A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot. Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library. They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library. After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.
Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique. French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women. It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.” It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help. (This IS the early 1960s, after all.) Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble. The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard. Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses. Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.
The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled. And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much. They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin. Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.
I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era. As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to. It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel. There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem. When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless. French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.
This is a radical feminist work. That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely. Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic. (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.) French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way. Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility). Of what are the women the source? Not much. They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men. It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel. Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family. She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.
Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do). Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better. What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves. Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.
Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true. (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.) This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it. As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve. Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women. Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women. Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions. One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting). A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination. Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX. Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows. Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past. Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women. But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.