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 This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and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!