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A Little Advice On 'How To Be A Woman'

Funny feminists should never die; there are too few of them who've gained any cultural prominence in the first place. That's why Nora Ephron's death earlier this summer flattened me, even though I hadn't read her in a while and had mixed feelings about the whole "I Feel Bad About My Neck," self-flagellation routine. Still, she made me laugh at the same time she often made me think: I wanted her playing on Team Feminist forever.

I don't mean to give the impression that Caitlin Moran is some midgame replacement, but it is bracing in this season of losing Ephron to discover a younger feminist writer who scrimmages with the patriarchy and drop-kicks zingers with comic flair. Moran is a 30-something-year-old columnist for the London Times, and her book, newly published here, was a best-seller when it came out in Britain last year. Called How to Be a Woman, it's a collection of essays that constitutes a rough memoir.

Moran was the oldest of eight children raised in subsidized housing in Wolverhampton, which seems to be one of those places the queen dutifully visits and then skedaddles out of before nightfall. Moran was indifferently home-schooled from the age of 11, and, like many a lonely misfit before her, turned to books for company. Germaine Greer became her guiding feminist divinity, and, in fact, Moran says that when she started writing this book, she wanted it to be like "The Female Eunuch — but with jokes about my knickers!" Roseanne Barr, at her sassy prime, is probably the closest American analog to Moran. Like Barr, Moran is salty — I can't quote vast swathes of her language. But, more importantly, like Barr used to do, Moran invests her consciousness-raising confessions with an all-too-rare working-class worldview.

The image Moran presents of herself in the opening essay is one that's not easily forgotten: It's the spring of 1988 and it's Moran's birthday. She has just turned 13 and is an aficionado of the gender-bending style of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Moran is wearing Wellington boots and a man's army coat; she weighs in at 182 pounds, and is running because she's being chased by a pack of boys hurling stones at her. She does not think the "Yobs," as she calls them, are interested in her emerging femininity.

"I do not ... " Moran says, "look very feminine. Diana, Princess of Wales is feminine ... I am ... femi-none." That scene sets the tone for what follows, as Moran races through the milestones of womanhood, hilariously hurling back challenges to traditional gender expectations. In a hoot of an essay called, "I Become Furry!" Moran recalls the momentous sprouting of her pubic hair; she then uses that memory as an occasion to ruminate on what she calls contemporary "pube disapproval," as evidenced by the pressure to wax away all offending hair. Moran snorts:

Current trends in personal grooming aside, most of the other topics Moran tackles in How to Be a Woman constitute a hit parade from the past 40 or so years of feminist writing: sexuality, marriage, division of housework, female body fat, abortion, and sexism in the workplace. As Moran notes, however, feminism seems to be in remission among the young: all the more reason to revisit — with gusto — some of the familiar battleground issues.

Moran, who proudly cops to being a "strident feminist," offers this challenge to those female readers on the fence about feminism: "Here," Moran says, "is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. a) Do you have a vagina? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it?"

If you said "yes" to both questions, Moran says, "then congratulations! You're a feminist."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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