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Caitlin Moran’s name is synonymous with feminist activism.
Her acclaimed books, How to Be a Woman, How to Build a Girl and More Than a Woman are relatable survival guides for women of all ages and backgrounds, encouraging us all to stand up for ourselves and use our voices.
This International Women’s Day, we launch our Jameela Jamil ‘Changemakers’ Guest Edit, with a focus on activism and speaking up to make change.
Handpicked by Jameela to take part was Caitlin, who sat down with us this month to talk feminism’s call-out culture, Invisible Women and the must-reads for all women’s rights activists.
This month, Caitlin has partnered with book subscription box LoveMyRead, recommending six must-read books for all women as part of an exclusive CaitMo-approved Mother’s Day box.
Her inspired choices? Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, Love Nina by Nina Stibbe, Luster by Raven Leilani and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford.
MC Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Caitlin this IWD to find out more about LoveMyRead and to discuss why call-out culture has no place in feminism…
Tell me about your collaboration with LoveMyRead…
I just loved the idea. As women, whether a daughter or a mother, we tend to have massive to-do lists and finding the right books to read or discovering new authors is just another task. With this, you can just press a couple of buttons and someone will do that for you, and I just think generally in life for women if you can take something off your to-do list by pressing a few buttons, it’s to be applauded. I get asked to do so many things and I turn them all down, but what could be lovelier than just showing people the best books and saying ‘you will love this – it has the CaitMo seal of approval’. It was also very useful because otherwise I do have a tendency of just grabbing people and going ‘You must read this book’, so this makes things slightly less threatening. People can opt into being told what books to read by me, rather than just simply being harrangued in a bar. It was impossible narrowing it down though – I tried to make sure that it was a good spread, representative racially, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, classics and a couple of things you might not have heard of. I mean God, narrowing down my long list was like doing Desert Island Discs.
As it’s IWD, let’s talk Invisible Women…
This is probably the book that I’ve recommended the most over the last couple of years. It’s just an extraordinary achievement. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to have a woman on the banknote, and also previous to that had noticed that it tended to be male experts on news programmes and so compiled this list of female experts so that news programmes had no excuse. They could now have proper gender representation. So, she’s all about being useful and going, ‘what’s the thing that needs to be done in feminism?’ And the thing that she decided needed to be done was spend five years collating all this research on ways that the world has been designed for men and not women, and how it puts women at a disadvantage, or hurts them, and in some cases, kills them. For instance, in the diagnosis for heart attacks, the symptoms are completely different in men than they are for women, but we still tend to only know the symptoms for men, so frequently women are undiagnosed having heart attacks, and their mortality rate is far higher than men. iPhones are designed so that you can text using one hand, but only for male hands – they are too big for a female hand so we have to use two. Seat belts are not designed around tits so we get terrible breast injury in shunts. It’s just all of these things.
Why was it an important book for you to include?
I wanted to put it into the Mother’s Day box because it’s the book that I insisted my daughters read. I think very often when life is difficult, women presume it’s their fault and that they must have done something wrong. Give this book to a girl at an early age and go, ‘So much of why you’re exhausted or scared or things seem more difficult for you than for your male friends is because this is a world designed for men not women. Women are invisible in all these inventions. Here’s the book which tells you why your life seems so difficult and frustrating. And then when you’ve finished it, let’s have a big, feminist rant and talk about this.’ We’re more than half of the population. But in the rooms where the decisions are being made, it’s often men and they just don’t think to include women in it, or to recognise two kinds of normal – men and women. There was a fundraising initiative for a copy of Invisible Women to be bought and given to every MP in the UK parliament, just so they could read it and bear it in mind for future legislation. I don’t know if they’ve read them but those books were given to them, and it would genuinely change the experience of being a woman in this country if any UK lawmaker read that book. It’s such a big piece of work. Caroline has done so much heavy lifting to just show us what the world is like and provide us with answers, and I just love a chick who’s getting shit done. She’s my hero.
Talk me through your decision to feature only female authors…
I was home educated and so growing up I had never read books by the ‘serious great white male authors’, and I’m so glad that I hadn’t. When I read them in my forties to find out what all the fuss was about, I was just horrified by the way that they describe female characters. If I had seen female characters through a male gaze at 14, I think I would be far less feminist and confident than I am now. There’s that Raymond Carver line, ‘She was the kind of Dame that could make an Archbishop kick in a stained glass window’. And that’s a beautiful line but if I had read that when I was 14, I would have thought as a woman that’s what you have to be. You have to be a dame who enrages bishops and makes them destroy property. ‘Is that what I’m supposed to be? Do men not like you if you’re not that?’
What is a key difference in how men and women write female characters?
Men tend to write about female characters as beautiful – the interesting women are always beautiful. Whereas when women write about women, they know that actually the interesting women are not beautiful. They always make a point of going, ‘she was not particularly pretty’ or ‘she was plain’, and that’s such a relief. No shade on beautiful women, but when you’re 13, it’s so lovely and reassuring to know that it won’t be an absolute legal necessity for you to be hot. There’s a brilliant account on twitter called Men Write Women, and I urge you to read it.
You also chose Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…
I decided to reread the first 10 pages of Americanah last night to refresh my memory and I just kept going to p183 – I was up till 2 o’clock. I knew I loved it, but I had forgotten what a brilliant person Chimamanda is to spend time hanging out with. Within the first 10 pages, you’re just totally in that world – it allows you to live a completely different life. I now feel that I know what it’s like to be a young Nigerian woman who spent 15 years living in America and going to Princeton, and I’m absolutely on her side. The thing that I feel the most passionately about however is that I now understand what it’s like to have black hair. I never knew the amount of time, money, choices and pain that went into it. It’s just such a beautiful book to hang out with and you totally feel transported to another place. For those who don’t know Chimamanda, she’s the feminist writer that Beyoncé quoted in her music, so anyone that can intersect feminism and R&B is always going to be a hero anyway.
You’ve spoken about the current call-out culture in feminism. Should we be making the movement more forgiving?
Totally. So much of feminism is just asking questions and learning. I see this a lot in younger feminists – they’re so scared of saying the wrong thing or admitting that they don’t know something and being called out for it, that the conversation is starting to close down. I’m very distrustful of any political movement that isn’t at its core joyful and relaxed. I think if you’re that uptight and precious and you’re trying to rigidly define your feminism, it will get smaller and smaller and it will die. All you will have left at the end are the people who are absolutely convinced that they are right and who shouted everybody else down, and that’s not a movement with a future. If a movement isn’t getting bigger and including more people, more conversations and different ways of talking about things, it has an end point. I’m very much a ‘looking at your vagina with a mirror in a circle and drinking herbal tea’ feminist rather than a ‘you’ve got some feminism wrong, so you’re out forever’ type.
When I was younger I can remember being so didactic about so many different things, to the point of going, ‘Well if you prefer the Stone Roses over the Happy Mondays, I hate you’. Then you get to 45 and you’re like ‘I don’t really hate anybody, it’s all music, and we might slightly disagree on what indie music we like but we’re all generally going to the same gigs. We just need to chill out a bit.’
What role have books played in your life?
I didn’t go to school, we didn’t have any friends, for long periods of time we didn’t have a telly and my parents were very hands-off, but the one thing they did do was take us to the library every day – sometimes twice. I’m a very fast reader – I can read a book a day – and I used to inhale biographies by odd women like Lucy Irvine who wrote Castaway and Rosie Swale-Pope, who circumnavigated the globe and then went across the Atacama Desert and gave birth on a boat on her own. So I grew up reading all these autobiographies by amazing women and by the time you’ve read them, it’s like you’ve lived your life and theirs, so you become one person cleverer. They add up and suddenly you’ve got all these lived experiences that people have told you about and you kid yourself that you would be able to sail a ship around the world on your own or kill a bear. It gives you that kind of confidence.
Is there a book that has had the biggest impact on you overall?
I think there’s a difference between the books that you read up to the age of 20 and then afterwards. You’re still forming the basic synaptic layer of your brain until you get to the age of about 25 I think, so the books that you read when you’re younger absolutely become part of you. And one of the reasons that I was so excited to do LoveMyRead for Mother’s Day is because there are certain books that I need my daughters to have read before they get to 20. So that when I tell them, ‘You’re behaving a bit like Amy March’, they’ll understand what I’m saying. In your later years, the books that impact you the most are the ones that show you new worlds, but they don’t tend to become so much of a part of you. In recent years, the ones that have really blown my mind have been Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf.
Have you found escapism through books to be more essential this year?
Hugely, because even when you’re watching TV, you’re aware that it’s the same TV that you were watching at 5 o’clock for the latest news update and there’s a certain anxiety there. Whereas in a book you’re just totally safe – you can close the door and no one can get you. I just think the way that a book physically looks is such a happy accident. It’s like a Narnia-esque door that you’re opening and I’ve always felt that you’re just falling into the book like a doorway into another world.
What is a must-read for all feminist activists?
Well, obviously I’m going to say mine. If you read How to Be a Woman (2011) and More Than a Woman (2020) back to back, you’ll hopefully feel better about yourself. They’re not those feminist books that go, ‘you’re a bad feminist’ or ‘you should have been doing this 10 years ago’. I purposefully point out everything I got wrong in How to Be a Woman in the first chapter of More Than a Woman because I think it’s really important in feminism that we can change our minds. I also just loved the idea of arguing with myself. I didn’t want to argue with any other feminists – the only argument you should be having in feminism is one with yourself.
LoveMyRead is an exclusive monthly book subscription box for adults and children. Launching in 2020, it’s already the UK’s fastest growing book subscription and the company gives books back to schools via their partnership with the School Libraries Association.