Tuesday, June 21, 2005

23. The Women's Room

by Marilyn French

I found this book for fifty cents at the Newberry Library book sale last year and, as unsure as I was about the concept of “feminist fiction,” I figured the price wasn’t much for a trip down 70’s feminist memory lane. Of course, I didn’t take the 687 pages into consideration with that price, but luckily the book is worth every cent I paid for it. Also, luckily, it’s worth the time it takes to read 687 pages. So, a good investment all around.

The Women’s Room is mainly Mira’s story. As she grows from a precocious teenager to a suburban oppressed housewife to a liberal Harvard grad student, we watch how the feminist movement affects society, on an individual level, through Mira and through her changing group of friends. Mira chooses her husband with care, forgoing one boy for fear that she’ll end up on her knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor with babies crying in the background. When she finds herself in that situation, despite her attention to husbandly detail and with her hopes dashed, she gives herself over to the role she’s been backed into. While her suburban friends drink during the day, engage in affairs, and have emotional breakdowns, all while glossing over their troubles as humorous anecdotes common to their lives, Mira can’t help but wonder how things ended up this way. After her devastating divorce, Mira applies to Harvard, enrolls, and finds a new life for herself in Cambridge. It’s there that she’s introduced to some of the major tenets of feminist thought. Though they’re ideas she’s possessed all her life, her place in a group of similarly-minded friends finally allows her to express them and she becomes the intelligent, thinking, confident woman she always wished she’d be.

Feminist critique aside for the moment, there are scenes in this book that I found absolutely heartrending. When Mira realizes that she’s become the subservient housewife she feared, I nearly cried. When her suburban friends related their daily stories of their husbands becoming upset over dinner choices and family obligations and criticizing their wives for “wasting away” their days, my heart broke. Theirs is a kind of despair I never want to know, and I know this because it’s the kind of household in which I grew up. For every character who stayed at home without true appreciation for her efforts, I saw my mother. And every time Mira wished more for herself, I saw my mother wishing more for me. I grew up not thinking of marriage or babies, but of books and college and the career I would build for myself. Though their lives took different turns, I can’t but see a bit of my mother in Mira and for that I was engrossed in the book for its entire length.

As for that feminist critique, it’s both easy and impossible to overlook the fact that the book has any sort of political slant. It’s easy to forget because the story alone is so interesting and the characters are so well written that they stand out on their own. But it’s also impossible to forget because the strive for equality between the sexes forms the entire basis of this novel. French allows her women to doubt themselves and their circumstances and wonder why there isn’t more for them. Most importantly, she allows her woman to believe that all the things they’ve been told may, in fact, be wrong. French also explores numerous avenues of feminism, as Mira’s Harvard friends run the gamut from closeted lesbians to radical “man-haters,” and how they incorporate feminism into their lives. While these characters are obviously archetypal, it’s forgivable because I doubt much feminism existed in pop culture at the time and, regardless of French’s political agenda, the story remains true to Mira’s inner journey and transformation. What’s great about The Women’s Room is that, nearly thirty years after its publication, the ideas expressed in the book are still relevant. Women still live lives like Mira’s and there are those who believe that that is okay. The Women’s Room tells us that it’s not while encouraging us to stand firm in our feminist and egalitarian ideals.

Not bad for the price of a soda.


Anonymous Bryan Burch said...

Hi Veronica:
I stumbled upon your blog while looking for James Boice's Pregnant Girl Smoking. I'm not sure why. I recently started my own blog called www.first10pages.com. It's the prep work for a critical thesis I'm writing to determine what are the common required elements that exist in the first ten pages of a novel length work of fiction. Check it out if you like. And thanks for "The Women's Room."
Bryan Burch

6:57 PM  

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