If The Golden Notebook slapped me in the face, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room positively knocked me for six. If there was ever a fictionalised version of The Female Eunuch, this is it.
And it was the Female Eunuch that reminded me of the book’s existence. Once recommended as A Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, it was soon forgotten due to the unsociable hours I keep. I had no concept of the missed opportunity at the time, but then I had no concept of the issues broached in the book either; nor of the connection and, for want of a better word, oneness that I would find in its storyline. From a gentle beginning, I was suddenly plunged into a world from which I drew many parallels with my own, and as I turned the last page with tears in my eyes, all the hairs stood up on the backs of my arms. It’s not often you can say that about a novel, but I related to it so deeply.
Mira Ward is going back to college; a middle aged, divorced mother of two young boys. Considered a wild child in her teens, Mira narrowly escapes being raped by a group of men after having the audacity to be an unaccompanied female in a bar. In the years subsequent to this, she finally (still a virgin) marries the only man who can see past her bad reputation as a nymphomaniac and begins a family, as is expected of her and, indeed, of all women. Having dedicated 25 years of her life to a loveless marriage, the seemingly static pieces of Mira’s world are thrown up into the air when her husband leaves her for a younger woman, taking her two children with him. In an era when a husband provided financial security and acceptance into society, Mira flees from suburbia to Cambridge College where she meets a number of remarkable women who change her life and perceptions forever.
I found the first part of the book slightly harder to connect with because of the time in which it was written; it focuses on the aspect of traditional marriage and, whilst some elements are undoubtedly still relevant, some of the more archaic traditions have decayed from modern society somewhat. However, this doesn’t detract from the book’s relevance as a whole. After all, the fabled nuclear family is still v.much the life-goal for most people and this starting-point creates the foundations for the female struggle that Mira finds herself embarking on. As a character, Mira represents the incredulous masses; yet through her own experiences and those of the other female characters, with a lot of wisdom and advice, she is finally able to understand the social imbalance and strike out as a whole person in her own right.
I often think it cheesy when the title of the book is found in the text of the literature, and the title of this book is found within the first paragraph. It is, however, utterly forgivable since the title epitomises the v.point that the book is trying to make. The Women’s Room. Formerly The Ladies’ Room. The female toilets in a college in the late ‘60s (a time when feminism was beginning to murmur and bubble under the surface once more) has been rechristened by an anonymous graffiti artist. And if men have the Men’s Toilets, why on earth shouldn’t women have the Women’s Toilets? To call it The Ladies’ Room suggests that little ladies do far more delicate things in there than men… like powdering their noses. It’s a pedantic point to make, but it is v.much the tip of the feminist iceberg that Marilyn French explores with this narrative. Ranging from the presumptuous invasion of a stranger touching a woman at a social gathering, to the intricacies and complications surrounding a rape case; from marriage in the ‘50s and 60s to open relationships, The Women’s Room indefatigably and unflinchingly presents question after question on the subject of equality, the frustrations of bureaucracy and the seemingly endless instances of oppression and obligation faced by women on a daily basis. No matter how small the obstacle, how meagre the offence, French shows that every little helps in the ongoing battle for women’s position in society.
Thought-provoking rather than gripping; a book that certainly takes itself seriously, and well it might for the importance of a struggle that has raged for decades, The Women’s Room takes a bold and vital step towards equality and its inevitabloe rejections and conflicts. That I drew so many parallels to my own life, as a privileged child of the ‘80s, only reminded me that it is a trap to believe that society has reached sexual equilibrium. But whether you are ready to fight for or settle with this western society, this is a book that undeniably poses questions that are not often considered, and its answers, equally as provocative, stem from all sides of the spectrum.
A must read for feminists and femphobes alike!
Revolutionary Road ~ Richard Yates
The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe