Here’s the unedited version of the piece I wrote for Elle. Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley said she liked it, so there.
The best lesson I learned from How to Be A Woman is that there are many, many ways to be a woman. Caitlin Moran’s groundbreaking book went into eye-watering, leg-crossing detail about everything from wanking to waxing. But through all that, she made being a woman sound like something you’d want to do, even if you didn’t have to.
Reading it finally gave me an answer to a question that has bothered me for about two decades: if you had a totally free choice, would you be a man or a woman? Pick “man”, and the advantages are obvious: men are 78 per cent of MPs, 93 per cent of FTSE 100 boards and 100 per cent of Popes. Woman have had the vote for nearly a century, and it’s three decades since the Equal Pay Act, but a level playing field still seems tantalisingly out of reach.
Compared with men’s advantages, what do women get? “Ninety-nine per cent of the cystitis,” says my friend Ros, grumpily, when I ask. We also get periods and childbirth and wolf-whistles and hold-you-in-pants, none of which men have any truck with. “An outfit so tight it requires special underwear?” my boyfriend would say. “Have you not just thought about buying it in a bigger size?” Men used to wear high heels before the eighteenth century; there’s a reason they don’t any more. (For the record, I have nothing against high heels. Unfortunately, as the hundreds of pounds lost to Compeed and plasters and special squishy “foot pillows” will attest, they certainly have something against me.)
Since the 1970s, western women have seen our opportunities expand dramatically, so what’s holding us back now? In my darker moments, I wonder if it’s us – or at least, the way that women portray themselves and each other. Don’t you feel sometimes that the easiest way to get ahead is to pretend not to be a woman at all, to work like a man in your twenties when you can, and stick your fingers in your ears and pretend that you’ll never have to choose between career and children? There’s a name for that: a female chauvinist pig, as identified by Ariel Levy in her 2006 book.
We need to kill the impulse to imitate men, along with all the other discarded, discredited single-sided ways of being a woman: the Angel in the House, the Ball and Chain, Her Indoors, the Ball-Busting Bitch, the Virgin or the Whore, the Harridan and the Harpy.
We should fight to be New Women: women who are many things, all at once. We should fight to be funny and sexy and angry, instead of being forced to choose between them. We should stop expressing surprise that supermodels can be intelligent, that politicians and lawyers can like clothes, or that feminists can make jokes. I love that Coca Rocha campaigns against human trafficking in between shoots for Karl Lagerfeld, and Michelle Obama clearly waits for the new J. Crew collection to drop just like anyone else. If men get to treat football like a religion, who can say fashion is frivolous?
Being a New Woman is all about breaking down the barriers in your life that you don’t even notice. Forget the glass ceiling: most of us are trapped inside glass walls we don’t even realise are there.
Take motherhood. Until Caitlin Moran came along, I had never realised how much I had internalised the belief that “mother” and “funny” couldn’t belong in the same sentence. Mums were bossy, and organised, and perpetually weary, cleaning up after sticky-fingered children and inept partners. They weren’t riotously sweary and able to tell you stories about post-breastfeeding boobs that left you gasping with laughter. “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!’’,” writes Moran in her book. “My breasts wish the rest of me well, but they are just not going to make it.”
Stella Creasy is another New Woman. The Labour MP is fiercely feminist, campaigning against domestic violence and payday loans, and has a PhD. She also loves karaoke. I didn’t know that was allowed. Or how about the writer Rhianna Pratchett? This year she’s seized control of Lara Croft, the videogame character who used to make me feel so physically inadequate as a teenager, and remade her as a tough, action heroine. Croft used to be little more than a lust object for teenage boys, jiggling her way through ledges and caves while threatening to fall out of her vest top. Now, she’s a New Woman too: a university archeology graduate who just happens to be able to wield a flaming bow and arrow.
Everywhere you look there are incredible women, doing incredible things. It makes me look back to my early twenties, when my friends and I argued over who “got to be Carrie” in our group. Was it me, the thunderous lady elephant who happened to be a writer? Or was it Laura, an elfin blonde who could run in six-inch heels? And who got stuck with boring Miranda or trampish Samantha?
The truth, of course, is that none of us were Carrie. And none of us were Miranda, particularly in that episode where she grabs her crotch outside the video shop while wearing dungarees. I wasn’t Posh or Scary or Baby, either, despite my ill-advised flirtation with platform trainers and the fact I can’t sing. And certainly none of us were Bridget Jones, pining on our sofas with a glass of Chablis.
As with the early versions of Lara Croft, when I was growing up I was so pathetically grateful to have any representation in pop culture that I rarely stopped to ask if these role models were any good. But the idea that there were four or five basic “types” of women – and you had to pick just one – was, in retrospect, poisonous.
And so I made it through my entire twenties without a pop culture role model who said anything to me about who I was. Now, at nearly 30, I have realised that the reason I didn’t fit into any of the neat little boxes laid out in front of me wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. It was because there was something wrong with them.
Who gets to decide what a woman is, and how she should behave? In the eighteenth century, there was a craze for “conduct books”: sharp little tracts filled with bracing advice for how young women should comport themselves. In the two centuries since, that idea has cropped up again and again; that someone gets to tell you what the ideal woman does, and says, what she wears, and what she’s worth as a result.
This idea has taken many forms. Usually, there’s an enemy, a straw-woman, to boo and hiss at: someone for the good girls to define themselves against. In the 1990s, it was the ladettes. “Look at them,” we said, sadly shaking our heads. “With their Bacardi Breezers and their turbo shandies. What an empty, feckless existence.” The truth was rather different. You can look at Kate Moss and see a woman who wasted her twenties in a blizzard of parties and travel and photoshoots … or you can see someone who had fun and didn’t give a toss what anyone else thought. (You should also, incidentally, see a successful businesswoman and mother.)
Now, that impulse to set women against each other and invite onlookers to pick a side, has not – and may never – go away. Just look at Hilary Mantel being cast in a “catfight” with Kate Middleton, with her age and appearance and her lack of children held up against our Luvverly Duchess, the glowing exemplar of demure, silent female perfection. Look at the comments on the Daily Mail’s website, where it’s not men dissecting the outfit choices, bikini bodies and post-pregnancy diets on display.
What has changed, though, is that women are approaching a critical mass of voices in the media. When allegations of sexual harassment against a senior Lib Dem politician dominated Westminster, one female columnist after another popped her head above the parapet to recount similar experiences. When I began to write about the abuse that women suffer on the internet, a tidal wave of testimony backed me up. When Mary Beard spoke up about being called every name under the sun on a “comedy” website, she was taken seriously (even by the Mail, which is nothing if not unafraid to have its sexism cake and eat it). Women are getting louder, and harder to ignore.
What happens next is crucial. And it won’t be easy: a couple of years ago I made a vow to never say anything spiteful about another woman’s appearance in public. I’m sure I’ve failed a few times, not least when I saw someone wearing a wedding dress so reliant on transparent netting it would have required a Brazilian. Each to their own, I recited, digging my nails into my palms. She probably wouldn’t have thought much of my wedding dress, either.
If we’re going to succeed as New Women, we have to change how we talk about each other. After all, I didn’t choose to be a woman: it just happened to me one day, when my mother turned to me on a day out at a National Trust property and told me it was time to start wearing a bra. I want us to be able to embrace all the contradictions of modern femininity, without feeling torn between them. We should be able to wear jeans in the office and wedges at the weekends. We should be able to watch Great British Bake Off while eating Weetabix on the sofa. We should be able to have a man who’s an equal partner, a co-conspirator and a best friend. (Or not to have a man at all. Or to have a woman. It’s 2013, dammit.) Best of all, we should be able to do all of these things without any one of them defining us.
I hope that all this is starting to happen. In her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin describes a generation of college students whose attitude towards relationships is the exact opposite to the one we’ve been taught that women have. Yes, these girls are worried about having a boyfriend: in case he cramps their style. They see settling down as something to be put off until their thirties, when they’re ready, and on their terms.
The statistics bear that out: in 1963, the average age of first marriage was 23 for men and 22 for women. Now it’s 32 and 30. As someone who got married at 26 and divorced at 28, that sounds a much healthier way of approaching permanent relationships: don’t subsume yourself into an “us” until you know you. I found a perfect, wonderful man to marry – but he wasn’t perfect for me.
Approaching 30, I have a tiny and tattered collection of hard-won wisdom to pass on. Regret the things you do, not the things you don’t. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done. (Then maybe you can make it good.) And finally: never be ashamed of doing the homework. Too often, women are expected to live up to an ideal of femininity that’s never properly defined. Worse, they are expected to know how to do “woman things”, while simultaneously being mocked for being interested in such fripperies. I felt this most keenly when planning my wedding: I thought I’d sloughed off all that teenage anxiety about being girly enough by then. Yet suddenly, I was presumed to be a centrepiece-addled Bridezilla with a head full of thoughts about napkin rings. The worst thing about it is that I was, because those bloody napkins aren’t going to decorate themselves.
I knew that for all everyone trilled on about not needing to spend money, and tutting about people spending extravagantly on a single day, they would not have, in actual fact, been that enthused to be greeted by a communal KFC bargain bucket in the windswept hut of an NCP car park. What they wanted was an impeccably elegant, tasteful celebration on a tight budget that was meticulously planned without anyone having had to plan it. Sod this, I thought, and bought a wedding magazine.
The same thing happens with fashion and beauty. Look, society, you can’t have it both ways: either you want me to have a hairstyle, rather than just “some hair”, or you don’t. I’m not fussed either way. Either you want me to wear a pair of black leggings and a giant jumper, or you demand that I look vaguely presentable and up-to-date. But if it’s the latter, I’m going to need to do some research.
Being a New Woman isn’t about picking a side on the “some hair” vs hairstyle wars, by the way: it’s about being relaxed about whatever choice you make, and not worrying that you’ve betrayed an imaginary sisterhood by doing so. That’s why every time I read about women “going back to traditional roles” by watching baking programmes, or shopping at Lakeland, I snort. Are we sure that they’re making a grand statement about modern life? Are we sure they don’t just like eating nice cakes?
What’s the best way to become a New Woman? Well, there have to be easier ways, but for me, it was getting divorced that cured me of many of my lady hang-ups. Firstly, because I had to do the homework: I didn’t know any divorcees, and naively assumed them all to be bottle-blondes raspily demanding another martini while clutching a pearl-handled cigarette holder. (A friend and I found ourselves frantically Googling “how to get divorced” and being surprised you had to give a reason. If only there were divorce magazines, as well as wedding magazines.) Secondly, because a tiny part of me said: you’ve blown it. You’ll never be perfect now. You’re damaged goods.
That I might be, but the best thing about being a fallen woman is that you’ve already landed. The worst has happened. So instead of being perfect, I can focus on being happy.
That said, I think there’s a simpler way to get to the place where I am now. And it’s this: stop listening to the carpers, the critics, the nitpickers and the naysayers. Put down that toxic celebrity magazine that makes you reach for the Wispa because you’ll never be as beautiful as Scarlett Johanssen. The truth is that there is no equation between what you look like and what you’re worth as a person, and no link between being gorgeous and being happy. Many of those singers and models we see every day in the media go home at night, take off their size 0 dresses and their £400 shoes, and feel shit about themselves.
And don’t listen to the women paid by society to collaborate in making you feel bad. You know who I mean: the columnists and TV presenters and the manufactured pop stars, none of whom are saying what they really think, but what pays the bills.
Instead, find the women in your own life who seem to be enjoying themselves, who don’t treat femininity as a burden or a curse; and find the role models who speak to who you are, rather than who you feel you ought to be. The rise of the New Woman is an exciting moment: but wouldn’t it better if it was our new way of life?