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How to Be a Woman
How to Be a Woman
Caitlin Moran
Harper Perennial, 2012
320 pp., 16.99

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Naomi Schaefer Riley

Happy Endings

Caitlin Moran on how to be a woman.

Caitlin Moran, a columnist for the Times of London, has been hailed as a "feminist heroine for our times." And her brand of feminism has proved quite popular: her breakthrough book, How to Be a Woman, has sold several hundred thousand copies.

Moran's story is certainly a tale of empowerment. She grew up dirt-poor in a large family, and she was overweight to boot. From being forced to wear hand-me-down underwear to getting a baguette with cream cheese instead of cake for her 13th birthday, she recounts a childhood at once pathetic and laced with absurdity. But then the story shifts.

Still a teenager, Moran starts writing for music magazines and begins to work her way up, going quickly from getting chased home by boys throwing rocks at her to getting hit on by her bosses at the office. "One of the section editors calls me over to his desk and tells me that the feature I've just filed could be a cover story, 'So why don't you sit on my lap while we talk about it?' " Moran agrees. " 'Lost your circulation yet?' I ask cheerfully, as he sweats and coughs. I get my first cover. He spends ten minutes in the conference room, banging his thighs until he gets the circulation back in his legs."

She begins to get a reputation around the office for kissing many of her colleagues and then starts to worry about the reaction. "On the one hand, I can see why I have become a bit of a running gag in the office. I am, let's be fair, acting like a sexed-up lady Pac-Man—running around flapping my mouth open and closed, gobbling up people's faces. It's certainly worth a good 100 gags or so. Hell, I am making about 50 on the topic myself." As she acknowledges herself, Moran acts in a way that leads people to obvious conclusions. But then she takes them to task for daring to reach those conclusions.

In a previous era, Moran explains, sexist behavior was obvious. Men chased women around desks and whistled when they walked by. These days, though, the sexism is more subtle. One woman told Moran that she "no longer wears a white top and black skirt to meetings, since a queue formed in front of me at a coffee break. They all presumed I was a waitress." But men also apparently still make remarks about a woman's legs and her "time of the month." Moran offers this guide to figuring out whether you have experienced sexism: "Is this polite? If we—the entire population of the earth, male and female alike—are just, essentially, 'the guys,' then was one of the guys just … uncouth to a fellow guy?"

Moran's standard of politeness seems perfectly reasonable. But how can someone whose prose is filled with such rudeness and crudeness really be suggesting it? I'm not sure how a woman who goes on at length about the various nicknames for her genitals or what exactly she would like to see in pornographic movies can really object when a man suggests she is moody because of her period.

Speaking of pornography, Moran has no objection to it—in principle anyway. (On the other hand, she disapproves of strip clubs.) The problem with porn today, she explains, is that women don't look like they're enjoying themselves. Porn made by women would be "warm, humane, funny, dangerous, psychedelic, with wholly different parameters to male porn." In fact, Moran notes she can't be the only one who has had a sexual experience so marvelous that she's thought "CNN wanna get a hold of that. Now that REALLY needed a tickertape running underneath it."

The new feminism is not exactly intellectually groundbreaking stuff. If anything, Moran sounds like a throwback to another era (though her language might not suit it). She says that sexism is actually understandable, given how little women have accomplished in history:

Let's stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that's just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably, into … a private karaoke booth. We have no Mozart, no Einstein, no Galileo; no Gandhi ….
But now it's time for women to catch up.

This is the adult version of "Anything you can do I can do better." And it is revealing that Moran buys into it. If you believe that the only human accomplishments that matter are the ones listed above, then of course you will think women have lost the game. All that nurturing and mothering stuff is pretty useless when stacked up against Gandhi. Except later in the book she suggests that mothers are "superhumanly productive" and that employers should all be looking for mothers.

Moran's feelings on motherhood, it turns out, are almost as conflicted as they are about everything else. In a chapter on "why you should have children," Moran goes on about how "the ultimate simplicity of [motherhood] is awe-inspiring. All you ever want to know—the only questions that really matter—are: Are the children all right? Are they happy? Are they safe? And so long as the answer is 'Yes,' nothing, ultimately, matters." Except, presumably, whether they have accomplished anything that has altered the course of history, right?

In a chapter on "why you shouldn't have children," Moran goes on about the overpopulation of the planet, particularly those "First-World babies, with their ferocious consumption of oil and forest and water, and endless burping-out of carbon emissions and landfill." (If all of this is sounding a little annoying, you should know that reading How to Be a Woman feels a little bit like listening to an extended rant by Joan Rivers.)

All of this yes-motherhood/no-motherhood debate brings us to the most disheartening of Moran's chapters—on abortion. And here, her over-the-top crudeness and humor just do not serve her well: "The doctor uses a vacurette to hoover my womb out …. In the months after, it makes me repeatedly demur from the purchase of a Black & Decker Dustbuster."

Moran is happily married at the time of her abortion, fully employed, financially stable, and the mother of two. She gets pregnant on vacation in Cyprus while she is not on contraception because she is still nursing. (Liberals like to claim that "sex education" is all it takes to achieve a drastic reduction in unintended pregnancies. Really?) She has no regrets about her abortion. In fact, she says it is a "happy ending."

"Here is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist," Caitlin Moran tells us early in this book. "Put your hand in your underpants. a. Do you have a vagina? And b. Do you want to be in charge of it?" Like so many varieties of contemporary feminism, Moran's brand ultimately comes down to the issue of abortion. She wants to know why more young women aren't interested in being identified with feminism. Here's a suggestion: jokes about dustbusters aren't helping.

Naomi Schaefer Riley's 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America will be published in April by Oxford University Press.

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