The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, is so good I was ready to write a highly recommended review of it before I had even finished it. First published in 1977, it is considered a classic feminist novel. The story follows the life of a woman named Mira Ward as she grows up in the 30s and 40s , becomes a suburban house wife in the 50s and early 60s, and rediscovers herself in the late 60s when she goes back to school. It is reminiscent of the themes of The Feminine Mystique, as it addresses the same issues – middle-class white women trapped in the suburbs, living empty lives and unable to figure out what is missing. It is anything but subtle, blatantly discussing and addressing the themes of oppression and questions of the meaning of life. This works because the narrator is looking back on Mira’s life, trying to understand it in the context of later experiences. For example, here is a quote from the time when Mira is still living in the suburbs:
She was living the American Dream, she knew that, and she tried to get her mask on straight. She had her hair done at the right shop and when they saw gray and advised dye, she let them dye it. She bought expensive three-piece knit suits; she had her nails manicured. She had a holder full of charge cards.
The narration is mostly in the third person, describing Mira’s life and that of her friends in excruciating detail. Occasionally it moves to the first person, the voice of the woman writing this story down, who now lives alone on the coast of Maine. She analyzes and contemplates the events of the past and the meaning of life. French’s writing is excellent, gripping in its detail and in the seamless combination of life details and insightful observations about life. The Women’s Room is an intense novel; definitely not light reading: French writes in detail about sex, suicide, mental illness, adultery, rape, lesbian relationships, alcohol, and other difficult subjects. Interspersed with these at times horrifying details are the long conversations between the characters, especially in the later part of the book, analysing and discussing theories about life and making the reader think as well. I was amazed and impressed at how thoroughly French could get in to the minds of so many different characters.
I can see two ways that people might criticize The Women’s Room. One is that there is some sense of it being anti-men. There is no denying that it is about the women’s point of view. The characters are very harsh on men; one of them in the latter part of the story becomes a militant anti-men radical feminist. I did not feel that the author herself was making a definite statement about men, however. She presents this story and it is clear that it is the story of these women and their experiences and attitudes, all of which are valid and need to be heard. The point is not to say, the problem is with the men, but to say, this is how some women were affected by living through these time periods.
The other criticism some might make is one that is often made against The Feminine Mystique: that it is white middle-class women’s feminism only. Yes, it is a story about white middle-class women. But just because they are privileged and there are women who never had the opportunities they did, does not mean their story should not be heard. Their privilege locked them in to roles at the same time that it gave them luxeries, and the story of how women were affected by those roles and how they tried to rediscover themselves and break out of them is important. Less privileged women, who had no choice but to work at paid jobs in order to help support their family and no opportunity to go to college, were affected by those roles too; it was the American Dream that permeated all levels of society. Finally, I would not expect French to write about something she does not know; clearly the lives she describes in her novel are familiar to her; she is a white middle-class woman herself, almost the same age as Mira. I wonder, in fact, how much of the novel is autobiographical.
I felt that The Women’s Room went well beyond a sordid soap-opera to offer an insightful look at women’s oppression. Although oppression is for the most part not so blatant now – I and the man I married never had any expectation that I would be a submissive housewife – I think it is still an incredibly relevant novel. Our society is still patriarchal, and in popular culture women’s bodies are still all too often viewed as being there for men. I read every day about rape apologists, people who blame the victim of a rape rather than the perpetrator, which is unfortunately not a far cry from the event that happened in the novel. Although things are much better for women today than in the 50s, the roots of oppression of women run very deep in culture and they are not all eradicated.
I most highly recommend The Women’s Room, and I will leave you with a few quotes:
Survival is an art. It requires the dulling of the mind and the sense, and a delicate attunement to waiting, without insisting on precision about just what it is you are waiting for.
I don’t know what it is like to be pregnant voluntarily. I assume it’s a very different experience from that of the women I know. Maybe it’s joyful — something shared between the woman and her man. Buf for the women I know, pregnancy was terrible. Not because it’s so painful — it isn’t, only uncomfortable. But because it wipes you out, it erases you. You aren’t you anymore, you have to forget you. If you see a green lawn in a park and you’re hot and you’d love to sit on the grass and roll over in its cool dampness, you can’t; you have to toddle over to the nearest bench and let yourself down gently on it. Everything is an effort — getting a can down from a high shelf is a major project. You can’t let yourself fall, unbalanced as you are, because you’re responsible for another life besides your own. You have been turned, by some tiny pinprick in a condom, into a walking, talking vehicle, and when this has happened against your will, it is appalling.
Actually, Lily and I aren’t so different: she’s inside those gates, I’m inside these. We’re both insane, both running on and on over the same track, around and around hopelessly. Only I have a job and an apartment and I have to clean my own place and cook my own meals and I don’t get to have electric shocks twice a week. It’s strange how they think that giving you electric shocks will make you forget the truths you know. Maybe what they really think is that if they punish you enough, you’ll pretend to forget the truths you know, you’ll be good and do your housework. I’ve known for a long time that hypocrisy is the secret of sanity. You mustn’t let them know you know. Lily knows that too, and the last two times she used it, she pretended to be docile and sorry for her sins and they let her out. But now she’s too angry, she won’t pretend.
People sigh and weep and say how peaceful it was before in the happy golden age when everyone believed the old stories. But actually nothing whatever has changed except the stories.
I guess the stories are all we have, all that makes us different from lion, ox, or those snails on the rock. I’m not sure I want to be different from those snails. The essential human act is the lie, the creation or invention of a fiction. For instance, here in my corner of the world, a major story is that it is possible to live without pain. They are removing hooks from noses and psyches, gray from hair, gaps from teeth, organs from bodies. They are trying to remove hunger and ignorance, or so they say. They are working on a pitless peach, a thornless rose.
All of life had constricted for them into a mortgage payment.
Morality is fine, but it is limited. Morality is a set of rules for people to live together; it presumes the being together and it presumes the main chance. It has no hold over and no relevance to people who have passed over the edge.
She told herself this as she paced the large, mostly empty rooms. She stood in the wide foyer, with its impressive chandelier and the winding staircase, and told herself she must be happy, she had to be. She had no other choice: there was a moral imperative on her to be happy. She was not actively unhappy. She was just — nothing.
But she enjoyed talking to the boys when they got in. They were smart and funny, and she hugged them a lot. They would talk over a snack, then change their clothes and go out. She had another hour to herself. She would take the laundry out of the dryer and fold it carefully, patiently. She would take something out of the freezer to defrost. Then she would take a book and sit down. The boys ran in and out and she was frequently interrupted, so she read only light things in the afternoons. Then it was time to prepare dinner.