Friday, 21 September 2012

How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran

I set off into this book with a slight prickle about my person. It can get my goat when a book seems to trade in self-deprecating humour, especially when the author is a woman. What is being masked by the humour? So often it is self-loathing, as if the only legitimate entry into public discourse for the (female) speaker is self-negation. Why do women have to twist themselves into such knots in order to speak. Can't they just... Speak? 

Perhaps How to be a Woman trades a little too much in this form of self-justification. But its approach to its subject is so unusual and riveting that it can be forgiven. 

I have never seen a feminist account of womanhood written in such an irrepressible blend of first person memoir and self-help. 

Caitlin Moran has a certain kind of passport past the customs officials guarding feminism precisely because she is not an Oxbridge-educated success story. Hers is a story of success against most people's odds: home-educated -- or rather an autodidact -- in an incredibly poor family, the eldest of an astonishingly large number of siblings, she dreamt of escape to London, to be a music journalist, and somehow wangled her way into Melody Maker aged only about 16. 

It makes me think of Jacqueline Wilson, who similarly managed to get into journalism very young : famously, Jackie magazine was named after her, because they were looking round the office for a suitable girl's name, and spotted the young Jacqueline, still almost the right readership age. 

The passport comes from the entirely unprotected way Moran has set out in life and sought out experience. Rare is the woman who has negotiated the British social obstacle course with quite such relish and optimism. 

Moran writes acutely and vividly about universal female experiences like puberty, menstruation, love, dealing with sexism, marriage and weddings, giving birth, and most arrestingly, abortion and cosmetic surgery. The chapter list reads like a Seven Ages of Woman, and I'm eagerly anticipating her old age, so that we can read about how to be a grandmother, and how to grow old disgracefully. 

What is unique about her is the distillation of deep reading with uninhibited action. She takes the message of women's liberation completely seriously. There are many messages in the book, and most of them are flagged "are the men doing this? Do the men need to worry about this?" Her rule of thumb is that if men do not need to concern themselves with an issue, nor should women. 

This is the philosophy that enables her to take what for many women would be, if not an impossible decision, then certainly a very depressing one, to abort a healthy child. Moran is resolute  in her assertion that women not only ought to have, but actually do have, dominion over their own bodies. She asserts also that this position trumps the attempt to define when life actually begins. These two arguments are key to her painful decision, helping her to go through with the abortion facing up to it completely. She does not suffer afterwards, because she was sure of what she was doing going into the event. She does not deny the physical and mental pain of it, but she is able to bear it because she believes completely in the probity and authenticity of her own capacity to decide about what happens within her own body:

I suppose what I'd been given to believe is that my body -- or my subconscious -- would be angry with me for not having the baby. And that, additionally, their opinion on the matter would in some way, be superior -- more 'natural', more moral -- to the rational decision my conscious mind had made. That women were made to have babies, and that each one that is not brought to fruition must be accounted for and mourned and repented for, and would remain unforgiven forever. But all I could see -- and all I can see now, years later -- is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful, and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequence.

'Abortion', unlike most of the other chapters, is not composed of an exclamatory first-person phrase ('I become furry!'). Moran certainly did not take the decision lightly, and the tone of her writing is concomitantly much more serious, measured and careful than the other chapters. To me, that final pair of paragraphs are among the most important in the book. The pro-abortion debate tends not to begin from the position "I have two lovely children and I do not want a third -- I would not be as good a mother to them all". It tends to play itself out in an abstract world devoid of real, pre-existent families. The arguments are of course those that Moran puts forward: a woman has an unimpeachable right to decide what happens to her own body, and this supersedes arguments about when life begins. But situating the arguments in the context of an 'already-finished family', and putting forward the idea that it would be bad for the other children, the mother, and the family as a whole, including the father, to supplement with an accident, an unplanned and therefore unwanted baby, that is quite unusual. 

What is shocking about this, to me, is not the decision Moran took, or her reasoning. It is that I have become acutely susceptible to the opinions of others about my own actions. I do not think I could now take the same decision as Moran, not because I think she is wrong -- rationally I agree absolutely with her -- and not because I believe my body would punish me for an abortion. But because I have become afraid of the judgements of other women about my actions relative to the family. 

Abortion is a big subject, but in the end it's not really abortion I am talking about. It is my own capacity to stand up for what I want and believe in, to the same extent as Moran. 

I cannot bear to justify myself, because I do not believe that I should have to. I studied self-justification for four years in a phd, and concluded that self-justification must come to an end, in order for anything else to happen. 

Yet this refusal to justify myself, because self-justification is inherently in bad faith, nevertheless collapses into capitulation to mainstream, conformist and orthodox activity in my own everyday life.

Not actively justifying myself, as I see so many others around me do, does not lead me to greater strength, or greater assertiveness in my actions, or greater peace. 

The radicalism I feel is not translated into action, not because I don't believe in it, but because I am afraid that my personal radicalism might harm my children in some way. Just as people have second children, not because singletons are unhappier than siblings, but because other people assume that they will be, and just as people with disabilities often say that their greatest disability is other people, so I do not live as I wish because of the opinions of others. 

Moran is my heroine. 

1 comment:

Zella King said...

I couldn't agree more with what you say about Moran's book. She makes feminism seem very do-able and feminist very be-able. I too was very struck by the chapter on abortion and the idea that women have the right to withhold as well as to give life.