit that and move on. She completely misunderstood the whole endeavour of feminist historians, and flippantly tossed it aside. Can you tell it made me angry at her?

    • Teresa says:

      Not having read widely among feminists myself, the fact that Moran hadn’t didn’t bother me all that much, but there were certainly times when I felt more research or background reading could have been helpful. The comments about women in history that you mention are a very good example of that. It seemed weird to talk about how women don’t have a Galileo or Churchill without even considering the reasons for that. But those moments were rare enough that it didn’t ruin the book for me.

  3. Lisa says:

    I laughed at the shrug comment – my thoughts exactly! I hate shopping for clothes more than words can express. I can spend two hours in a bookstore but 30 minutes in a department store and I’m ready to bolt.

    This is the second great review of this I’ve read, and I’ve added to my library list – keeping it in mind as memoir and manifesto.

    • Teresa says:

      Much to my own surprise, I actually bought a shrug this year (in black, of course, because I can’t be bothered to try to match things). Even more surprising, I’ve worn it a lot. It’s perfect with sleeveless dresses on warm, but not boiling hot, days.

      And I’m the same about clothes shopping. I like having clothes that look nice and fit well, but I do as little shopping for those clothes as I can get away with.

  4. Joanna Brady says:

    So true, Teresa. How many times do we change purse only to find we’ve left our driver’s license, money or whatever in the other one?


  5. priscilla says:

    Ha! I spent an hour at the hairdresser’s yesterday talking about how much I hate to shop. I love the quest metaphor. It explains why I buy everything from catalogs. At this point, it’s a wonder Lands End doesn’t just send me whatever they think I will like when a new season rolls around.

    That’s interesting too about strippers versus burlesque, and about how it’s not okay for women to strip to pay for college. Although, you know, I think there is a male equivalent: sports, in particular college football. I think a lot of boys get pushed into sports early on by parents who see dollar signs, whether in the form of scholarships or careers. I suppose people could make the objectification argument about stripping and that it’s exploitation, but think about it: these young guys are trained like animals, sold big dreams of glory, and when they get injured at 19 or 22 or 26 their careers are over and they are pretty much left with nothing, all for the glory of some alumni who still over-identify with their universities. That’s also exploitation. I suppose we could blame the guys for not getting an education, but they’ve not been trained to get an education. They’ve been trained to get by so they can play ball.

    Okay, that was kind of off topic. Sorry! :)

    • Teresa says:

      Oh yes, I love online shopping, especially for basic stuff like jeans and khakis and stuff that I hate trying on, like swimsuits.

      That’s an interesting point about football, and I agree totally that there’s an exploitative element to it. I guess the big difference that I see is that presumably the men who play get into it because they enjoy the game, so they’re getting something out it. My guess is that’s less so with stripping. I mean, there may be some women who enjoy the dancing itself, but I don’t imagine they learn to dance with dreams of dancing in a strip club.

      • priscilla says:

        I agree that there are probably more men playing football and enjoying it than there are women who enjoy stripping, but I don’t agree necessarily that boys get into football primarily because they enjoy it. At least in the South, they play because it’s expected of them, from an early age. And I suppose the better female equivalent would be beauty pageants.

    • Deb says:

      On the other hand, plenty of parents urge their sons (and daughters too) to pursue athletic scholarships as a way to get a college education, I suspect very few parents would ever urge their daughters to pay for college with stripping.

      • priscilla says:

        That’s true Deb. I was speaking primarily about college football. For many of those boys, college is the way to the NFL and nothing else. They aren’t getting an education. They are money makers for the universities. If they get injured, they lose everything. It wasn’t the best comparison, but I was mainly (poorly) making a point about how gender roles can drive exploitation of either sex.

  6. Jenny says:

    The whole reason I love dresses is that I don’t constantly have to be worrying about the other stuff I need to add to them to make the ensemble perfect. Dress and shoes and that’s it. I don’t have to match three or four things together. Just two.

    (I also don’t own any taupe shoes. But I do know the difference between taupe and tan because “taupe” is a funny word.)

    • Teresa says:

      That is an excellent argument in favor of dresses! I wear pants more because I don’t like to wear the kinds of shoes that look best with dresses. I also don’t like hosiery, and my office is too cold in the winter to go without it.

  7. Deb says:

    In an odd way, the whole “taupe” thing makes me think of “Fight Club” where the men feel they need to fight to assert their maleness because they feel emasculated by the fact that they know what a “duvet” is. I would say knowing the difference between tan and taupe is a distinctly first-world achievement.

    I follow only two fashion rules: no white shoes after Labor Day or before Easter Sunday, and a light-color purse for spring/summer, a dark color for fall/winter.

    • Teresa says:

      I grew up on the white shoes rule but have ended up abandoning it myself, but I hardly ever wear white shoes anyway, so it’s mostly just not relevant.

      It took me ages to figure out how a duvet differed from a comforter! And I’m still not sure why someone would prefer a duvet over a comforter. Taking it in and out of the cover for cleaning just seems like too much of a pain to me.

  8. I’ve had a hold on this book at the library since I read a glowing review of it. Since then I’ve read a few so-so ones, so I’m excited to read it and see what I think.

    “My only really serious complaint is that she tends to universalize some aspects of women’s experiences in a way that could cause some women to feel left out. I felt that way a few times, but it helped to think of this more as a memoir than as a treatise on womanhood today.”

    That’s interesting — I wonder if this book’s marketing has made it seem more like a treatise than it was intended to be? The title certainly makes it sound like something that should apply to every woman ever.

    • Teresa says:

      I had that same question about the book’s marketing. I’m guessing that couching it as a treatise would spark more conversation, even if some of that conversation is critical, so maybe that’s not a bad thing. But I found it much more effective as a memoir.

  9. Heather says:

    Oh, this sounds like a fun read. (I definitely do not own any taupe shoes. Also, I don’t own any belts. Also, my “purse” for basically anything other than a wedding or funeral is either a small backpack, a bigger backpack, or a messenger bag.) It bugs me that so many of the default assumptions about what women should do/be are so tied into consumerism – buy these clothes/these shoes/this bag/this makeup/this hair product!

    • Teresa says:

      Moran talks a bit about how women are pressured to spend crazy amounts of money just to live up to basic standards of how we’re supposed to look. (Her rant on high-end purses is pretty hilarious.)

  10. aartichapati says:

    What a thoughtful review, Teresa! Interestingly, I think I am veeringnow towards caring about my dress much more than I used to. Like Jenny, I like dresses because they are often easier than constructing an entire outfit (though the shoes and the belt and cardigan added to them can be quite challenging. I also invested a lot in cardigans this year and bought my first pairs of boots and skinny jeans so I am now only a few years behind . But I think that might be more to do with me getting more comfortable with my body image than anything else, which perhaps is a very powerful effect of becoming more of a feminist.

    Either way, I still refuse to wear high heels.

    Ah, taupe. On a random note, taupe isn’t that common a color shoe to own for people who have darker skin. I have tried them on many times (same with “bone” colored shoes) and they just don’t look good!

    • Teresa says:

      The paragraph immediately following the one I quoted is a hysterical bit about the supposed necessity of high heels. I’m with you on those–I have a couple of pairs, but they’re reasonably comfortable, and even so I don’t wear them much.

      And I can absolutely see how buying nice clothes can be a way of celebrating your body. It is for me, too! It’s just that in my case, I don’t like the process of choosing what to buy much, so I stick to brands and styles that I know work well and that are don’t go out-of-date quickly.

  11. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I’ve read Moran’s columns in The Times for years – they’re always witty and earthy. I have a copy of this on the shelf and will enjoy it I’m sure. I think proper taupe is meant to be a greyish brown – mole colour, but everyone’s version is slightly different – I don’t care, I like them all!

    • Teresa says:

      I can imagine that her columns would be fun to read. There’s a collection of them coming out early next year over here, I think.

      And I did end up looking up taupe online, and greyish brown is a good description!

  12. I’m kind of stuck on your first paragraph. “Smart,progressive women” insisting that we all know what taupe is because we all own multiple pairs of taupe shoes? Sounds like she’s the one universalizing certain aspects of women’s experiences :) It’s those kinds of remarks that make me wonder what has become of feminism. The book sounds great though!

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  16. Jeanne says:

    I think Moran’s recent actions (making fun of Sherlock fangirls) show that she’s not a feminist.

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