Rereading ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French

I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement.  I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities.  Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.

So my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment.  How much anger and frustration these women had!  How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation!  Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity.  Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.

Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart.  And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories).  Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home.  But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity?  I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless.  And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!

So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas.  We are all far more aware of our options now,  but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality.  The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame  the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.

The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book.  For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system.  It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.

What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer.  Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures.  I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate.  There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings.  She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.

So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’?  No longer anger and pity.  No easy target to blame.  Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!

Feed Me

What I want and what I need

what I want to want

and what I think I want

are different

and changed again.

 

Praise sandwiched in snide greens  I can deal with.

But praise unbound leaps and gags the wary mind.

 

So feed me:

News in small digested parcels.

Awe in sane confects I can see and understand.

Joy in self-contained units, allotments of peace.

Lust in sanitised tray with neat compartments.

Change in easy gulps, fear in whispered inklings.

 

Feed me when the world turns colder.

Don’t open what I cannot bear.

Close the door, the draughts, the weather…

I fear ‘too much’, I crave no more.

For this award, I would like to thank…

Do you get annoyed when the Academy Award winners go on and on, well beyond their allotted minutes, and thank their entire family, circle of friends, business associates, fellow actors, pets and maybe even their stamp collection?  I know that like all sensible, rational people (i.e. people I call ‘friends’), I do find award ceremonies a bit of a tiresome lovefest…  Unless, of course, I happen to be the one nominated, in which case, like all creative, imaginative, brilliant people (whom I also call ‘friends’), I begin to think that awards are a wonderful, meaningful process of appreciating one’s fellow geniuses (genii?).

So, yes, you might have surmised from this that I was jumping up and down in excitement when I came back from holiday and discovered that my dear faithful (by name and by nature) friend Ami Fidèle had nominated me for the Liebster Blog award.  It’s my first award and only the second time I have been tagged for something, so bear with me while I do a little dance around my living room.

OK, back now, and ready to fulfill my obligations for the award:

1) Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them. Well, if you haven’t come across the beautifully romantic poetry of Ami Fidèle or Ami de Rêve, a Cyrano de Bergerac who has somehow wandered into the 21st century, then I strongly recommend you go to his blog and enjoy it.

2) Copy and paste the award logo – done!

3)  Nominate five other bloggers you would like to pass the award on to.

This was really hard, partly because there are so many wonderful bloggers that I have discovered recently, who have become firm favourites.  Also, because quite a few of them have awards already, or have just been nominated by someone else.  Or are way too well-known and universally appreciated to worry about this teeny-timid clap on the back from me.   Still, I have done my best, they are all blogs I can whole-heartedly recommend (and I only fear that they may be too busy to respond).

Ethan Greenwood – Letters from the Wasteland – for outstanding word-craft

Polly Robinson – for variety, versatility and encouraging activity

Layla from Be Not Afeard – for thoughtful provocation

Already Not Published – for being candid about her writing journey

Eclectic Nomad – because I would like to read more from her

4) Tell your readers ten random facts about you.  To alleviate the potential monotony of such a long list, I have tried to associate each random fact with a book title.

 

Ballet Shoes  I always dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer, but, when I was about seven, my mother happened to be in the same ward in hospital as a ballet dancer who had broken her spine after her partner dropped her (and was paralysed for life).  So I was never allowed to continue with my dancing.  I read all of Noel Streatfield and Lorna Hill instead.

Water for Elephants  My second dream job was to work as a keeper in an elephant orphanage somewhere in Africa.  I still adore elephants and have a collection of elephant figures (sadly, mostly stored in the attic with all of this moving around).  And I would never, ever buy any ivory.

The Sea, the Sea  My favourite colours are blue and turquoise. And I love anything to do with the sea.

Starman   The first single I ever bought (way before downloads) was David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (Super Creeps)’ and I remain a big fan to this day (prefer the earlier work, though).

James and the Giant Peach  I like all fruit and vegetables, except for the notorious durian, which makes me gag.

Chocolat  I have a sweet tooth and used to be able to eat up to five desserts a day (instead of proper food). No longer!

Not Waving but Drowning  I never learnt to swim properly (although I can float and do breast stroke), and am terrified of drowning.

Bleak House  My guilty pleasure is reading home improvement/ interior design magazines.  I’ve been known to buy them at airports even if they are in Danish, Swedish and other languages that I do not speak.

Confessions of an (English?) Opium Eater  I’m not English.  But I write and dream in English and I speak English better than any other language.

There Is No Long Distance Now  I started this blog about two months ago as a place to ‘park’ all my work in progress, and as a way to hold myself to account and write something every day, after sooooo many years of putting my creative writing last. I was inspired by the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who, with her wonderful eyes, deep voice and luminous presence, told me that even seven minutes a day spent working on a poem counts as writing.  Since then, I have never looked back. I never expected anybody to read the blog and was firmly convinced all my first readers were spammers.  I have been overwhelmed by the encouragement, support and new friends that I have gained from it.  And that I have not been forgotten even during the three weeks I was offline. I am very grateful indeed, thank you all!

So there you are, I still managed to thank everybody for this award. Except for my (imaginary) stamp collection.

The D Word

 

He comes in cloaks of sweeping darkness,

just when and where we cannot know,

a friendless face, plaintive aside,

unseeing eyes and lips unsmiled.

But I digress…

 

He reckons the skill will maim or kill.

He reckons he knows to avoid the throes.

He reckons and calculates, measures and frowns.

Silent charades, we most ruefully hand over:

beauty and incubus both.

 

He pimps up the memories with medals or stories.

He offers horizons and vistas long spent.

Abhor him! Fall not for his honeyed deception!

The mould is still soft, all possibilities there,

you can deflect those pinpricks, each perfect phrase dissecting.

 

You know he’s not playing fair.

when all that remains

is cracked shell

and waste.

Accident

They’d been chatting, all idle, face ahead,

maybe about a restaurant they hoped to go to,

or a couple they had met.

His foot on the pedal, racing not braking:

speeded-up tunnel of blurred sides meshing,

merging, blending to only one fixed point ahead –

the intersection.

Hoping no one would come, his foot gropes for the right place,

a scream from his partner,

his own sickened groan,

but there’s no straight,

it’s T and shop window,

a slowed down second waiting for the smash.

No time for a flash-by of life’s key moments:

what nonsense to think this ever was true –

just the fractured thought of the stupidity of it all.

 

Books I’ve Been Reading

Some of you may know that since mid-February, roughly about the time I started this blog, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a writing renaissance.  Or, let me rephrase this: a rebirth of creative writing, because I was always busy writing articles, talks, research findings, blog posts.  So much so, that I think it left me in a soapy bath of corporate-speak: dozy, inert, unwilling  to step out of its reassuring warmth.

Since that time, however, writing has been pouring out of me like a water out of a burst watermain, and somehow this has survived two school holidays (one is still ongoing), a long bout of flu and a house move.  Any of these factors by itself would have been enough to make me run and hide the manuscript/save the file in some obscure folder/dump it all in a box in the garage in the past. But now…

Now I even have time to read something other than just crime fiction (which I still love to read, but I think I was also using it too much to unwind and switch off my brain, instead of challenging myself with different kinds of writing).  OK, compared with some of you voracious readers and book bloggers out there, I am very small fry indeed.  I’ve calculated that I’ve read about 18 books in 10 weeks, which is 1.8 per week (even though I have more than one on the go at any given time).  That is a very faint and far cry indeed from my teenage self, when I could devour that amount per day (and write extensive reviews of each one).

Anyway, because my nosey self always enjoys looking at other people’s reading lists, here are some of the more memorable books I’ve been reading these past ten weeks:

Fred Vargas: Dans les Bois Eternelles

Sheila Kohler: Becoming Jane Eyre

Chris Pavone: The Expats (I have a review of it here)

Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red (which I think I will review at some point)

Bret Lott: The Difference Between Women and Men

Patricia Duncker: The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge

Robert Bly: Silence in the Snowy Fields (poetry)

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid (talking about creativity and gardening)

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit (you can read my thoughts on it elsewhere on the blog)

Le Carré: The Constant Gardener

Fred Vargas: Sous les Vents de Neptune

Virginia Woolf’s Diary edited by Anne Olivier Bell (rereading)

Ha Jin: Waiting

Not a very impressive list, I’m sure, in terms of quantity at least. I’ve also been re-reading a couple of other books (poetry and novels), an anthology of short stories and the wonderful stories and poems that appear on so many of your blogs.  With the exception of the last, what is the common trait of all of the above?  That they are nearly all (‘The Expats’ is the sole exception) books that have been out for many years and that I had never got around to reading.  Whether that means I am deeply unfashionable, badly out of date, or just starting to crank up my engine for becoming a good and prolific reader (and writer) once more, I don’t know.

Here’s to hoping…

Who Am I? (The Third Culture Kid)

Or even fourth or fifth culture kid…  This is the internationally accepted term for children who have spent a significant portion of their formative years in cultures different from their own, or their parents.  I didn’t know I was one while I was growing up – now I am raising a couple of my own.  Personally, I much prefer the term ‘global nomad’ – has more of a glamorous ring to it, doesn’t it? But what I do have is that feeling of fragmentation: I do not have a solid, whole concrete façade, but  am made up of so many different little pebbles of influence.

 

I used to think moving on is a blessing,

the moved upon powerless and grieving.

Head down, I’d prepare for exit and re-entry, again, and again,

glad to be the one gathering no moss.

But ultimately revenge is theirs:

for they sprout roots, link up, grow together, form tissue

richly alive with many shared hours and insights and tales.

All the shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,

always creating and leading their own trend,

while the mover is running to catch up, to fuddle,

stuck in the language of past generations,

never quite getting the nuance, the slang.

See that flying line of geese?  There’s one just off,

destroying the symmetry of their formation.

I fear I am something of a disappointment:

not enough of a glamour-bird when you want to preen with me,

yet not sufficiently aligned and meek.

My ducks in a row askew,

so easy to shoot at, and never enough time

to grieve.

I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts

my own thoughts

my solitude.

I’ve learnt a short answer to the question:

‘Where are you from?’, tinged with just enough humour

and self-deprecation to disarm and charm.

Who am I?

I am all that is half-forgotten,

half-mourned, half-understood.

I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.

I am all that is buried deep inside and want to excavate no more.

I am all that I dare not show you

for fear that you will drown.

Clone Trooper Wins Again

We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings!  I’m tired.  Run about, do something!’

It’s cold, windy.  The monkey-bars are icy, and there are too many children on the climbing wall and see-saws.  My baby brother sticks out his lower lip. ‘Don’t wanna!’

Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”.  Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want?  Talk to me!  Can’t help you if you don’t tell me!  When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time?  Waa, waa!  Is that all you guys ever do?’

She’s off again.  No one can say Mum is stuck for words.  Press a button, and she goes on forever.  I have my pocket remote and switch her off like the sound on telly.  Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home.  But no, it’s the usual stuff…  How could she have given birth to such lazy children?…  Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Wii… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this…

She folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench.  Jake stands stiffly beside her. Face all screwed up and snotty.  Refusing to have fun.  I shrug and start playing Star Wars.  I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre.  I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game.  She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else.  All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.

Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning.  Light sabres should belong to everybody.

Eleanor Rigby Goes to Bed

Each evening she finishes her meal

with a small cube of cheese on a stale piece of bread.

Dry is better for digestion, protects against wind.

Calcium is good for the bones.

In winter she moves the chair closer to the electric fire,

which she leaves on for just three hours a day.

She does not hold with showers, a bath every four days suffices,

sluicing down all water marks with a damp cloth.

She brushes her teeth with an eggtimer

and flosses every chink, quietly, mercilessly.

Then, before she lays down her head on the starched pillow,

she carefully pouts her lips

and frames them with the scarlet luxurious ooze

of Chanel’s True Red.