How To Build A Girl, by Caitlin Moran, Ebury, RRP£14.99, 352 pages

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media, by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Square Peg, RRP£12.99, 304 pages

Everyday Sexism, by Laura Bates, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99, 384 pages

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by Laurie Penny, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 288 pages

To be a feminist seems so natural to me now that it’s hardly worth mentioning: the logical end point for everyone, surely, who wants to live a just, compassionate and moral life. But it doesn’t seem very long ago that I was going to striptease classes, working for a magazine with scantily clad women on the cover and attending lap-dancing clubs with my then boyfriend. Had you asked, I would probably have said I was a feminist then, too.

My understanding of the world, and of myself, has changed a great deal since I was in my twenties – and so has feminism. Those years came for me at the intersection of two things: my own, incomplete journey towards maturity, and a brief period in which liberation seemed to mean aping the freedoms of men.

Things are very different now. Much of the west is experiencing what’s been dubbed the “fourth wave” of feminism – following the first, which secured the vote and changes to property rights a century ago, the second, in the 1960s and 1970s, and third, in the early 1990s. Perhaps each generation must reinvent feminism for itself, for while some things have improved for some women, new pressures and injustices have taken their place – and new voices, new heroines, must be found to counter them.

Today’s movement derives enormous energy from the internet, which has allowed ordinary women to share their stories, organise and find a platform. Pop-feminism blogs and websites have proliferated, while phenomena such as the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen and the Everyday Sexism Project have turned previously hidden instances of violence and harassment into a powerful shared experience. The journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez recently led a triumphant online campaign to ensure Britain’s banknotes didn’t become a male-only preserve, new feminist groups have sprung up all over our university campuses, and “clicktivists” have taken on everything from The Sun’s Page 3 to “rape culture” on Facebook and the creeping pinkification (and princessification) of toys for girls. The backlash, in which prominent women ranging from the classicist Mary Beard to Labour MP Stella Creasy have been threatened with violence and rape, is vicious – but merely serves to prove how much work there is still to do.

With the movement getting so much bandwidth, publishers haven’t been slow to react, and since Caitlin Moran’s vastly popular memoir-cum-instruction manual How To Be A Woman (2011) there has been a boom in books about the subject. The contrast with the 1990s and 2000s is clear: the “ladette” years were more about wearing T-shirts with “porn star” on them than going on protests. Sure, it might have felt for a while as though young women like me were getting in on the game – but whose game, and did we really want to play it?

When I try to recall that visit to a strip club it’s impossible to remember whether I actually enjoyed it – not least because I was ill-equipped to know. Back then I couldn’t tell the difference between the satisfaction that came from being approved of and true pleasure, generated by doing something I genuinely liked. Unconsciously playing to a male gallery had obscured my own experience – and it is something I believe many women are brought up to do.

Moran tackles this subject with her customary brio in her new book, How To Build A Girl. Despite the title, it’s a novel, one whose subject matter (a clever, chaotic girl from a Wolverhampton housing estate gets a job writing for a London music paper at 16) echoes both How To Be A Woman and Moran’s TV sitcom, Raised By Wolves. This time she’s aiming at a Young Adult readership to whom this may all be new – though how interested today’s teens will be in 1990s bands such as Spiritualized and Lush remains to be seen.

Moran is a brilliantly funny writer, and How To Build A Girl is brimful of jokes; in fact, the humour can feel a little relentless. The narrative doesn’t quite take off until unhappy, unformed Johanna arrives in London and begins the process of “building a girl”, but what Moran skewers next is a process that will be familiar to many: that of calibrating yourself to meet male expectations, and of the dubious places (like strip clubs) to which that can lead.

Johanna is drinking heavily and sleeping around – being a “lady sex adventurer”, as she characterises it. But although she’s proud to be having it, at no point does she enjoy the sex; she doesn’t ask for pleasure, wondering “Should you not even ask it of a man if you take more than, say, four minutes? Is that simply unreasonable? I don’t want to be a difficult case, and give someone RSI. I don’t want to get a reputation as a ‘hand-wearier’.” Despite her genuine desire, Johanna is hardly even in the room; and while it’s funny, it’s also heartbreaking.

But she has her epiphany. On the brink of a threesome with two appalling people, Johanna witnesses how little they think of her, manages a rare burst of authentic anger and halts proceedings. “I feel excitingly . . . free,” she says the next day. “Things were going to happen to me that I did not like – and I stopped them . . . I have previously been resigned to any and all fates ahead – mute and compliant, worried about seeming weird . . . But now, things have changed.”

Mute and compliant: these are powerful words, all the more so for being applied to a character who’s outwardly so libidinous and bolshy. But there’s no contradiction here: for women raised in societies in which men set the agenda, sexual and emotional compliance can take root so deeply that they become invisible, even to ourselves – and can take a lifetime to eradicate. Thankfully, Johanna sees what’s happening, and at the book’s close Moran rather tenderly shows her starting on the process, not of building a girl, but of discovering what kind of girl she is.

In a highly visual culture such as ours, one of the strongest influences on young women’s self-confidence is the media – and judging by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s book The Vagenda, deciding not to read women’s magazines was one of the healthiest decisions I ever made. The popular blog on which the book is based takes the glossies to task with energy and humour, finding most of them laughably patronising, regressive and, in many cases, psychologically damaging.

While The Vagenda’s subtitle (“A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media”) suggests a broader remit, most of the book is concerned with print publications rather than the online media that will have more of an effect on the next generation of women. It’s heartfelt, but feels slapdash and naive, and some feminists have criticised it for not representing a wide enough range of female experience. I can largely forgive such faults because it will no doubt speak to the authors’ twenty-something peer group. Whether every feminist (and every feminist book or article) has a duty to represent all women is debatable, but if The Vagenda succeeds in its goal of liberating some women and girls from the pressures of a damaging media, that is surely a net gain.

Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism was also born from a blog, but is a much more polished – and powerful – affair. A collection of testimonies from women and girls about the discrimination and harassment they have experienced and its effect on their lives, it is divided into sections covering education, the workplace, politics, public spaces and so on, interspersed with contextual essays. Cumulatively, the effect is staggering: suddenly it becomes clear how devastating, and how widespread, injustice against women really is. A section called “Double Discrimination” deals with the way other forms of oppression – such as those resulting from race, sexual orientation, disability and class – intersect with sexism, and the book is impressive for the way it bears implacable witness to so many women’s lived experience. As a consciousness-raising exercise it is extremely powerful, the kind of book that could, and should, win hearts and minds right across the spectrum.

Journalist and campaigner Laurie Penny has spent a decade at the frontline of gender and class politics. The author of four previous books, including Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (2011), she writes for the Guardian and is a contributing editor at the New Statesman. Unspeakable Things is coruscating polemic, full of the rhythm and repetition of oratory and persuasive and unsettling in its view of western society as a damaging dystopia causing untold harm to all but those at the very top. It is angry and challenging, but also full of compassion – including for men, many of whom have also been disenfranchised by systems they did not choose.

The world Penny describes isn’t always one that I recognise, but that may be because I lack her experience of working with young activists, gay and trans people and the disadvantaged: victims of structural and social inequality, and of the financial crisis. But equally, perhaps she lacks my perspective on a world beyond that, where, despite the real pressures and injustices she identifies, most women don’t believe that “whatever we do . . . however brave and smart and accomplished we are . . . none of it matters if we are not beautiful”; a world in which adult life isn’t spent “searching for exhausting work that doesn’t pay enough, shopping for things we don’t need and sticking to a set of social and sexual rules that turn out, once you plough through the layers of trash and adverts, to be as rigid as ever”. I see people all around me, gay and straight, who have decided not to give a stuff about what patriarchy or social convention expects: I’m one of them. I’m not denying for a second the distress that Penny reports, merely querying its universality; and despite its occasional bombast, Unspeakable Things is an impressive, inspiring and, I suspect, important manifesto.

These diverse books are proof that the feminism of today is very different from that of two decades ago. But where is the movement now: strengthened by recent campaign successes, glorying in its growing diversity, or riven, as some would have it, by internal division?

Fourth-wave feminism isn’t a religion with a holy book, or a club with a pledge of allegiance, and can fit within it an infinite variety of individuals and concerns. There are feminists who are sex-positive, like me, and those who are anti-porn; those who want total revolution, and those who campaign on single issues. There are growing numbers of male feminists; feminists whose work is to recognise minorities within feminism, and others whose contribution is to their peer group. Part of the work of feminism is to allow women their full and glorious diversity, so, for me, each added voice is something to celebrate. Healthy cultures are ones whose values are always under debate, so what matters now is not that women find some kind of internal consensus, but that we speak – and keep on speaking.

Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)

Slideshow photographs: Jinan Younis


Letter in response to this article:

Gender links to other inequalities/ From Mr Guy Wroble

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article