Louise Livesey reviews another guide to life as a modern woman which blithely ignores everyone who isn’t white, middle class and straight
There is always a fundamental problem, I find, when authors deny association with feminism but then rely on feminism’s achievements as the basis for their books. Even the guest intro writer for this book, Julie Burchill, warns: “In recent years there has been an outbreak of shameless sucking up to the sad old ways of sexism, which has taken the shape of women who have benefited from all the blessings feminism has wrestled from the hands of patriarchy.”
The Modern Maiden’s Handbook: The Shameless Girl’s Guide to Blameless Living by Nina de la Mer, however, does just that. As early on page two, de la Mer is demanding that we “wave good bye to these feminist… legacies” of the contraceptive pill and “bra-burning”1 to become “modern maidens”. But so much of this “handbook” is reliant on the gains of feminism, that the repeated distancing and avowal that it has no worth is grating.
Also grating is the sheer volume of incorrect information. For example, on the subject of terminations, she claims: “In the English speaking, Western world, terminations are legal and available to women who request on in the first trimester of pregnancy.” (p.29)
Try telling that to women in Northern Ireland, or women denied terminations by their GPs on the mainland. We don’t have abortion on demand in the UK, whatever de la Mer might think, and it is certainly not a guaranteed right across the Western, English speaking world – for example in large parts of Australia it is illegal unless the maternal life is threatened, in New Zealand it is the life or health of the mother and in large parts of Canada there are simply no clinics offering abortions at all. You get the idea.
On the subject of motherhood, the book is irreverent and witty and these are, perhaps, the strongest chapters. But the whole book feels rather out of touch with reality. There is a quite decent guide to drugs, effects and side-effects, but no discussion of how the drugs trade is linked to global exploitation and drug traffickers exploit women as couriers and mules. Nor how organised crime tends to also be involved in trafficking of women as well as the selling of pills and potions to get off your head.
The whole book adopts an attitude of naïve indifference to the majority of the difficulties in women’s lives. It assumes that all women are somehow homogeneous, and that homogeneity large matches the lives of a few white, middle class women who are comfortably off. If you are lesbian, bisexual, not white or poor, this book offers little other than, perhaps, dreams of a world in which whether to get drunk or stoned or how to make the “office cutie” fancy you are the hardest decisions you’ll have to face. The book blithely recommends hiring a cleaner if you can afford it (obviously ignoring that most women in the service sector doing jobs like this are immigrants being exploited by our relative wealth and their relative poverty and powerlessness). All of the sex advice is strictly heterosexual and really rather unempowered – we’re admonished to speak up in the bedroom, but only because he will enjoy it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entire book is bad… it’s just, well, bland and boring and presumptive of sameness. I don’t know many women who need to be told it’s OK to enjoy sex or to sometimes do things that are a little daft. In that sense the book is really just recycling stuff feminism has already taught us. And, far more restrictive than feminism, the book gives us a single model of behaviour – sleep around, have fun, damn the consequences. The presumption that we all want to, or should want to, is difficult – it ignores the sorts of barriers that do exist like poverty or disability or histories of abuse and it glosses over the emotional side with a presumption that of course you will enjoy it, ignoring that many women don’t. I’m all for empowerment but I am just not convinced this is the model of it that will actually work.
In short, if you are naïve enough to need an advice book to tell you it’s OK to have fun then this book may be for you. If, however, you are looking for something which connects to everyday life in a realistic fashion, especially if you aren’t middle class or white or straight, then it definitely isn’t.
1 Yes de la Mer drags up that old cherry of false memory – even women who were there have made the point they binned trappings of patriarchal femininity like girdles and Playboy magazines, but the burning was of the American flag by anti-war protestors.