A Woman's Little Instruction Book (1995)
A Woman’s Little Instruction Book: 200 Secrets to Help You Sort Out the Men in Your Life – and the Life in Your Men was written by Jasmine Birtles. It was published in 1995 by Boxtree Limited, a now-defunct London-based company with a focus on books tied to television programmes as well as pop music, sport, biographies and humour. Birtles is an author, financial commentator, comedian, journalist, television presenter and entrepreneur. She went Cambridge University where she read English and was a member of Footlights.
The book is a collection of 200 jokes making fun of male flaws and shortcomings. For a humorous response, men are deliberately presented as simple and annoying, while women are contrastingly smarter and in control. The satirical nature of the text is shown straight away with the words “A Parody” included on the cover and made clear through the sarcastic jokes at the expense of male shortcomings:
“What do you do if your boyfriend walks out?
You shut the door.”
A Woman’s Little Instruction Book was written from the experience of many women and several men. Published during the third-wave feminism in late twentieth century, it offers us a useful glimpse into ideas about feminism and female humour in the 1990s. It could therefore be useful in work about third wave feminism, humour or feminist politics as an interesting perspective on any one of these topics, or a combination of the three. It could also be used as an example of how women’s literature in feminist movements has evolved.
The work may well be a parody of self-help books such as Life's Little Instruction Book: 511 Suggestions, Observations, and Reminders on How to Live a Happy and Rewarding Life and A Woman's Best Medicine: Health, Happiness, and Long Life Through Ayur-Veda, published in 1991 and 1993 respectively. It is not overtly stated that this is the case, however, the similarities/parodies are clear, and it could still unknowingly be a response – a product of these types of books). Birtles has shown her belief in female capability stating that “once women do understand money and investing … they actually do better than men.” Considering this, what at first seems a bit of fun and potentially trivial compared to other feminist works becomes more poignant, and is subtler in its efforts to displaying the strength and importance of women, who don’t need to be told what to do as older instruction books suggest, and are instead presented as superior.
From the book’s title, it is clear the book is aimed at mature women with an understanding of the social meaning and context surrounding male stereotypes (for example, the book states that men are only good for dancing and buying drinks) needed to appreciate the book. Additionally, satirical humour appeals to a more mature audience.
It is interesting that this book is very similar in style to the hugely popular ‘Ladybird’s for Grown Ups’ collection; a modern-day reimagining of the original Ladybird guidebooks, including Ladybird-style artwork, written in the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, it is intriguing that this book was written 20 years before the satirical ‘Grown Up’ Ladybird books were published in 2015, yet shares a very similar tone and approach to humour.
Looking for more sources?
The Hypatia Collection includes a number of humorous advice texts, particularly, in the ‘humour’ section. See, for example, Autumn Stephens’ Untamed Tongues: Wild Words from Wild Women from 1993.
There is also material relating to feminism and feminist politics and could be incorporated with many works from different eras to highlight change and continuity or how feminist works vary. There are numerous feminist works in the Hypatia collection including periodicals such as The Female State: A Journal of Female Liberation, Stir: A Journal from Southern African Women and On The Issues: The Progressive Woman's Quarterly.
This work could be used alongside earlier advice literature to highlight contrasts, and would work well in tandem with texts such as, for example Gladys M. Cox’s Women's Book of Health from 1933.
By Isaac Avery