When you run a book club with a feminist best friend, it is perhaps inevitable that seminal “girl power” texts such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room will creep onto your reading list. This was a book which had been selected for our original list when we excitedly created it last year, and the sole choice which was carried across to our revised reading schedule. Added bonuses came along with The Women’s Room: the copy pictured, which I was gifted for Christmas, is both a Virago and an entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list (number 437, no less), and the book also formed part of my Project Read My Own Books list. Win win.
Let us begin with the high praise which The Women’s Room has garnered since its publication in 1977 (the USA) and 1978 (the UK). Fay Weldon deems it ‘the kind of book that changes lives’; Linda Grant says ‘what an earthquake this book was. It wasn’t the story of my generation of feminists, but it was the story of the generation that made everything possible for us’; and The Observer writes that ‘The Women’s Room took the lid off a seething mass of women’s frustrations, resentments and furies; it was about the need to change things from top to bottom; it was a declaration of independence’.
Virago have printed an introduction by the author herself, which was written in 2006, three years before her death. In it, she discusses the publication of The Women’s Room, and its effect upon readers: ‘reviewers responded in outrage. That the book is now considered a classic, a given -known, digested, assimilated, no longer threatening – suggests that conditions have changed for women since 1977. And this is true… educated women in western countries can now choose their own lives; they are not forced into dependency on a man, as they had been for millennia. In other parts of the glove, however, women’s situation has worsened’.
The novel opens in 1968, in a public bathroom at Harvard University, where we immediately meet one of our protagonists: ‘Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room. She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath… Here she was at the age of thirty-eight huddled for safety in a ticket booth in the basement of Sever Hall, gazing at, no, studying that word and others of the same genre, scrawled on the grey enameled door and walls’. French immediately places emphasis on the male-dominated sphere in which Mira finds herself: ‘The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women were simply not permitted to go. It was odd. Why? she wondered. Women were so unimportant anyway. Why would anyone bother to keep them out?’
The structure of The Women’s Room works incredibly well with the plot. Each long chapter has been split into small bursts, many of which deal solely with a particular character, or a set scene. There are character interactions, of course, but the only conversations of intelligence seem to occur only between women. The male characters are shadowy at times, and the children are largely like bit-part actors; we know of them, but we only really get to know about them through their mothers. It is rare that they are given a voice to do anything with but whinge.
The narrator of the piece was with Mira ‘and the others’ at Harvard in the aforementioned year. In her particular present, she teaches at a ‘third-rate community college’ in Maine, where she feels ‘terribly alone. I have enough room, but it’s empty’. The plot circles around Mira; through her, we meet friends from her past, her husband, and her children. Learning about the histories of each woman who has been given a place in the novel was interesting, and I felt as though French’s piecing together of pasts was the real strength here. The Women’s Room references Mira’s past situation as akin to an ‘afternoon soap opera’; really, it is just like that. So many things happen between different characters – some of them unrealistic, let’s face it – but even with the most terrible occurrences, there is a distinct lack of emotion.
The novel is filled to the veritable brim with domesticity. Whilst this is clearly an important part of the plot, to demonstrate the ways in which women were “shackled” to their husbands, home, and offspring, and going hand in hand as it does with the overriding female feeling of being enslaved, it serves only to saturate the whole. I feel as though French has certainly overdone it, and after a while it becomes rather trudging and repetitive.
Some of the quotes which I have pulled out and written in my book journal are powerful; this, for instance: ‘Women are capable of anything. It doesn’t really matter. Wife or what, women are the most scorned class in America. You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re a little frightened of them. Women don’t get even the respect of fear’. Despite this, I could not warm to French’s inclination to make broad, sweeping statements, some of which felt as though they could not possibly be true, or believed by the majority of her readers. Chapter eleven, for instance, begins: ‘Young men like to say that young women want to be raped’. Who are the young men? When did they say this? Where is the contextual evidence? In the next paragraph, one of the characters, Val, describes the way in which she believes it is impossible for a woman to reach her ‘utmost in desire’ until her thirties. Again, where is this substantiated?
The Women’s Room, as one might perhaps expect, holds some extremely negative views; it is a product of its time, certainly, but its particular brand of ardent feminism and the feeling of its treading down of every single male who has ever existed felt radical to me, and was consequently quite difficult to stomach: ‘And 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. You don’t even have to do that. You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week’.
Throughout, I felt as though there was an overriding distancing with regard to all of the characters; French had placed some of her women on pedestals, and described them in detail, but there was still no depth to it in places. Perhaps too much is said about them at times; their inner and outer conflicts are pressing, and I understand that, but I wish I had been able to make that emotional connection with either character or plot at least once during my reading. No empathy was felt on my behalf, aside from at a couple of points to those characters on the periphery who were being unfairly put down by one or other of the female protagonists. Many of the problems which French describes within the still heavily patriarchal society seem to be brought on, in part, by the women themselves; they were rarely blameless. None of the women were likeable either, which should not be important in a work of fiction such as this, but probably would have helped to garner some compassion on my behalf.
Whilst The Women’s Room was rather interesting, and sometimes immersive, I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed French’s prose style. Nothing in her descriptions really stood out to me, and some sections felt stodgy, underwhelming and lacklustre in consequence. I am afraid to say that the novel did not have much of an impact upon me. Perhaps if I had been younger and more impressionable, or had been reading it at a different time of life, or in a different decade, my feelings may have been different.