I picked up How To Be a Woman by chance. At the time I was full of odd midnight whimsy. The kind that addles anybody who has ever started writing something when the birds were out and emerged, blinking and feverish, at the end of the word count to find themselves in the middle of the night. The librarians had locked us in on their way out. As my friends concentrated on practical things like finding an ID pass to open the doors before the last train left the station, I instead turned my attention to the branches of books that took off from us in all directions and I started drifting uselessly up and down the foot of the shelves.
“Did you all know there are a lot of books in here”, I fancied saying. I pictured poking my head back around the corner and whispering it in an awed yet enlightened whisper, like Rachel Weisz in the Mummy. (Fact: students don’t read in the library). For us, this was a place one looted for Wi-Fi and the coffee machine, somewhere well-heated to type half a hypothesis and stumble home again. (Another fact: nothing sucks the life-blood from an avid book-worm than paying upwards of nine grand to be instructed when, who, and what books are worthy of attention. English degrees are the death row of reading-for-pleasure).
“I’m going to get a book out,” I announced, strutting back to the locked exit and shoving my hand, sightless and claw-like, at the nearest paper-back on route. My flatmate pulled her head out from her bag where she had been foraging for her ID. “Alright then,” she said, haltingly. I heard the unuttered “Whatever you say, dear” in the pause. Down went the book into the ‘borrow’ scanner and I glanced over the cover as it passed, with my student card, through the red-flicker bars. A mane of black and silver hair, two arched eyebrows and clear-water eyes, staring pointedly but not rudely back at me. I stopped still. Hello.
From behind: “Oi, is that your ID you’ve got? Come and use it to open the doors, you donut, the train’s in five.” I startled and slipped How To Be a Woman into my bag, and took off with it into the night.
To describe what occurred when I opened Caitlin Moran’s book is tricky, but something like a religious experience comes close. As a memoir, its hilarity is boundless. Starting fast and continuing along in one long-winded punchline, it traverses the goriest details of her girlhood – from the bloodless fainting spells of a first period, to the viciousness of pebble-throwing boys – with a cheerful and erasable irony. Even better, each chapter of her life, starting at puberty (where she explains that our gender really consumes our identity) is interlaced with an extended essay on feminism. She takes the minutia of her experience – say, scarring herself with her dad’s razor (har har) whilst shaving - and expounds upon it seamlessly into an evisceration of related societal pressures (did you know women are expected to be hairless because of the toxic porn industry – not so har har). She chews up every rule that crushes, compresses and baffles all girls, the cultural ideal of ‘woman’, and spits it back out. It is gender theory enfolded into a spicy, comedic bite-size. I was halfway through it by the first night, and afterwards I slid it under my bed as if it was a talisman that would radiate wisdom and bring me hope through the slats in my mattress as I slept.
Here’s the thing about being a girl at uni: you are doomed. As graduation loomed, I counted myself lucky that I had fallen in love with life-long friends and had access to higher qualifications. But the counterpoint to the image of the student as the free, careless debutant of adulthood, cruising through cities on the back of loans, is this: female ‘freedom’ is never the same as their male counterparts. Yes, we had drunk plenty, run loose and danced – but we had also been molested; on the way to the loos, under the strobe lights, in strawberry fog and under skirts, over trousers. Yes, I could shop for what I wanted, when I wanted – but I also lived off coffee and starved myself every Wednesday in preparation for party socials. This was because, as a twenty-something, the only ideals I had of beauty were emancipated, concave models that swarmed our Instagram feeds and our media stand-ins.
In my film lectures, we studied male directors as the greatest exemplars of the art. In my part time job, my boss told me to smile as he took my tips and the other waiters asked me what I sounded like during sex. In the middle of my first year living from home: a ‘pussy-grabber’ was elected as President, three boys followed my friend home from the gym and my roommate, the boy who had shared toast with me and chatted about home in the pre-dawn hours, laughed when he found the sign I had made for the woman’s march in my room. “I didn’t think you were one of those,” he said. He didn’t think I was what? Angry? Optimistic? Alive? Well I was, all of those things. And nothing that I had been exposed to across my supposed ‘higher education’ had connected and emboldened that part of my spirit, and my thoughts, as much as Moran’s book had. “Feminism is too important to only be discussed by Academics” Moran says, and she is right. I am certain the library where I plucked her nattering, cheeky self from is full of enlightening texts, but would they get me? Get us: messy, hung-over, petrified, loudmouth, sexual, modest, stimulated, underestimated, hungry girls. Skint girls. Tired girls. Sharing coffee, lipstick, pants, and wearing boy’s Wilko deodorant girls?
“Woman will get squatters” she jokes, truthfully – referring to the way that restrictive ideals of ourselves (what we wear, how we speak, what we weigh) may take over our minds, if we lapse in our judgement and surrender to everything the worlds wants us to be. And I didn’t just know she was right, but because she had spoken to me in my own language and not some overtly philosophical lexicon more concerned with its delivery, I felt she was. Academia, like my flatmate’s 20th Century Woman class and the ensuing reading material, made us use our brains. But what about our spirits? Does Jane Eyre have a relatable misadventure with pubic hair that makes me smile? She might have, out in the moors, but she didn’t mention it?
Moran has an accessibility – a student voice. It is a love letter to her younger self and, by proxy, all the girls who can relate. How To Be a Woman straddles learning and literary function with the all-important feeling. It is a manifesto of self-acceptance first and foremost. That is like god-dust for under-grad girls, quaking as we are, in the most perilous and formative section of our lives thus far. I can do my English degree, and recognise myself under suppressed and repressed bonnets. But Moran made me feel myself, still there, still precious and under my own skin. As much as those assigned novels, those cold tombs of hollow ‘woman’ reading, are intellectually boundless, they alone don’t do it for us anymore. They’re exclusive and elitist, which defeats the point of feminism itself. They won’t swing it – not in the all-important mission of returning an ocean of disillusioned, disheartened and dissociated girls back to the continent of their own bodies.
Dear God, (or concerned, under-funded librarian) please take the Classics first, if you must. Chuck the Hardy or the Henry James; those swooning maidens and governesses, those fancy, well-studied portraitures of subjugation. Take them all. Use them for kindling so student dorms are warm in winter for once. But just don’t take Caitlin. She’s teaching me – not who I could be, but who I already am. And she’s long overdue. (Literally – I’m not giving her back. Get another copy).