A Woman’s Place

Right, we’re going away for the weekend so I am allowing myself one hour absolutely no more in which to write about The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. It’s good to have some restraints when dealing with this novel, which is excessive, lengthy, and unrestrained in so many ways. On the one hand it’s about women throwing off those shackles of oppression and getting out of the kitchen and into the world, on the other, it can’t manage to be positive and forward-looking because it’s written from the point of view of women who’ve been wrongfully incarcerated, abused and belittled for most of their lives. Ostensibly it’s a novel, but I think it’s better described as other things, a series of Holocaust testimonies from the survivors of gendercide, perhaps, a version of Boccaccio’s Decameron in which all the travelers cooped up in a thwarted escape attempt turn out to be very angry women, a catalogue of sex crimes from the first half of the twentieth century. Well, it may be classified as feminist literature, but if I were back in the bookshop, I think I would be obliged to reshelve it alongside Stephen King in the horror section. It is a mostly gripping and disturbing read, one of those books that says a lot, disquietingly, about cultural history, and a flawed classic that ought to be discussed in schools, if it weren’t quite so long.

Ostensibly it is the story of Mira, who grows up in a distant, respectable family in the forties, marries and endures the suburban American dream of the fifties, goes through the destroying process of a divorce in the sixties and then returns to college, to Harvard in 1968, to witness a political scene in deep crisis that still has nothing of value to offer half the population. Mira’s personal story is constantly put to one side in order to explore the lives of her friends, women certainly no better off than herself, who escape abusive fathers to recreate the same situation with barely-known husbands, who pick their kids up from school in a drunken stupor, who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown from the demands of four or five children, who fall in love thinking it will be the answer and end up always disillusioned, embittered, and alone. The first half of the book screams out its message: the dream that is fed to women of satisfying domesticity, of romance and the rewards of childcare, is a dangerous and ultimately damaging fiction. The result is nothing more than emotional slavery with no recompense, and often with brutality or loveless sex thrown in for good measure. The blame for all this is laid fairly and squarely at the feet of men. The behaviour of the male characters moves on a spectrum from bland indifference to outright violence, but wherever the man may fall, an unacknowledged but underlying hatred of women is implied to be its cause. This novel marshals an army of women who are laying siege to the bastion of masculinity with some serious grievances, but it made me think of a siege in which the starving surround the walls of a prosperous city, where the citizens are well-fed and contented and didn’t want to go out anyway. For all the women may scream, the city’s inhabitants can’t hear them, because they happened to have the television turned up loud, or were reading something rather interesting in the paper. The emotional tone of the novel is relentlessly negative, but French’s descriptions of relationships do have a sort of anthropological truth to them.

The second half of the novel finds Mira tentatively feeling out liberation, having handed care of her children to her ex-husband and embarked on a graduate degree. If uneducated women from one generation can’t find satisfaction in their lives, is it possible for highly educated women who are mixing with the next generation, the novel asks? You can probably guess the answer. The novel was published in 1977 at the height of the second wave feminist movement when you might have thought it would be well-received, but it provoked and annoyed the majority of its feminist reviewers. In some ways I feel it rather missed the boat of consciousness-raising, which was most warmly welcomed in the sixties. Instead it landed in the middle of a political scene that needed to feel that change was on the way, that all kinds of freedoms had been won and that the future was bright.

I found a very interesting article on the internet (via Wikipedia) in which the author trawled through the masses of criticism leveled at this novel by feminist writers. There were two main points of attack; the first, which was maintained by men and women writers alike, was that the representation of men in this novel was unfairly skewed, that the novel lost credibility because it did not show a balance of men with some nice, caring, concerned husbands alongside the losers. The other criticism was that it had no prophetic vision at the end of a way that women could live in peace and harmony. The ending is very bleak, as if all the struggles Mira has gone though have been for nothing. I found this all extremely interesting, and to be absolutely honest, misguided. It shows me that if a book fell into the category of feminist literature, that meant there was a big prescription it had to fill out. It had to be irreproachable in its politics (if feminists were arguing they did not hate men, I agree it must have been galling to some extent to see a book roundly declaring the opposite), and it had to produce solutions, visions, blueprints. It had to be useful, it had to tick all the boxes. It lost its right to being literature, which is always an uncompromising wrestle with the recalcitrant parts of reality, the parts that don’t have easy solutions. I mean, I don’t see people ticking off Vladimir Nabokov for having written Lolita without producing a solution to the problem of child abuse. You might not like the book, but your grounds for doing so would be different. No, the problem with feminist literature was that it got backed into a corner, restrained on all sides; it had to be useful, it had to be perfect, it had to be beyond reproach. Do you see a pattern forming? Yup, that undermining feminine mentality, the one that says be perfect or else, is still ferociously at work here, emerging wholly unscathed from that particular wave of supposedly profound change. Women are still extremely harsh on one another, because at basis they are harsh on themselves.

If by the end of the novel, Mira has not managed to reframe isolation into independence, this is far from surprising. Given her background and her life experiences, it is wholly unlikely she would be able to. I think it remains a pressing question whether women have managed yet to free themselves from family and romance as their fundamental context, the place of their most captivating adventures. And here’s another uncomfortable thought for you: the book is perhaps most derided for the speech a character named Val makes, after having been through the wounding process of getting justice for her daughter, who has been the victim of a rape. The two women must face the collective hostility of the police and the lawyers, none of whom believe for a second that the girl did not in some way welcome or invite the sexual attack, and who express this view in the basest and most unpleasant terms imaginable in order to intimidate them into dropping the charges. The experience changes Val completely, and she withdraws into what she accepts is a fanatical position: ‘Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.’ Now okay, suppose we agree that this is an extreme position (although not an unreasonable one for the fictional Val to take, given all her back history). But what chills me is that another book I’m reading, one published this year, is also a testimony account of a mother’s battle to get justice for her daughter, sexually abused for four years by an elderly uncle (77, if you’d like to know) and her failure to do so because of a judicial system that still disbelieves women and honours men. In this respect, nothing has changed. This is, I think, gallingly, worryingly terrible.

I cannot but agree that Marilyn French does not exactly make the reading experience pleasant. Her perspective is one-note and angry, embittered. But the tales of the different women she tells are probably mostly based on reality. Val’s story was always already true; her own daughter was raped, and she was very upfront about the autobiographical basis of that part of the story. And it has the feel of testimony – the telling of an experience that makes its listeners uncomfortable, precisely because it does not have the soothing, reassuring balances of art. The critics were harsh on it, for not doing the things a novel ought to do, for not saying the things that would have been politically useful, but there’s also the small matter of three and a half million copies sold to women who must have hungrily devoured the pages of domestic horror, finally finding the expression of a certain truth. The Women’s Room does not say what we always want to hear, but there are very good reasons, still, for reading it.

14 thoughts on “A Woman’s Place

  1. Your thoughts on this book are fascinating, Litlove. It was an important book for me, reading it in the early 1980’s when I was “coming of age” myself, trying to find my place in this new world of feminist expectations. I was already married then, and to a man who was nothing like the men French rails against, but I was firmly entrenched in feminism, and the book seemed to make clear that I had been lucky not to be pigeon holed into the roles society had (until that time) deemed appropriate for me.

    I too wonder “whether women have managed yet to free themselves from family and romance as their fundamental context, the place of their most captivating adventures.” I’m not sure we ever can do that, really, and perhaps it isn’t necessary to free ourselves from that context, but find ways to build a strong life within that framework, one we can take into the wider world and use to our advantage.

    Now you’ve made me want to search out this book (I’m sure it’s lingerging on a dusty shelf somewhere in my basement) and see how it lies in my mind now, 30 years later!

  2. What an interesting review. I’ve never read The Women’s Room, but I’m fascinated that it sold 3.5 million copies. Have you ever read anything by Alice Munro? She has written a lot of short stories from that same era (she is a contemporary of French’s). She is an amazing writer. Somehow she manages to convey a world in a story, as if it was a novel. Her first couple of books weren’t my favourites (though they established her as a force), but everything after that has been.

  3. Thanks for a most interesting post Litlove. I’m surprised to hear that “The Women’s Room” was first published in 1977. It was an important book for me when I read it as a teenager in the mid-80s but my sense then was that it was a book from a much earlier time, not from less that a decade previous. It must have evoked that earlier period very vividly for me to have come away with that impression. It would be an interesting one to revisit but I don’t think I dare. It seemed so powerful to me then but I’ve developed a strong aversion to polemical fiction in the intervening years.

  4. What an interesting post. I’ve owned this book for a long time, but never gotten around to reading it. You know I had never thought about an author like Nabokov and his book Lolita and not having to come up with a solution to the problem (another book I’ve not yet read). Women do often need to explain themselves. And I agree with Becca’s comment. Maybe romance and family and domestic life are the confines of some of women’s literature–but I never really thought it was a problem or bad thing. I still don’t understand why that is any less important than men’s realms (whatever that may be and surely there is crossover for both, but when men write about it, is it romance, family and domestic life–or is it called something else?). As always, what a thought-provoking post–thanks!

  5. This is the blogger formerly known as Yogamum, just letting some of my favorite blogger pals know that I am blogging over at a new place (see link above)!

  6. Becca – how very interesting to hear about the way you read the book. Isn’t that just such a good tale to tell, sometimes, how books fall into our lives and affect us? Very interesting also what you say about domesticity. I feel that people should be allowed to create whatever life they choose, so long as it’s healthy and promotes their self-development without denying the same thing to others. Feminism doesn’t have the right to tell women to work, any more than patriarchy had the right to tell them to stay home. But the domestic sphere is still a realm of mixed messages, and we might usefully be curious about that. I do think the difficulty with political arguments is that they tend to take people out of the here and now and have them thinking about ideals and the future. It’s necessary, but you are quite right that it needs to be balanced by pragmatism.

    Lilian – last year I read The View From Castle Rock by Munroe and was very impressed by it. I would very much like to read more by her. The other novel The Women’s Room reminded me of, was Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which was published about 15 years previously but covered a very similar time frame. Makes me think that there was an impressive cache of women writers working around the middle part of the century!

    Kate – I’m not surprised at all that you remember it that way. I should think the action ends around the end of 1969 (although Mira narrates from a position later than that although when is unclear) and the evocation of the fifties in particular is extremely vivid. I was really glad to have read this once, but I wouldn’t read it twice, so I certainly understand your feelings. And oh my is it polemical, which lends a somewhat lecturing quality to some of the dialogue. It’s a bit brutal to be called art, but it is a reading experience!

    Danielle – well you’ve made me think, too. In that you’re quite right that the family circle shouldn’t be any less important than the market place. You might think the current economic situation would encourage people to balance out their lives but I’m not sure it’s going to (although I’m a pessimist about capitalism, so I’m probably not a good judge!). I knew you had this book to read and I did think about you as I was reading it. I do think you’d find it interesting – some of the stories of the women are very gripping. And it is a lot like attending a social sciences class! But you’d have to have it alongside something else jolly and frivolous. I certainly had a break midway.

    Gumbomum – hello TBFKAY! The link didn’t come out properly here – any chance you might do this again? I’d like to be able to visit you in your new abode!

  7. Thanks for the review Litlove. I read the book for a literature by women class in the late 80s just as I was learning what feminism was all about. I had grown up with my mom telling me we didn’t need an equal rights amendment because women were already “equal enough.” The Women’s Room was a real eye opener. I found Val to be quite the powerful character. I agree with you that feminist literature has been pushed into having a pescription to fill. An unfortunate symptom of our need to believe everything will be all right eventually and not to rock the boat too much. Literature by people of color (at least in the U.S) has been pushed toward a similar cage. These days I doubt a book like The women’s Room would even get published. Who would read it when no one wants to be a feminist anymore? A sad thought.

  8. Very thought provoking review. The feminist movement was something my generation was very engaged in – except for me. I don’t know why, but I did not find much institutionalized inequality aimed at me personally. Maybe I just didn’t accept delivery when it was dropped at my doorstep. Anyway, it’s an important topic, and should be discussed.

  9. That sounds like a gruelling read, Litlove… A friend says Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is her all-time favourite novel. She studied it at university; I did not and still haven’t read it. I wonder which you’d recommend if I were wanting to choose between it and The Women’s Room?

  10. This just might be a book I let you read for me, and I’ll take your word for its significance! I know it would be a good one to read, but that’s what friends are for, right? To keep us from feeling as though we have to read every significant book out there! But seriously, this sounds difficult and thought-provoking and important all at once. It’s important to read (or read about!) books that say what we don’t want to hear.

  11. Wow. Your last comment was very distubing, about a woman who let the ball drop when that old man sexually abused her daughter because she thought no one would believe her. That doesn’t quite add up for me – if she was very young there would be proof (of a sort, at least) and if she was any older, well, I can’t think back to any age after, say, 6 when I’d have let some old man lay a hand on me. I’d have stabbed him with a pen or hit him over the head with a lamp or something. And scream. So maybe our justice system hasn’t gotten better per se but girls have toughened up a bit.

  12. Stefanie – so right, so right. I can only hope that this kind of book makes a comeback, having incorporated the lessons of the past, to shake us all up again. Because we have by no means sorted out the issues of gender conflict yet. I hope for a second wave of queer theory and race studies too – all these topics need to keep up above the radar.

    Grad – well certainly, I think there’s a lot more to hear there about why you never felt the need for feminism. That’s an interesting story to me.

    Doctordi – ooh now you’re asking. Ummm, The Women’s Room is more politically engaged; it says a lot about history and culture. The Golden Notebook is more internally preoccupied and has a more profound interest in women’s breakdowns. Gosh they both sound jolly, described like that! I think Lessing is the better stylist, so that might swing it for you. Yes, on balance I think you would probably prefer Doris.

    Dorothy – that’s exactly what blogging friends are for! 🙂 I’ve learned lots about books I’m interested in but wouldn’t read, if that doesn’t sound too paradoxical!

    Honeypiehorst – I’ve just posted a review of the book in question, so you can get a better idea of what it’s about than my two line sketch! Just to be accurate, the mother maintained the fight for justice until the courts threw the case out, and I think the problem arose because the perpetrator was a much-loved uncle who gradually blurred the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable touch. That’s possibly enough to confuse any adolescent. But I do hope girls are getting tougher too. They need to!

  13. I read this book nearly 30 years ago, when I was 20. It was pushed in all of the women’s studies classes and I felt obligated to read it because all of my friends had. I never read it for a specific class, but it was talked about (I think a sociology prof more than anyone). The male professors dismissed it as a polemic; the female professors thought it was true, accurate, ground-shifting portrayal of women and men. I couldn’t relate to it much and forgot almost every character soon after I read it. I remember being admonished by a professor when I said it was one-sided, so I dropped any discussion of it. Glad to say that was not the case with most of my classes, but whenever I hear of this book, I can’t help but think of it as the hard-hitting, one-sided book that I needed to love to pass the ‘real feminist’ test.
    I can’t imagine that this book would seem anything but dated if I were to read it now. Don’t think I could stomach it though.

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