The publication of this book was a momentous day for me. I’d pre-ordered it on Amazon two months ago, and periodically checked in to see how much longer I had to wait. And then, yay, it arrived at work… where it sat on my desk all day, taunting me until I could take it home and spend four solid hours devouring the first third of it. Oh joy unconfined, this was splendid.
Why was the publication of Caitlin’s book so exciting? Many reasons. For one, it was categorised as ‘feminism/humour’ on the back – proving that it’s not a myth that those two words can sit next to each other. For another, Caitlin comes across as a funny, intelligent and thoughtful person – which seems like a good combination for a book billed as the thinking person’s guide to feminism. For another reason – Caitlin is immensely popular, thanks to her 20-odd years as a journalist for Melody Maker, The Times etc, and also her Twitter presence. In short – she’s fab. Pretty much everyone agrees she’s good news for feminism, and that’s why I couldn’t wait to read ‘How To Be A Woman’.
My first four hours with Caitlin’s book were great fun. I feverishly made my way through the first third of the book, and wished that when I’d been a 12 or 13-year-old that such a book had existed to inform me about the realities of periods, and boys, and school, and siblings and, well, real life stuff. It even made me laugh out loud a few times, which hardly ever happens. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything she had to say, but then how likely is it that even her biggest fan will agree with every single word she’s typed?
Over the next few days, I dipped in and out of the book as and when time allowed. And slowly my relationship with it started to change, just as it seemed Caitlin’s relationship with it had changed while writing. The first third of the book is excellent, and seems to brim with a “Wooh, I’ve got a publishing deal and my word, I’m going to use it” zest. The middle section sags into an “Oh shit, I haven’t written anything for months and now my editor is hassling me for copy” lull. And then, towards the end, the book picks up quality and style again, and becomes much more invigorating and exciting. So ‘patchy’ is definitely a word I would associate with ‘How To Be A Woman’. Not least because there are quite a few inexcusable typos in this book, which surely someone at Ebury Press should have spotted?
There’s lots of things that Caitlin talks sound sense about: women’s relationship to body hair, fashion, shoes, weddings, for instance. There are some things I personally disagree with (though that’s not a criticism of the book): lap dancing being the big one. One thing I felt continually irritated by was her constant references to Lady sodding Gaga – which was eventually explained and then made sense. And I’m desperate to know why Caitlin is in the fifth wave of feminism when everyone else is still in the third (she Tweeted me so say that it’s because she drinks a lot of coffee, which didn’t really fill me in on what happened during the errant fourth wave).
Another gripe is how she continually refers to those who chose to be without children as ‘childless’ – as if children are something they are sadly lacking. ‘Childfree’ is the correct term, by the way – as those without children are consciously liberated. A Twitter conversation about this led to Caitlin saying we were “quibbling over terms”. Well, I’d disagree – ‘less’ and ‘free’ mean very different things. And I’ve recently had a painful first-hand experience of how much a casual misappropriation of language can upset people, so I really insist there’s a huge difference.
But moving on… A later chapter on her own abortion was extremely moving and a very brave inclusion, and it’s appearance after my anger over the previous few really put into context how, well, GOOD it was. Such a powerful and emotive thing to do, and surely one Caitlin didn’t include without a great deal of thought. For someone to open themselves up about such a sensitive subject, and on the top of the bestseller list, is to be loudly applauded.
In conclusion: yes, I’d recommend ‘How To Be A Woman’, but there are some chapters that could be skim-read. And I have to question why a woman who works from home, clearly earns well-above-average money, has the luxury of a cleaner and lives a generally privileged life, is the right person to write a guide to contemporary womanhood. But I will still be giving a copy to me eldest niece on the cusp of her teen age. There’s a lot to be learned, both good and bad. And here’s hoping the second edition has a new chapter about clown porn in.