Published in The Observer September 7, 2020
It’s hard to overstate just how influential Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was when published in 2011 – and how far we’ve come since. Nine years on and the feminism she had to advocate for has become thoroughly, totally mainstream, while perky books by clever journalists about every conceivable aspect of being a woman have proliferated in the ground Moran tilled.
But the OG is back, with a book cheerfully reflecting on what it means to be a woman in middle age. It opens with the Moran of 2011 thinking she’d cracked life, only to be visited by her future self, laughing at her naivete while gleefully wobbling a “wattle” of neck skin. She’s returned to deliver the news that middle age is where things really get tough – because you have to deal with other people’s problems: friends divorcing, parents ageing, kids becoming teenagers. “You are about to be required to hold the fabric of society together,” she warns. “For no pay.”
It’s also hard to overstate how pleasurable it is to spend time in Moran’s company: More Than a Woman is funny, life-affirming and wise. Few can match her for snorts per page or her canny knack for describing common yet unnamed experiences, be that your vagina “honking up” bathwater or the wild frustration that no one else in a household understands The Stairs System (take the stuff at the bottom up with you! Bring stuff at the top down! “It’s perfectly simple!”). When you see a woman reading this book, you will likely also see her nodding furiously.
There’s a lightly campaigning aspect, with Moran arguing that caring and housework should be recognised fiscally. The book offers a brisk reminder of just how far we still haven’t come in valuing this invisible labour, mostly shouldered by women. Moran’s perspective is admittedly limited: she only writes to, and about, married parents. But some of her solutions are radical – stay at home parents should be paid, childcare should be tax deductible, we should have a Women’s Union. Sign me up.
Much of the rest of the book takes a more comically exasperated look at the faffy demands of fortysomething life: the never-ending to do list, the furious multitasking. Each chapter is a themed hour in the day, a structure that works fine for, say, The Hour of Housework, but less logically for The Hour of What About Men, a moving ambush revealing how gender stereotypes harm men, but hardly a cornerstone of anyone’s day-to-day life.
The chapters on parenting are the ones that rubble you. Moran’s account of her daughter’s eating disorder is chilling, told with an honesty that makes your heart crack with her. It brings weight to an otherwise effervescent book. Moran’s daughter told her she could write about it in the hope it might help others; I am sure it will.
Some material will be familiar to readers of Moran’s column in the Times but bears revisiting. When I read her piece on how to know you’ve found true love (you’re happy “making silly sounds at each other, for hours”) last year, I immediately made my partner read it too. It’s so good, I pressed it on him again when it cropped up in this book. Throughout, Moran shares a jolly, just slightly bittersweet understanding of the realities of long-term relationships: the need for the maintenance shag, for instance, in a relationship “once forged by the power of your white-hot sexual attraction, now [continuing] on the basis of your ability to remind each other to do vital tasks… in the least accusatory way possible”.
Occasionally, she goes on to autopilot: certain phrases or images are reached for repeatedly (time explodes, middle-aged women are call centres for people exploding, young women are messy explosions). I found some of the chortling, chummy coinages around sex – “enhornening”, “be-vulva’d”, “cock o’clock” – grating.
But these are easy to forgive, like hearing an old friend lean on the same old joke or riff – you still admire their delivery, you still admire them. Moran proves herself, once more, a sage guide in the joys, as well as the difficult bits, of being a woman – of being a partner, mother, friend and feminist. I hope she’s already working on the next volume: How to Survive a Pandemic, perhaps.