I’m now about halfway through Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (actually, I’m reading it on Kindle, so I can be more precise: 58% of the way through). To my surprise, it has in fact been very effective in weaning me off the Daily Mail website. With this book I can get the same frisson of outrage and self-righteousness that comes from reading about instances of extreme sexism, but it’s already been put in a nice, non-sexist context for me. Hence I don’t have to feel so dirty! Result!
Beyond that, Moran’s book also comes in handy because it’s ace and make me laugh a lot. I lie in bed giggling away, making the mattress shake, and my partner wants to know what’s so funny. Her sister [snort] Caz did this thing [snigger] in 1986 [collapse into hysterics]. I think there’s something wrong with my delivery because he never really seems to get it like I do.
There is one bit where the book has annoyed me so far. One tiny, tinsy bit. But that is what I am going to focus on here. Because what would be the point of going on about all the bits I agree with? They’re written down in the book already. No point reiterating them in a less amusing and less accurate way. They just need to be read in their original context by one and all (then the whole world would be giggling in bed too. Wouldn’t that be lovely?). There is, however, this one crap bit where Moran’s discussing sexism and female achievement over the course of history:
For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female – citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustively pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. [...] I don’t think that women being seen as inferior is a prejudice based on male hatred of women. When you look at history, it’s a prejudice based on simple fact.
Hmm. Really? Give me a sodding break.
My partner has worked as a history researcher and lecturer. He does not tie himself in knots trying to “prove” that, contrary to popular opinion, women have actually done shit. He has however been confronted with countless students carrying the same prejudices as Moran, but expressing them in far less “reasonable” language.
I am not a historian. My own specialism is in literature, biography and reception. With a particular focus on one particular male – male! – writer. So I don’t claim to be an expert on what women have been doing since the dawn of time. Nevertheless, I do think the following things just might be true:
- even if something feels uncomfortable, and runs counter to popular belief, and sounds self-justificatory when you say it, it doesn’t mean that thing isn’t right. On the contrary, it might suggest that the context in which you’re now saying it still reflects the very prejudices you’re attempting to highlight (not necessarily, I know. But it’s worth bearing in mind that it could, and doing your best not to reinforce what may be shitty assumptions).
- reception of art in particular is highly subjective and responsive to cultural and political prejudice, even now.. Even now, if you have a vagina, you’re never going to be called “our greatest writer” (even if such assessments could be made). You’ll only ever be “our greatest female writer”. You can achieve all you like, but your space for recognition remains restricted.
- if women have spent 100,000 years doing fuck all, 99.999999999999% men have spent 100,000 years doing double fuck all. I mean, they haven’t even been arsed to give birth or raise children. They’ve just pootled around down mines or fighting wars, one big morass of male suffering, occasionally picked up on by the menz right’s movements as the true “victims” of sexism, at least whenever said menz rights campaigners aren’t showing off about how brilliant and unique and successful all men throughout history have been. Genius is recognized as such because it’s rare. Why the fuck should most men – just plodding along like the rest of us – be permitted to bask in the reflected glory of Einstein, Columbus, the Beatles etc etc? It’s not fair! Male “geniuses” have had all the cultural advantages, but they still didn’t achieve that much. There aren’t that many of them compared to the whole population of the world, ever. The disparity between male and female achievement just isn’t that great. Come on, men! What were YOU doing all this time? THAT’S what we should be asking (because obviously questions like this are totally fair and don’t have to be context-specific or take class, race or anything else into account. Obviously).
- that leap from “not having achieved much of note” to a presumption of actual “inferiority” – it’s a bit much, isn’t it?
Well, I’ve said my piece. The other thing I might add is, I have not, for a long time at least, come across a male writer who makes me giggle in bed. And if me giggling in bed isn’t seen as all that important, well – I think we need to reassess our priorities.