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The Women’s Room: Reprise

I reviewed the book yesterday. This is an encore post. When I first picked up the book, I had no idea who Marilyn French was (I must be living in some remote rock), let alone The Women’s Room is a pioneering, landmark work on feminism. I am not a feminist, but think she really hit home in symbolizing and describing the basic truths of our society. (Yes, even today there exists racial and gender inequality). If some readers comment that the book, published in 1977, is no longer relevant today, my question is: what is relevant today?

But I would have a different slant on things, perhaps, if I were not living in this inconsolable loneliness. And that is an insoluble problem. I mean, you could go up to a stranger on the street and say, ‘I am inconsolably lonely,’ and he might take you home with him and introduce you to his family and ask you to stay for dinner. But that wouldn’t help. Because loneliness is not a longing for company, it is a longing for kind. And kind means people who can see you who you are, and that means they have enough intelligence and sensitivity and patience to do that. It also means they can accept you, because we don’t see what we can’t accept, we blot it out, we jam it hastily in one stereotypic box or another. We don’t want to look at something that might shake up the mental order we’ve so carefully erected. I have respect for this desire to keep one psyche’s unviolated. [iii, 2; 135]

So right on! French addresses the inner loneliness that many women under the accepted norms of a society in which men are dominant. But doesn’t everyone at some point in life feel such inner loneliness? If loneliness is such that a casual company can alleviate, why aren’t people happy after a transient sexual liaison? Why are couples still getting a divorce nowadays? We all long for someone who can see and accept who we are, embracing that bare emotional skeleton that we are, without asking to alter our true selves. Speaking of the mental order, French reminds me to the gay movement. The reason why conservative America couldn’t accept gay marriage, in addition to defending the institution of marriage, is the mental order that has been established so inveterately. It’s the comfort zone from which nobody wants to leave. We don’t see what we can’t accept.

Love, rare thing, when it happens, is a wonderful gift, a toy, a miracle, but we don’t count on it to protect us from future days when it rains and the typewriter breaks and it’s just as well because the words won’t come anyway, and the article has to be written by Monday and mailed, or there won’t be enough money for next month’s rent—you know. Love is a golden rain that comes down when it will, and as it spatters in your open palm you exclaim over its brightness, its wonderful moistening of your dry life, its glitter, its warmth. But that’s all. You can’t hold on to it. It can’t fill all of you. [v, 21; 448]

Nobody should ever count on love and think it is all that is in life.

[275] The Women’s Room – Marilyn French

” Women are trying hard these days to get out from under the images that have been imposed on them. The difficulty is there is just enough truth in the images that to repudiate them often involves repudiating also part of what you really are. ” [iii, 18; 191]

Marilyn French cannot make it clearer, aside from the frequent anti-male polemics, that The Women’s Room is not just going to be a novel, but rather a history in itself. First published in 1977, the book must have been a ground-breaking in its cause: calling women to re-think and re-evaluate the rigid roles in life to which a male-dominating society has subjected them to. The novel takes place in suburban America of the 1950s, straight through the late 1960s, when, after the ebbing of McCarthyism, on the heels of losing two wars in Asia, and the rise of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation is the topic as well as the form of this novel.

You see her clothes, her sprayed helmet of hair, and you stop taking her seriously. Her appearance proclaims her respectability, which is to say she’s just like all other women who aren’t whores . . . Wife or whore, women are the most scorned class in America. You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re little frightened of them. Women don’t get even the respect of fear. [i, 4; 8]

“The novel revolves around Mira and her two important stages of her life. Married at an early age she becomes a suburban doctor’s wife who is felled by the obdurate afflictions of their kind: the responsibilities and rules of marriage and motherhood, which lead to loneliness, self-doubt, shame, madness, divorce, poverty, and isolation. The housewives in her number all struggle with at least two of these vices. Although no doubt there must be happy (content) housewives at Mira’s time, French is meant to show how women in that generation were deprived of opportunities in educational, professional, social and economic life. To cap it all, they were too busy with housework to even think. “Survival is an art,” Mira reflects early on the book, and, of course, not everyone does survive, at least not as the self she might have been. A life free from what male centrality predisposes was not available.

What she discovered suddenly was that she wanted to pick her own life. It was a breathtaking revelation to her, and it terrified her, for she didn’t know how she was going to be able to do that. She recognized it for the shocking, divisive, arrogant reading of the social fabric that it was. [i, 10; 24]

The male desire that created law making women depending on men appears in men’s continuing adamant refusal to accept responsibility for raising children. Years after her divorce, while Mira’s husband provides for the two sons, but he hardly speaks to them. A changed woman, she still cares a great deal to reconnect with her two sons that, taking careful consideration not to make them feel awkward with her boyfriend. Although her need for self-realization pitches her into the unknown (forbidden) universe beyond family, she has not found her nirvana when she begins graduate studies in Harvard in 1968. But the deep communicativeness among her female friendships (despite the difference in age, personality, sexuality, and circumstances) creates a safe venue for intimate talking. The loyalty and supportiveness of the camaraderie make possible for each individual to reveal personal desires, aspirations, defeats, doubts, and hope.

It was in the late fall of 1968, and we didn’t know each other well as a group. We were striking around the edges of politeness, not yet sure enough of each other to let it go completely, but getting there. [i, 21; 52]

‘The problem,’ Mira began firmly, trying to hold at bay the wave of insanity she felt washing over her, ‘is that these women think too much about men. I mean, their men are everything to them. If the men think they’re attractive, they are; if they don’t, they’re not. They give men the power to determine their identities, their value, to accept or reject them. They have no selves.’ [iv, 5, 220]

One might not be sure how many lives this book has changed, but The Women’s Room has indubitably, probably for the first time in literary history with such eloquence, intensity, and audacity, questioned the traditionally accepted norms that are blindly accepted. After all, Mira, as well as her female companions, survive, in the sense of awakening their self and thinking, at terrible cost but with immeasurable gain.

465 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Notes: The Women’s Room

Thanks to DM’s Valentine’s Day gift, a generous giftcard for a bookstore, that I acquire The Women’s Room: A Novel by Marilyn French. I stumbled upon the book, which was re-released by Penguin last year, while browsing the shelves. Guess who pens the new foreword for the book—Dorothy Allison, whose book everyone sings praises of simply doesn’t resonate with me. She writes:

” The ladies’ room, the bathroom, the women’s room—the women’s room was where we always went to first hang up our posters and political broadsides. An eye-catching message on the inside of the bathroom stall was the most efficient way to get women’s attention back in that time and place where few things were allowed to remain on the stall’s walls for more than a day or two. It was the place where a woman might actually sit and pay attention for more than an instant. Marilyn French knew what she was doing. . . . It’s a time capsule of women’s lives in the mid-twentieth century, … A novel but also kind of a history. Think of half a dozen women you know—like all these women who work at the university or for the government—it’s kind of the story of their lives if they paid attention—if they got mad and started making connections. ”

The title cannot convey the author’s intention any more clearly: it’s the story of a woman and her friends, all of whom get together at Harvard around 1968 and feel the world begin to break open around them. It questions those accepted (men-centered) norms that are accepted so blindly. With 21 million copies sold, do you think I can go wrong with this one?