When the author wrote her 2011 bestseller, she assumed she was through the hard bit. Ten years later, she’s still learning
One day, back in 2011, I was on the train going into central London, when a big group of 14-year-old girls ran up to me, like a gang of giggling meerkats, shouting, “Are you – are you CAITLIN MORAN? You wrote How To Be A Woman? Oh, my God! We learned about masturbation from that! Dude, it’s amazing! We’ve all started doing it now! We’ve formed a gang! At school! It’s called wank club! And we come in every morning and say how many times we did it last night – and then high five each other! In the playground! Shouting Wank Club! Can we shake your hand?”
“Well, if your wrists aren’t already too tired – then, yes,” I said.
As the girls got off at the next stop, my two daughters, then 10 and eight, were silent for a moment, then said, “Mum, what’s wanking?”
“A very pleasant and constructive hobby for a young lady, which I totally recommend,” I said. “And which is much cheaper and more accessible than inline skating. Now do your shoelaces up. We’re at Euston.”
Of course now, almost 10 years later, in 2020, women masturbating is old news. In many ways, I don’t know why I’ve opened with it. Peak lady wank was probably way back in 2016, when Fleabag essentially reworked the intent of the slogan “Yes we can” while watching videos of Barack Obama. There’s barely a prominent female figure who hasn’t cheerfully mentioned her happy rummaging: Chrissy Teigen, Emma Watson, Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Kendrick and Jane Fonda have all knocked out a quote about knocking one out. We’ve had Lena Dunham’s Girls showing Jemima Kirke and Adam Driver doing it together on a sofa, and Michaela Coel’s Tracey in Chewing Gum having a fiddle while pretending to be Beyoncé. If there is such a thing as a lady wank bank, it’s pretty solvent right now.
But in 2011, talking about female masturbation was so novel that I was asked on to BBC Newsnight – Newsnight! – to discuss it, although the conversation, bizarrely, pivoted into wondering whether there might be such a thing as “clown porn”. Jeremy Paxman’s face became deeply unhappy around that point. As he disbelievingly repeated the words “clown porn” he looked like a posh horse that wanted to gallop away over some hills for ever.
Masturbation, pornography, pubic hair, abusive relationships, wonky tits, menstruation, eating disorders, abortion, the madness of expensive weddings, sexism in the workplace, the pressure to have children, binge-drinking, the pain of childbirth, the joy of life as a modern woman: when I wrote How To Be A Woman in 2011, these were pretty novel subjects, because feminism had been siloed into the backwaters of academia, or on to late-night political talkshows. It had become so dry and jargon-filled that, even by 2015, a YouGov poll showed that 19% of people still believed calling someone a feminist was an insult. This was borne out by my childhood; the only time I’d ever heard my father even mention feminism was when he was arguing with my mother: “All right, Germaine Greer – put a sock in it.”
In the decade since writing that book, the world has come to look very different. Now, happily, feminism makes constant, worldwide news. Beyoncé makes albums that feature Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explaining what a feminist is. Dior does shows with the word “FEMINIST” emblazoned over the catwalk. Topshop sells “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts. #timesup, #MeToo, the Bechdel test, emotional labour, slut-shaming, free-bleeding, the pay gap, gaslighting, intersectionality, trans rights – it’s a fertile age for feminist consciousness-raising and lexical expansion. Whatever aspect of feminism you are most interested in, you can go online and find thousands, if not millions, of others who feel just like you.
Social media has reminded us of the most intriguing yet exhilarating fact about feminism: there is no feminist bible. Feminism isn’t a science. It’s just an idea; a completely freelance, voluntary, crowd-sourced and brilliant idea, in which women and, yes, sometimes men, go about identifying, then trying to solve the problems of girls and women. And, one of the things I feel we sometimes forget , celebrating their brilliance. Although it might occasionally feel like it, being a woman isn’t just a set of difficult questions. The female population of the Earth is also a set of answers. It’s a billion seeds of potential. It is a field of blossom, just waiting.
In many happy ways, much of what I wrote about in How To Be A Woman is dated. Flat shoes are now so widespread and stylish that the chapter on heels seems unnecessary; eating disorders are commonly discussed; abortion rights might, particularly in the US, be represented as something that must be continually fought for – but women are far more open about their histories than they were back in 2011, when it was almost always framed as a terrible secret. We’ve had fashion spreads that feature pubic and underarm hair; menstruation is recognised to the point where we can campaign against period poverty; and the #childfree movement increasingly normalises women’s choice not to have children.
Once every few years, as an act of self-lacerating nostalgia for my younger self, I reread How To Be A Woman and marvel not over what I got right, but what I got wrong. I was in my early 30s, had two small kids, and was convinced that, in a small way, I knew everything. I figured that the most difficult part of parenting was over; after all, I’d had two human beings bobsled out of my vagina. It couldn’t get worse, right? Hahaha – oh, how I underestimated the teenage years. Potty training is a mere bagatelle compared to negotiating a 15-year-old accusing you of “slut-shaming” her when you suggest a backless dress might not work for school and that she should, perhaps, consider a cardie, instead. And if your family has to help a child with a serious illness – in our case, a four-year eating disorder – it is something that will, over and over, have you absolutely on your knees, believing this might not be something you can deal with, after all. That, despite all your feminism, you are useless to your daughters.
Back then, before I’d experienced true terror, I had dozens of beliefs I thought were vital moral imperatives. For instance, I was convinced that it was profoundly unfeminist to get Botox: “It makes you look weak and scared,” I wrote then, little realising that, by the time you hit 45, it’s the fact that you do look weak and scared, and also permanently semi-traumatised, that makes you start to consider it. When I tried it for the first time, after the worst year of my life had left me looking like a deflated, heartbroken Gruffalo, it was only after I’d written a 3,000-word essay about it in my head, in order to silence an imaginary Feminist Botox Police – of which, ironically, I was a key member. If I had to, I could make an entertainingly spurious, yet secretly heartfelt, argument for Botox being a pro-feminist invention. After all, at £200 for six months of effectiveness, it’s wildly cheaper than the month-long holiday you’d need to get a similar “face vibe”, which I believe is the technical term; and for me, it’s had the pleasant side-effect of stopping me grinding my teeth in my sleep. I will have molars in my 60s after all! Double result!
The main mistake I made when I was 35 was to foolishly presume that, once you got past, say, 40, life for women becomes a glorious time of supreme elegance and relaxation. Given that all the difficult constructions of “discovering who I was”, had been done, I was convinced that, come 2020, I would be devoting all the rest of my life to work, enjoying my carefully curated capsule wardrobe (four blouses and three pairs of jeans that didn’t give me camel toe; maybe, also, a jaunty hat), possibly learning Welsh, and The Continuing Struggle. I thought middle age was the easy bit. The good bit. The bit where you finally got to truly enjoy your womanhood.
What I didn’t realise is that, in middle age, the reason women don’t worry about “who they are” any more is because they don’t have time. Middle age is not your elegant fun time. A middle-aged woman’s problems, she soon learns, are other people’s problems, and they are far harder than your own. By the age of 40, chances are, you will have become a fifth emergency service: friends’ marriages are imploding; your parents are becoming ill, or dying; your children’s teenage years are when they truly need you to be around as much as possible. You have a marriage to keep alive, two careers in the household to maintain, a pile of stuff at the bottom of the stairs that no one else seems to realise NEEDS TO BE TAKEN UPSTAIRS, and the slow realisation that your life really isn’t turning out how you’d always presumed it would.
You enter a profound stage of mourning, and yet, notably, we tend not to have any stories about this time in a woman’s life. There is nothing you can template on. We are overrun with sexy lady scientists and kung-fu ninja superheroes, and adorable hot messes who triumph in the end. But there are no blockbuster movies about women with bad backs trying to remain in love with the same person for decades; there are no uplifting party songs about greying individuals nailing the definitively fair and effective housework roster pinned up on the wall, and enlivened by a series of top-quality humorous cartoons and jokes. Wiping bums, mending hearts, putting food on the table, keeping people alive, helping them die, and making sad people laugh never get the eulogies they deserve. You’re just seen as … a bit of a drudge.
To be a capable, middle-aged woman, essentially holding society together in the unpaid care you give to those around you is still, in this century, an invisible task – despite this vital work being valued, worldwide, at more than $10tn a year. $10 trillion! Only the economies of China, the EU and the US rival that. Women are, by their numbers and labour, an unpaid continent, who give their labour away for free because … we just always have. There has never been a point where our work has been re-evaluated for the role it plays in holding up every country’s economy and, frankly, soul. As a culture, we revere attributes such as “entrepreneurship,” and “leadership”; but we do not value the things women tend to have specialised in by the time they reach middle age: care and love.
If feminism has, demonstrably, used the last 10 years to make women feel happy talking about masturbation – self-love – then it seems wholly possible we could spend the next 10 years talking about this other love, in which we are so very excellent and well-versed but, as yet, unrewarded for. If I were magic, and/or had more time, I would form the Womens’ Union – a union that would lobby to recognise the home as a workplace, throw the doors open wide on the millions of homes across the world and show what really goes on inside: everything that really matters.
What are the key changes since I wrote How To Be A Woman? Mainly, they are incredibly positive: when I see what my teenage daughters are listening to, reading or watching, whether it’s Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You staring at a menstrual blood clot on her bed, Lizzo singing about body positivity, the Broad City girls hustling for their dollar in NYC, Jameela Jamil showing off her stretch marks, Janelle Monae singing about bisexuality, or Queenie hitting the clubs, living her best life and surviving the asshats, I think, with great satisfaction, how this is the the best era for joyous, mainstream feminist role models young women have ever had. In 1985, I had the choice of Margaret Thatcher or Miss Piggy. Back then, young women really had to make do.
The only thing I would do, as someone who is now officially an Old Crone – these are my Hag Years, and I am proud of them – is caution all these amazing, strident young maids: don’t eat your sisters. While feminism’s online call-out culture stems from good intentions – to accelerate progress, to hold people to account – it is noticeable that there is barely a feminist of the last 10 years, whether it be a pop star, comedian, academic, businesswoman, politician or activist, who hasn’t, at some point, been brutally hauled across the social media coals for getting an aspect of feminism “wrong”.
These days, there is hypervigilance around talking about being a woman that makes “being a woman” feel like something a bit effortful, and perilous, and something you could publicly fail at – which is a miserable climate to be young in. One enduring aspect of being young is believing in moral absolutism. We’ve all done it: I remember thinking I would never be friends with someone who preferred the Stone Roses over Happy Mondays. But this is, undeniably, a far more inflexible and judgmental era than when I was a teenager, or young woman.
So many young feminists I meet are in such a state of anxiety about accidentally saying the “wrong” thing – so terrified of making a mistake on social media, despite wanting, desperately, to be kind and good – that they would prefer to remain silent on various subjects. This puts the future of feminism in a risky position because online activism is, like love and care, unpaid work. And when women shame each other for free, for months on end, the patriarchy simply sits back smoking a big cigar, touching its genitals, and murmuring, “Yes, ladies, yes, keep fighting. Could some of you – the younger, sexier ones – maybe put on a bikini? And do it in this pool of jelly?”
From my 45-year-old Witch Throne, where I have seen feminism ebb, flow and ebb again, I feel I should croakingly remind everyone, once more, about the most crucial, brilliant, sometimes frustrating thing about feminism: it’s really not a science. It has no rules. It’s still just an idea, created by millions, over centuries, and it can only survive if the next generation feels able to kick ideas around, ask questions, make mistakes and reinvent the concept over and over, so we can build the next wave of feminism. And the next. And the next.
Feminism is at its best when it looks like freedom. When it remembers that you must never underestimate the importance of progress looking like it could, among other things, be fun. When it’s the place where women can feel relaxed, and hopeful in their bones. When they feel so connected with each other that, sometimes, they can go up to strangers on a train at 10am on a Tuesday, happily shouting about how they have just discovered another new, brilliant thing about being a woman.