‘Wrecked, wrecked. All survivors, all of us. We survived the battlefield of our own lives, and the only help we got came from each other’.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.218
Marilyn French’s explosive bestseller of the late 1970s explores the depressingly mundane life of women (in the plural) who left their educational and personal advancement behind to marry into the conventional housewife image surrounding society in the 1950s, only to find themselves adrift in the unstable and scary prospect of single-dom a couple of decades later. Following the life of Mira Ward and her ever-changing circle of female friends through her college years, marriage, motherhood, divorce and eventually her re-education at Harvard, the novel is, as we find out towards the end, actually narrated by Mira herself. With the knowledge of hindsight she is able to make shockingly precise observations about the subjugation of women within male dominated institutions:
‘There are so much easier ways to destroy a woman. You don’t have to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her’.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.45
Even what was considered the ‘female sphere’ of the home – of marriage and motherhood – is dominated by men. It is the husbands in the novel who constantly criticise and reinforce the role of women in their homes. The Women’s Room highlights the important fact that the relations between the sexes were (and still are, to some extent) established through means of power. French, therefore, shows this power struggle as political, even economical (as one of the myriad of female characters, Bliss, states). In the afterword by Susan Faludi, an American feminist, journalist and author, she asks of the female characters:
‘One woman might be mad, but how could all of them be? There must be another answer, French was telling us, and that answer must be political’.
The Women’s Room, Afterword by Susan Faludi, Pg.521
As a key feminist novel, coming in towards the end of second-wave feminism in America, The Women’s Room completely exploded the myth of marriage, motherhood and sexuality that has always plagued society. French explicitly shows us how women have – for centuries, for millennia – been beaten down and repressed. However, I think it is important to recognise that The Women’s Room is only inclusive of white, middle-class American women – and the author is completely aware of this. French can only write from her own position as a white, middle-class American woman and cannot and does not claim to speak for everyone. From what little biographical research I have done, it was also interesting to note that French didn’t have to look far to make these justifiably angry statements about female inequality. A lot of the details in The Women’s Room are semi-autobiographical. From her marriage at an early age, which saw her give up her dream of studying English to take up a lowly-paid job as an office clerk in order to support her husband through law school, to her divorce in 1967 and the devastating impact of the rape of her eighteen year-old daughter, French was writing from personal experience as well as the experiences of those she heard about and talked to around her.
There are certainly many clichés in The Women’s Room, but what is a cliché if not based on truth? Reflections of ‘mad’ and ‘neurotic’ women who just couldn’t conform to being ‘good little housewives’ abound in The Women’s Room – reminiscent of nineteenth and early twentieth-century notions of female ‘hysteria’ (exemplified by Freud). There are figures like the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who are locked up in mental institutions at the whims of their husbands – take, for example, Lily whose husband has locked her away because she displayed signs of what we would now, presumably, call post-natal depression.
French’s portrayal of married life is, to say the least, bleak and depressing. Even those women who do conform entirely to the image of the American 1950s housewife suffer. Mira gives up her own education to support her husband Norm, who is studying to become a doctor. She has two sons with him and looks after them whilst also maintaining the housework. She puts up with disappointing and dissatisfactory sex with a distant husband and does all of this without complaint, thankful for the life of ease and stability she lives compared to her fellow female counterparts, who have either been abandoned or locked up. However, what she doesn’t bargain on is the fact that Norm may want to divorce her – which inevitably happens. Suddenly Mira’s world is turned upside down. She is thrust into a new sense of freedom that, in actual fact, feels a lot like loneliness. One of the most memorable quotes for me is when Val and Mira are talking about this:
‘‘I gather you’re lonely,’ Val smiled at her. ‘But weren’t you often lonely when you were married? And isn’t it nice to be alone sometimes? And sometimes when you are alone, aren’t you feeling sad mostly because society tells you you’re not supposed to be alone? And you imagine someone being there and understanding every motion of your heart and mind. When if someone were there he – or even she – wouldn’t necessarily be doing that at all? And that’s even worse. When somebody is there and not there at the same time’’.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.268
Even today society teaches us that loneliness, living alone, is not a normal or natural state. Female magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, are constantly trying to teach us how to ‘nab our dream man’ or ‘The One’ as if we are still stuck back thirty or forty years in time, like we don’t know any better way to live other than with a man. For the past year I have been single for the first time in years and now embrace my independence (as I call it). I don’t want to fall back into that same vicious circle where I allow a man to determine how I feel about myself. I may not intentionally start off feeling like this but it happens eventually, inevitably (like Mira’s second relationship with Ben). Yet I don’t feel like there is enough emphasis on how heterosexuality fits into feminism. In my dissertation I tried to argue how Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing both explore and transform the institutional framework that originally supported heterosexual relationships as a form of male domination and female submission. Yet The Women’s Room, although written 37 years ago, reinforces marriage as an unchanging and unbreakable institution that will always undermine feminism, something that can still be said of many societies today, to varying degrees.
I remember talking to a friend about how she felt when she first moved in with her (now ex-) boyfriend. She felt like she needed to draw up guidelines before they even made that leap. To make sure he knew she wasn’t going to be doing all the cooking, cleaning and washing-up just because of her gender. Perhaps not all men assume this (and it would be unfair to say so), but the fact that we still feel the need to reinstate our equality highlights how little opinions appear to have changed. The reason my friend felt like this was because she had seen the position her mother occupied in the household – her mother who grew up in the midst of the women’s movement. She could see the eradication of her mother into a mechanical housewife – like how Mira feels in her marriage to Norm.
‘She felt that he had eradicated her. He was annoyed that she did not understand her powerlessness. How had it happened, that he had all the power?’.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.208
Marilyn French’s novel definitely covers the majority of topics that affected, and still do affect, women, such as marriage, motherhood, abortion, madness, inequality. Though a discussion of The Women’s Room would not be complete without looking at the difficult and sensitive subject of rape. Towards the end of the novel, the most political and fiercely independent woman, Val, is stunned and appalled by the news that her daughter has been raped. She immediately flies to her daughter’s rescue in Chicago and is by her side when her daughter decides to take her case to court. However, to say that Val is in complete agreement with her daughter, Chris’s, decision is an understatement. In fact, she tells Chris not to do it which, from the most vocal woman in the group, comes somewhat as a surprise. But perhaps she knew what would await Chris when she did enter the courtroom. Perhaps she knew the stigma that would be attached to her beautiful, young daughter and all she wanted to do was protect her from that.
‘It was ironic, Val thought. He was reluctant to try the case for Chris’s sake: because he did not want to see her humiliated in the trial. So completely did he believe the boy. The boy had not challenged any of the details. He did not deny that he had jumped out at her from between two cars, that he had thrown her down. No one asked to see Chris’s bruises, but she had a number of them, a large deep one on her shoulder, where several layers of skin had been scraped away, and one along her spine, not large but deep and bloody. No one questioned any of that. And Val thought that only a male could believe that a woman approached in that way could actually enjoy it, could find her will in the rapist’s. She’d read such things too, in novels by men. Submission’.
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.467
The issue of rape in The Women’s Room is so important, I find, because it’s one of the most unchanging aspects of women’s lives. The threat and the stigma of it pervades everyday life – it always has and probably always will. From the close shave Mira has in her college years to being gang-raped, the rape of Iso by her fiancé and Chris’s rape, there is a constant underlying threat of invasion and violence by men in everyday lives of women. In todays society we only have to look back to last year at Robin Thicke’s massive hit, ‘Blurred Lines’, to highlight how easily rape has come to be a part of our culture and, with it, the idea that women ‘ask for it’ or even ‘enjoy it’. Regardless of whether Robin Thicke took his song to be a lighthearted joke (which I highly doubt), the fact remains that the majority of people, men and women alike, accept this culture without questioning it. The fact that it was only last year that Caroline Criado-Perez was threatened over Twitter with rape because she campaigned to keep women on the bank note is a common problem today, maybe even a bigger problem, with new forms of media and the (seeming) anonymity that comes with it.
‘I thought about marriage and its laws, about fear of going out at night, fear of travelling, about the conspiracy among men to treat women as inconsequential – there are more ways to rape than one. Women are invisible, trivial, or demons, castrators; they are servants or c**t, and sometimes both at once. And gay men can be as bad as straight ones – some gay men hate women even more than straight ones do. All these years, these centuries, these millennia, and all that hate – look at the books – and under it all, the same threat, the same act: rape’ .
The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, Pg.476
I didn’t intend to write so much about The Women’s Room (and I could go on and on) but just like it caused a strong mixture of emotions – of outrage and recognisability – on its publication in the seventies, I feel as if it has left a large impact on me. It has forced me to consider what has changed since the books publication and how my life, as a woman born in the nineties, resonates with it. I would love to be able to say that so much has changed since French’s observations in the seventies but I really don’t see it. There may be greater freedom (but with greater freedom comes other forms of subjugation) for western women than there was, but it’s important not to forget that there are women in the world today who are still treated with the same level of disregard as the women in French’s bitingly angry The Women’s Room.