How to Be a Woman

Caitlin Moran's polemic-by-autobiography might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, b

How to Be a Woman
Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press, 320pp, £11.99

As a movement, feminism has been many things, but rarely has it seemed fun. Caitlin Moran is out to change that as she "rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller".

How to Be a Woman joins her on her 13th birthday, growing up in 1980s Wolverhampton. Caitlin was the eldest of eight children, crammed into a council house, sharing beds and piling on top of each other on the sofa to watch Bergerac. The lack of privacy (her mother points out her daughter's first pubic hair to the whole family in a chapter entitled "I Become Furry!") perhaps explains why this is such an unabashed book. It's all here: teenage crushes, masturbation, lap-dancing, episiotomies, chafed nipples, drunkenly spilling whisky over Graham Coxon from Blur. And ultimately it's all about her. This is polemic-by-autobiography, so how much you like Moran's arguments will depend on how much you like Moran.

Her feminism is of the easygoing, pragmatic kind. Although she claims, in discussing Katie Price's career, that women who "pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits", she is no hardliner. Even though a mother, she is in favour of women rejecting motherhood as their highest goal, and points out: "Batman doesn't want a baby in order to feel he's 'done everything'."

In essence, she believes the opposite of sexism is politeness, and that our ambition should be to see the whole of humanity as simply "The Guys". Nevertheless, even though this book emphasises the intellectual similarities between men and women, it can't help stressing their physical differences. The writer's unruly female body is centre stage throughout: even Germaine Greer has wondered whether Moran will regret "casting off every last shred of her bodily privacy" by writing about her zealous teenage masturbation.

Take her description of her overweight teen­age body: "I am a virgin, and I don't play sport, or move heavy objects, or go anywhere or do anything, and so my body is this vast, sleeping, pale thing. There it is, standing awkwardly in the mirror, looking like it's waiting to receive bad news. It is the bad news." Or her "shattered tits" after breastfeeding: "If they were a character in a film, they'd be the girl who falls over when they're being chased by the Nazis and shouts, 'Go on without me! I've had a good life!' My breasts wish the rest of me well, but they are just not going to make it."

Moran is consistently sparky and has a perfect turn of phrase. In this book, she only occasionally lapses into the stylistic tics - such as USING CAPITALS BECAUSE SHE'S TALKING ABOUT VAGINAS - that make it best to take her Times columns in small doses.

One of the greatest challenges of contemporary feminism is that it can no longer be treated as a singular entity (if it ever could). The concerns of western feminists are far removed from, say, a mother-of-eight farming at subsistence level in the developing world. Moran's book is unapologetically aimed at women like her, who read celebrity magazines and can't wear high heels and worry about whether having children will wreck their careers. That is no bad thing. I am squarely in her target demographic, and I loved reading a book about someone like me, rather than a mythical superfeminist who regards wearing lipstick as a mark of unforgivable capitulation to the patriarchy.

I wish, however, that some of her attacks - on the media's obsession with knocking successful women by calling them fat/frail/unlucky in love because a photographer has taken a single unflattering picture, for instance - had been carried further.

Moran notes in the acknowledgements that she wrote her book in "an urgent, five-month blur" and occasionally it shows in wonky dates, in odd typos, in the way her two daughters are referred to as "Lizzie" and "Nancy" except for one occasion where the elder one's real name crops up and the reader thinks: "Who?" These flaws might be pinpricks, but you do feel that, given more time, she could have landed a few more killer blows on her targets.

Then again, while How to Be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan