One of the puzzling things about feminism is that it can be confused with being self-centred. If it’s good for me, a woman might say of something she wants to do – whether it’s Botox injections, running a country, writing a book or being chronically late – then it’s good for feminism! Sometimes this sort of reasoning is a necessary release; sometimes it’s a joke (on men at first, even if eventually it rebounds on women); sometimes feminism gets stuck there for a time. That’s the way I think of the feminism of the 1990s, when I was a teenager: it wasn’t feminism, it was girl power, suffocatingly individualistic even in a group. That’s not to say I didn’t know – Lord, did I know – how good it felt, giddy and strong and exorcised, to be inside that sort of power, to inhabit a feminism that was all about me. I look back and see myself thrashing along to Courtney Love singing ‘Violet’ in my bedroom: for three minutes and 25 seconds, I could holler at the unfairness of it all, when in reality I stood for nothing but my own teenage frustrations. As Caitlin Moran remembers in her megaselling book from 2011, How to Be a Woman, sexism seemed ‘to be dying so fast’ in 1993, at the birth of the ladette, the beginning of Britpop, ‘in this era of Doc Martens and beer and minimal makeup’, that ‘it would be counterproductive to draw attention to it.’ And yet feminism was nowhere to be seen.
In 1993, Moran was 18, and had already spent two years writing about Hole, Nirvana, Suede, Lush, Kylie, Jeff Buckley, EMF, Kenickie, Faith No More, the Manic Street Preachers, Menswear, the Beastie Boys, the Boo Radleys and Madonna. She grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton, the eldest girl in a family of eight, then was taken on at the astonishing age of 16 by Melody Maker, the less famous but by then cooler version of NME, and then picked up by the Times, where she’s had a column ever since. She was the only girl in the Melody Maker office, and once responded to an invitation to discuss her idea for a cover story on the lap of the commissioning editor by ‘plonking’ herself down on his knees, lighting a fag and saying: ‘Lost your circulation yet?’ (She got the cover story.) She was either made for the moment or the 1990s were made for her: tearing through Camden in Doc Martens and fishnets, lighting up the paper of record, snogging her colleagues, being asked to interview Echobelly ‘because you’re a girl’, and refusing because ‘I knew they were awful.’ As well as developing a near instant rapport with her subjects, her thing was a nerdy teenage lyricism, putting ‘fuck’ in the first sentence and ‘groo’ at the end of a paragraph.
Here we are, midway down the first column of her 1994 interview with Courtney Love:
If you’ve ever felt this earth has closed its arms against you; if you’ve ever felt every eye has seen right through you and stripped you down to bone and clotted blood; if you’ve ever felt the only way to make some impact was to store and stir all the hate in the world in your body, heat it up with the fire of music and let your skin snap and burst one day; let the acid rain down on the city and corrode the skin of everyone underneath so they feel how you feel, then may I suggest Courtney Love?
You can forgive an 18-year-old meeting her idol some overwriting – though I sort of love the bone, the blood clots, the acid and the blistering skin – but what would become Moran’s characteristic stance is here: she’s speaking for all the teenage girls in the suburbs who long for a feminism that won’t come. It’s the movement that dare not speak its name, stirring darkly underneath pimpled skin. And she can sense it, and capture it, because she’s practically the only woman there, and so, in the usual way, she’s made to stand for all women. There are moments in this interview when it feels as if Courtney has been sent to interview Caitlin: they smoke and drink margaritas from pint glasses and talk ‘the sun into rising’. As they hug and kiss goodbye the next morning, Courtney says: ‘I’ve decided I like you. You’re loud – loud and smart. Most loud girls are stupid. Or people think they are …’
Oh to be deemed loud and smart by Courtney Love. Moran was older, cleverer, bolder than I was, and when in the late 1990s I moved on from reading Smash Hits to scouring the columns of Melody Maker, her style was on every newsprint page, misfit and trailblazer in one. (When I started writing reviews of TV and music and plays at university, guess whose style I imitated?) And so it seemed strangely natural when How to Be a Woman appeared: Moran had been the only girl in the moshpit, who became the only working-class columnist on the Thunderer, and now she was the only feminist Britain could offer, given that Germaine Greer was in her rainforest years. (Greer anointed Moran in the Times, calling her ‘a genuinely original talent’.) Moran was first again, this time to sense that mainstream feminism was amassing once more: How to Be a Woman came out the year before the website Everyday Sexism started to collect stories of mundane degradations, two years before Caroline Criado-Perez complained about the ubiquity of men’s heads on banknotes, four years before the Women’s Equality Party was set up. Feminism, Moran told us, wasn’t to be confined to small arguments, feminist academics, a few books and the late-night slot on BBC4, because ‘feminism is so serious, momentous and urgent, that now is really the time for it to be championed by a light-hearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic, who has appalling spelling.’ It is said of first-time parents that they think they’re the only people ever to have had a baby. And this resurgent feminism was a bit like that, because Moran’s life had always been a bit like that. I read the book when it came out a decade ago, like everyone did. I read it last thing and hid it – I didn’t want to seem uncool – under the bed before sleeping, admiring a performance which rarely tipped over to the wrong side of self-deprecating. But I had grown up since my solo moshing to ‘Violet’ and didn’t need to be told that it wasn’t scary to call myself a feminist. I recoiled at the shouty caps and ellipses and extracts from Moran’s teenage diary. There was a good bit about abortion, and some nice stuff about falling in love, and it was pleasing that feminism was the subject of a book you could buy at a supermarket, but overall? Groo.
I let Moran go: into screenwriting and novels and children’s books and Twitter and columns, columns, columns. Feminism moved on too: after splashing around in the shallow neoliberal waters of ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirts and increasing the numbers of women on the boards of rapacious corporations, it became both more radical, as it learned from anti-capitalist and anti-racist and environmental campaigning, and more open, as it handed the loudspeaker to women of colour, working-class women, sex workers and trans women. One could argue that it no longer needed a part-time TV critic standing up for it.
And yet in September, Moran published a sequel to How to Be a Woman. The new book, More than a Woman (Ebury, £20) starts with an imaginary conversation between the 34-year-old Moran of 2010 and the 44-year-old Moran of 2020: Moran the younger has just finished writing How to Be a Woman and believes that she is now a ‘grown-ass feminist woman who’s worked out all her shit’, to which Moran the elder replies: ‘Mate, mate, mate … you’re just about to become the Fourth Emergency Service … No more messy nights out, or voyages of self-discovery. You are about to be required to hold the fabric of society together. For no pay. That’s what being a middle-aged woman is.’ The first book had started with the awkward, bullied 13-year-old Moran, in the belief that sharing stories was also consciousness-raising. Now we have fist-bumping double Morans.
I take a deep breath as I start the book. I know there will be more shouty caps, unnecessary italics, gussied-up dialogue and truths that I have supposedly never seen in print before. I know that the book is not exactly for a reader like me, but that I will even so find the faux idiot savant in DMs stance extremely annoying. More than a Woman is pitched on the back cover blurb as an invitation to join Moran ‘for 24 hours in the life of the average middle-aged woman’, and this is the first thing that rankles. I struggle to see Moran as the average woman – the average woman who has a column in the Times with a generous salary to match? – especially when one chapter of the book unfolds as she is apparently fixing the dishwasher herself. And I can’t help seeing the things the early chapters are preoccupied with – being a wife, being a mother, having a female body – as not exactly irrelevant but not exactly not retrograde. I’m not able to get worked up along with Moran when people don’t call a vulva a vulva, and if I don’t love the very ingrowing hairs on my shins, I don’t think I’m letting feminism down again. Peculiarly, Moran’s teenage exuberance is still on display, creating at times a vertiginous contrast between form and content: here she is posting a picture of her bare feet ‘with a Jacob’s Cream Cracker wedged between each toe’, there she is complaining that, unlike the word ‘hard’, the word ‘moist’ is a ‘boner-killing, fanny-closing spell’; here she is gurgling at the turn of her husband’s key in the door (‘Argh! Gragh! Waah! Gnuuuu!’), there she is having an epiphany about the differences between men and women while watching Jerry Seinfeld do stand-up. Many of Moran’s references are teenagey, like the Marvel Universe, or Lizzo, or Ed Sheeran, or Greta Thunberg, or Billie Eilish. I’m exhausted and alienated and pissed off and patronised all at once. I’m even getting angry at her title, for placing that Bee Gees song in my head, a song whose premise – as I soon discover when I ask Alexa to scratch an itch and play it – is that the girl the Gibb brothers have chosen should be grateful that they see her as more than a woman. Because just being a woman would be a problem?
I am the feminist killjoy of Moran’s nightmares, scratching my biroed objections all over the book, making a reading list for her in my head. She wrote her first book to eliminate people like me. But I keep reading. And something changes. Maybe she wears me down, maybe I acclimatise, but the book in my hands is transformed when Moran does something unexpected, and stops talking about herself. One of her teenage daughters is struggling with the way she looks, and Moran doesn’t suggest a makeover but the table-turning move of getting her to work out what she herself finds beautiful, to be a beholder rather than simply beheld. This advice reminded me of one of my most joyous moments during this pandemic summer, when Vogue released a ‘get ready with me’ video with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who took us from her daily layer of cult Japanese drugstore sunscreen to her congressional committee-ready scarlet lip. She filled in her brows while describing what a pink tax is. She blended glittery gold eyeshadow onto her lids while lamenting that in certain workplaces make-up isn’t just something that ‘gives you life’ but can get you paid more too. She pushed liquid lipstick into her cupid’s bow while explaining that she chose this formula so she doesn’t have to touch up during a day on Capitol Hill. Here is a beholder! It makes Moran’s quoted forebear Nora Ephron look rather dingy for still complaining about her neck.
Moran’s other, younger daughter stops eating her packed lunch, puts up Amy Winehouse posters, stops eating red meat, then fish, then becomes vegan, starts getting up too late for breakfast and taking her dinner plate to her room. She isn’t eating. Moran gets her on the waiting list for therapy (it’s a year long) and in the meantime uses anything she can, trivial and non-trivial – Joey from Friends themed spoons, earnest lectures, creating a chocolate drawer, ripping down her Winehouse posters – to help her daughter out from under her unhappiness. Nevertheless she ends up in the children’s ward of the Royal Free after an overdose, and Moran, at her bedside, has time to think: ‘Why are our children so depressed and anxious they hurt themselves, in so many ways?’ She starts to see her own generation’s shrugging helplessness in the face of climate change, patriarchy, inequality, the erosion of democracy and the dismantling of the welfare state as partly to blame. She starts to see that taking someone else’s view of the world into account will change her feminism; that her voice might be more powerful still if she uses it to articulate someone else’s point of view. Soon she is imagining what it must be like to be an unpaid carer, and dreaming up a women’s union that would speak up for depressed teenagers and middle-aged women and carers who do it out of love but still need money:
A Women’s Union would have, at its core, a simple but vital aim: to reward those still-female things of ‘love’ and ‘care’ in the same way we reward all the other, similar things like ‘loyalty’ and ‘team work’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’. It would show the true value of women – both to the world, and to women themselves. Sometimes I think it is the latter that would, in the end, be most valuable – for whilst popular culture has been successful in writing songs, and telling stories, about how great it is to be a young, hot, dollar-savvy lady-adventurer, there is still nothing about being an older, stoic, domestic hero, quietly mending and re-mending the world, every day.
(Add Middlemarch to Moran’s reading list, fuck it, to everyone’s reading list.) It is astonishing to me, and even moving, that an ego performance like the first half of More than a Woman turns into a passionate argument for solidarity. So many of the clashes in British feminism in recent years have been generational – particularly over trans women – but in taking up her daughter’s cause Moran gets somewhere in her politics that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to find. And perhaps too in her own life. Gone are the incandescent screeds about inadequate slang terms for ‘vagina’, and in their place are quieter, more hard-won, Dorothea-like koans: ‘It is an unfortunate truth that, sometimes, it takes true horror to make you realise something you should have known all along: that a normal, ordinary life is the most covetable thing on Earth.’ Moran takes her daughter to Corfu, and a bite of calamari at a restaurant turns into a whole ring of battered squid, which turns into octopus one night, grilled bream another and fried sardines on the last.
By one measure Moran hasn’t got very far away from herself at all – only to her daughter’s room across the landing – but by another, she has made an extraordinary leap. It isn’t a given that someone will be able to subdue their voice in favour of someone else’s, or that the experience of loving a child will affect their political beliefs. Solidarity as both an experience and a political strategy is one of the main things feminism can offer, and you can’t get there if you’re shouting loudly about all the things that have annoyed you today. Despite myself, I’m wondering what will happen in the next part of Moran’s feminist education, expected in bookshops in September 2030.