My favourite feminist novel at the time, discovered when I was sixteen, was Small Changes by Marge Piercy.
My sixteen-year-old self thrilled at the naughtiness and sexiness of Lisa Alther‘s feminist romp Kinflicks.
I knew the next feminist novel I had to read was The Women’s Room, a book I had grown up with on my parents’ bookshelf.
And so, like the good academic feminist I was, I took it off the shelf and into my room.
I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. I may not have experienced the sexist atmosphere of the sexual revolution, as described by Piercy in Small Changes, but I did understand Beth‘s shyness and her trials to find out who she wanted to be.
I despaired at Miriam‘s irrevocable slide into conformity, and cheered on Dorine‘s growing passion for her own life.
I certainly hadn’t ‘done it’ with boys in bomb shelters or with girls in showers, like Alther’s irrepressible Ginny, but like her I was desperately searching for an identity with a fairly gung-ho attitude towards it all.
But The Women’s Room I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the trapped lives of the suburban women.
I was bored by the horrific parties where the husbands and wives danced with one another. I didn’t engage with Mira‘s life-after-divorce. I finished it, and went back to Marge Piercy.
Years later, friends on Twitter started to share their experiences of reading The Women’s Room. They talked about it with passion, with excitement, with sadness and with joy. ‘The book with the ghastly parties?’ I thought.
Then I watched Eagles‘ documentary on feminist activism and listened to Marilyn French talk about the impact her book had had. I read her obituaries and followed the Twitter hashtag. When I was given a book voucher on my 26th birthday I decided to give it another go. Perhaps there was something in this book other than boring parties.
Which, of course, there was.
The novel falls roughly into two parts, Mira’s marriage to Norm, where she lives in a suburban nightmare, trapped by the feminist mystique; and her life post-divorce, studying at Harvard and slowly learning how to live as her own person.
With often brutal honesty, French shows us how her generation of women became imprisoned in unhappy marriages, living their lives attached to scrubbing brushes and polish; where ambition becomes moving to a nicer house ‘further out’ and where sexuality becomes a game to be played out with meaningless flirting in lounges at parties.
We meet women who are found disgusting by their husbands for being sexual and feeling desire. We meet women (Mira included) who are deemed frigid because they do not find pleasure in sex that ignores and silences their bodies.
We follow the lives of women whose friendship groups are splintered by petty jealousies, affairs and lies, but that equally offer the only respite from the loneliness of the isolated suburban housewife.
As the post-war American dream of the smiling housewife in a pinny, greeting her successful husband with her smiling, rosy-cheeked children is exposed and broken apart, we watch women go mad with the strain of being unloved, unfulfilled and of having to repress their sexuality and desire.
And finally, the women who have given up their lives, who have given up their selves, who have hidden their passions and desires and wants in order to be the ‘wife’, find their husbands are leaving them.
In an era that has seen an increasing fetishisation of ‘the wife’, from make-and-do fashion, cupcake culture and Royal Weddings, reading The Women’s Room is a vital wake-up call.
When journalists like Amanda Cable wax lyrical about their time recreating the fifties housewife life, they forget that this was a culture that disenfranchised and isolated women.
Women without a husband were seen as 'fair game' and 'sluts'. Women who embodied their sexuality were seen as perverted and sick.A world that excused male violence and allowed rape in marriage. A world where women were driven mad and into hospital by a lack of hope, a lack of a voice. Women had no rights over their reproduction, where contraception was patchy and abortion was illegal.
Where women without a husband were seen as ‘fair game’ and ‘sluts’. Where women who embodied their sexuality were seen as perverted and sick, whilst women who lay back and thought of (New) England were seen as ‘good’ but frigid. And this world portrayed in The Women’s Room does not just exist in the past.
One of my favourite moments in the first part of The Women’s Room is when Mira explains her cleaning schedule. Cleaning filled up almost every minute of her day, as she strove to create the perfect house for Norm. The tendency to romanticise the past, to see this period as a golden age of the family, of the wife, ignores and silences the very real issues of inequality that women faced.
Unlike her friends Lily and Theresa, who end up in a psychiatric ward, unlike Martha who finds herself left by her lover, unlike Samantha and Bliss and Natalie; Mira escapes to the big city.
She escapes to a world of education and conversation and thought. We join her in Boston with the excited and wise Val, with gay and artistic Iso, with neurotic Kyla and her self-obsessed husband, with Clarissa and Ava, and with Val’s daughter, Chris.
She discovers her intellect, she tries to find the words to describe what has happened to her, the language to explain her previous life, and she often succeeds.
She discovers sex with the gorgeous Ben, and she learns how to live her life as the woman she wanted to be. It is slow, it is painful, it is like being born again. But it is hopeful.
However, even in the seemingly perfect world of friends and women, good food, tasty wine and inspiring conversation that Mira finds in the city is not insulated from the pervading sexism that women on the cusp of the second wave were faced with.
Kyla’s marriage is heartbreakingly dysfunctional, as her husband refuses to respect her intellect, her femininity, her independence. Iso becomes an emotional sponge for Ava, for Kyla, for Clarissa – all seeking solace from a male world that has hurt them.
Val’s young lover Tad punishes her for her sexuality and desire. Ben refuses to recognise Mira’s ambitions as being as valid and equal as his own. Women in political groups are silenced as the men talk.
College professors dismiss women’s intellectual capability. And ultimately, Chris is raped by a stranger, before she is metaphorically raped by the police, lawyers and courts who refuse to believe her.
This book is historical. It is set in a very specific time of history, where second wave feminism was beginning to rise and where the feminine mystique was at its height, but about to be challenged and partially destroyed.
But in a country where there are nearly 100,000 rapes each year, whilst 90% of rapes are unreported, and the conviction rate stays at 6.5%, where 1 in 4 women will be a victim or survivor of domestic violence, where two women a week are murdered by their partners and ex-partners and where justice is so rarely seen, this book is still vital.
In a world where abortion is still illegal, or endlessly under attack, this book is still vital. In a world where women working full time do 23 hours of domestic work a week compared to men’s eight, this book is still vital.
In a world where we see the new feminine mystique embodied by the need for women to present as only and always sexual, and are required to match up to an impossibly idealised level of beauty, this book is vital.
Reading Chris’ experience of her rape, you aren’t reading something historic, embarrassing and long gone. You are reading what happens to women all across the world, right now, every day.
As a result of Chris’ rape, Val declares that all men are rapists. This seems to be one of the things that the book became most famous for, as anti-feminists castigated French for claiming that all men are rapists. These critics ignore that Mira rejects Val’s assessment and that Val is one character in the book whose life is ruined by rape.
The book has been rightly criticised by some for being racist. Many of the characters in the first part of the book express racist sentiments, and Mira struggles to come to terms with her own, unexpected prejudice towards black men when she meets Chris’ friend Bart.
It has been rightly criticised for not portraying any black women, and critics argue that Bart is just a plot device for white women to ‘test’ their liberal values on. This issue really reflects one of the big problems of the lack of intersectionality in broad swathes of the feminist movement. I am glad to see that intersectionality is increasingly becoming a priority for UK feminists.
So, when I was seventeen, I didn’t really get it. At 26, the book meant a lot more to me. I know that when I am 36, 46, 56, 66, 76 etc, it will mean something new to me as well. And I hope that when I am 76, we won’t still be living in a world where so many of the book’s issues and sadnesses still exist today.