How to be the kind of woman I approve of, because that’s the only kind there is

HowToBeWoman pb c

I doubt I’ll ever have the chutzpah to write a how-to book on anything, even if peddling myself as an expert on something might earn me better sales. Clearly, the all-knowing title How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran is meant to grab people’s attention, and sure enough, it worked. But if it were honest, it would have been called “How to be Caitlin Moran, Who Also Happens to be a Woman.”

It’s a book I’m glad I read, but can’t say I’d ever want to read again. I’m glad I read it because I occasionally like to buy books from authors I already know I’ll disagree with on a number of issues. Regardless of your views on abortion, too many people form their opinion without personally experiencing it for themselves or talking to anyone who has, so the chapter about Moran’s abortion was eye-opening (though it did grieve me that it was easier for her to decide on having an abortion than how to remodel her kitchen. Maybe I was wrong in assuming that most women don’t decide on abortion lightly? Hey – I learned something).

But it also occurred to me just how un-feminist it is to tell other women how to be feminist, which is not an easy thing for me to admit. I wish more women saw pornography as degrading and unhealthy; I wish more women would stop using their looks as a means to get ahead. But that’s me assuming that women who think differently didn’t come to those viewpoints using their own free agency. I’ve been prone to thinking, She must have been abused – that’s why she thinks she can find worth in porn. She must have had shallow parents – that’s why she thinks her body is her greatest asset. What a shock it was to me that some people can disagree simply because they disagree.

So it was with some annoyance that I plodded through Moran’s book, feeling forced to swallow the notions that being feminist = being pro pornography (as long as no one is being coerced or trafficked), having strict guidelines on maintaining pubic hair, tasting my own menstrual blood (full-on judging for that one: who does that?!), eschewing high heels, naming your vagina, believing that stripping is bad, but somehow burlesque dancing is the Pinnacle of Empowerment. That doesn’t make her much different than The Patriarchy telling women they were designed for certain roles. A little more emphasis on a woman’s right to free agency over her own life choices would have been nice.

I get that, for posterity’s sake, feminism has to have some kind of definition that is more or less stagnant; mine is “believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all women, and that they should have the same rights and privileges afforded to men.” But even as general and non-specific as I think that answer is, it’s going to sound like preaching to somebody, which puts me in an awkward place between making the label my own and saying “screw it” to anyone who doesn’t like it, or calling myself something else altogether, because the original label has become too tainted.

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5 thoughts on “How to be the kind of woman I approve of, because that’s the only kind there is

  1. Crystal says:

    I hope you don’t mind if I share a personal bugbear that was resurrected by this quotation: “But it also occurred to me just how un-feminist it is to tell other women how to be feminist, which is not an easy thing for me to admit.”

    I do agree with this sentence, which is why I am so deeply bothered by people who insist that pro-life feminists aren’t true feminists. IF they truly believe in their heart of hearts the values of feminism – the radical notion that women are people – and don’t just parrot it for politics, then yes, I consider them feminist even if they believe abortion should be illegal; and I also think that such people need to be sensitive to the downsides of laws dealing with the legality or illegality of abortion in order to truly care for both pregnant and unborn persons. However, that is my opinion, and feel free to push back.

    However I do not consider people like Sarah Palin to be feminist, despite her claims to the contrary. Several times she has slipped up on what true feminist values mean. For instance, she defended her son despite his assaulting a woman, blaming his crime on Obama instead of sticking up for the victim, like a good feminist would. Also she urged her daughter to preach abstinence-only despite Bristol’s not following it. I’m not saying you can’t believe in abstinence and not be a feminist. What I do think is that you can’t force everyone to be abstinent and call yourself a feminist. Sex will happen, and so will solo pregnancies.

    I do not call myself a feminist because I have no wish to antagonise my pro-legal abortion friends (and yes, there are prolifers who believe abortion should stay legal but I speak specifically of people who call themselves “pro-choice”) by such a label, and also because I’ve seen this assertion that you can’t be pro-life and be a feminist repeated a lot. In short I don’t want to be seen as pretentious when discussing this very hot-button topic with people who disagree with me on this issue.

    It is herstorically honest to recognise that many great feminists supported abortion becoming legal, like Gloria Steinam who had an illegal abortion in her younger days. Gloria Steinam has done great work with her life, yet I would deplore her beliefs on abortion and believe she led many people wrong in that area. It’s the same with Alice Walker and pretty much the second-wave of feminism movement. Yet I think it is equally herstorically honest to recognise that many great feminists deplored abortion, like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul (who made it possible for all women to vote in the USA):

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion/mother/early.shtml

    Is it honestly right to decry the achievements of pro-life feminists because they are pro-life? I think not. Nor can I just say that feminists who deplore pro-life thought and practice did not contribute to feminism in many ways. I can’t say that Gloria Steinam and Alice Walker didn’t shape feminism because I oppose them on this one issue; they are respected feminist leaders in the feminist movement and writing them off would be denying the herstory of feminism. What I can say is that abortion is a highly controversial area in feminism that I hope will be properly sorted out one day in the future.

    Also I realise that quite a few feminists are pro-legal prostitution. I am not; I think it should stay illegal due to its immoral influence on society and because it leads to society viewing women as objects not people. Yet I can recognise the arguments from the other side seeking to show concern for sex workers and I appreciate that concern very deeply, despite my strong disagreement with its being legal.

    Is there such a thing as twisting feminism to suit yourself? Absolutely there is. Feminism needs a standard that is flexible yet uncompromising in the important area – the way women are treated by society, family, and God. On the other hand feminism is a diverse camp surrounding a range of opinions and ideas, and it needs to be willing to change if it has even one area wrong and accept a whole range of individuals under its umbrella provided they are genuine and not breaking significant rules of feminism like showing prejudice towards equal pay and protection against rape. Questions are fine but patriarchal values disguised as feminism are not, and feminists need wisdom to judge between the two.

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  2. Am I Thirty? says:

    This book bothered me so much. It was one of those books that I was OK with while reading but the more and more I thought about it after I was done, the more I hated it. She just really bothered me and contradicted herself so much. Sorry, but you just do not get the right to tell other women what they should and shouldn’t do if they want to consider themselves a feminist. And her take on beauty standards and plastic surgery was incredibly judgmental.

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  3. Captain Cassidy says:

    That’s the definition most feminists I know use and the one I use, incidentally. That definition includes not trying to police what other women do with their bodies, which includes giving women the right to make and view/use pornography, to have whatever sex they want with other consenting adults, to decide if and when they will be pregnant, and making sure women get equal opportunities and protections under the law as all other citizens of their countries get. If Moran’s not doing that, then she might be using the label, but I’d consider her a pretty piss-poor feminist.

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  4. kaitlynoruska says:

    “But it also occurred to me just how un-feminist it is to tell other women how to be feminist, which is not an easy thing for me to admit.” <<< Yes. This is why I've been hesitant to label myself as a feminist; I've met too many self-proclaimed feminists who belittled my choices because it didn't fit into their idea of what a feminist should be.

    I haven't read that book and probably won't, but I like and agree with what you've said in this post.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      The values are definitely more important than the label. And there were some funny parts I liked, but overall the book would have been so much better if only Moran’s editor disabled her caps lock key. CAPS AREN’T NECESSARY TO MAKE YOUR POINTS CLEARER, KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING?

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