This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.
I grew up with Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room on my mum’s bookshelf. As a child, I was intrigued and intimidated by the thick, black spine with its bold yellow text. It seemed to me to be the most “grown up” book on the shelf. I believed that when I read it, I would be granted access to the secrets of what it meant to be a woman.
In my late teens, I went to the bookshelf and held The Women’s Room in my hands. Within its yellowing pages, I hoped to find the answers to the questions that had been building in my mind around my newly pronounced feminism. Why did things still feel so unequal? Why were girls still undervalued? Why were my friends starving and harming themselves, and disclosing horrors of physical and sexual abuse, when everything was supposed to be ok now? When the battles French writes about in The Women’s Room were supposed to have been won?
‘You can read it,’ my mum said, looking a bit nervous at my increasing political zeal, ‘so long as you don’t start hating men.’
I took it to my room, read it and then put it back on the shelf, disappointed. I didn’t understand this book. It didn’t contain the answers I was looking for. It seemed instead to be a dreary litany of awkward dinner parties and household chores. There was nothing here for the seventeen year old me living in 2001. Mira’s struggles weren’t my struggles. Women’s lives, I thought, had clearly moved on.
Fast-forward nine years, to 2010. I still didn’t have the answers, but my understanding of feminism, and my place in it, had developed. On Twitter, all my book-loving feminist friends were talking about The Women’s Room. They were raving about it, amazed by its relevance to our lives today. I shyly admitted to them that I only read it once, and had hated it. Read it again! they cried. It will make sense to you now! And so, a tad reluctantly, I did.
The second reading was a revelation.
If you haven’t read it, The Women’s Room is a novel that tells the story of Mira, a middle-aged divorcee trying to get her PhD at Harvard at the end of the 1960s. She has spent most of her adult life so far as a quintessential 1950s housewife, marrying Norm after surviving an attempted gang rape, and spending her days cleaning, caring for her children, and developing friendships with her neighbours. All of them are cracking under the strains of the ‘feminine mystique’ that their marriages demand they create and sustain.
Halfway through, Norm leaves Mira for another woman. Free and terrified, she decides to try and live the intellectually stimulating life she had dreamed of as a young woman. She goes to Harvard, becomes friends with a group of feminist women, and starts to discover whether it is possible to live in a way that is true to herself.
At first, Mira succeeds. She discovers sex with the gorgeous Ben, and discovers politics with her new friends. But despite their efforts to create a new kind of society, it is impossible for the characters to escape the pressures and dangers of being a woman under patriarchy. Towards the end of the novel, Chris, the daughter of Mira’s friend Val, is raped. Chris’ rape leads Val to declare that all men are rapists, an assessment that Mira rejects (as an aside, Val’s statement is quoted over and over by people trying to dismiss The Women’s Room, whilst Mira’s rejection of it is ignored). Meanwhile, Ben tries to pressure Mira into giving up her aspirations in order to support his ambitions. Mira refuses to capitulate to his demands, instead choosing to live a life that is true and authentic for her.
The devastating power of French’s novel – and the reason Mira’s story resonates so deeply nearly four decades after it was published – is in her frank and unflinching portrayal of the violence done to women in a society that doesn’t value them as fully human. This violence is often physical – for example the rape of Chris and the domestic abuse suffered by Mira’s neighbours. But it is also the very deep psychological violence inflicted upon women as a class by a patriarchal society.
Reading The Women’s Room today is a deeply troubling experience precisely because this violence still exists in 2014. From the burden of unpaid, unvalued labour falling heavily on women’s shoulders, to the fact that two women a week will be murdered by a male partner or ex-partner, the world described in The Women’s Room is not confined to 1950s society. It is our world too.
Mira’s domestic servitude is one example of this psychological violence. French describes the suffocating housework that Mira fills her day with – at the expense of exploring her own ambitions and dreams. Every minute of every day is spent managing the ‘shit and string beans’ of her marriage in order to create an illusion of domestic harmony.
Unlike Mira, women’s lives today are not wholly confined to the domestic sphere, thanks in no small to the gains made in the second wave by heroic women demanding change. Women have taken up their places in the public arena. With this greater visibility has come vital and hard won legislative change. And yet, even today, women still do the vast majority of unpaid housework and are responsible for most of the unpaid labour that keeps our economy ticking over.
When Norm leaves Mira, she presents him with the bill for the hours of service she has brought to their marriage. In it, she itemises the time she has spent cleaning and caring and – controversially – the time spent having sex with her husband. Imagine if women across the UK followed her lead. How much money are we owed for the hours of work we carry out, unrecognised and unvalued? What would happen to our economy if women demanded reimbursement for the work they do? And why, decades on from Mira handing Norm the bill, are we still willing to ignore that most of the ‘shit and string beans’ jobs carried out by women are work, and should be recognised and valued as such?
The period of Mira’s life that is dominated by housework highlights one of the problems with French’s novel. Mira’s struggles are the struggles of a white, middle class housewife. It is important to always remember that throughout this period, women were out in the workplace fighting vital battles to have the value of their paid work recognised, just as Mira wants her unpaid labour to be recognised. A further glaring omission in The Women’s Room is the invisibility of black women in her depiction of the women’s liberation movement. French has been criticised for the fact that there are no black women characters in the novel, as well as her use of black men as a trope to test white women’s liberal beliefs. It is frustrating how the book never really explores how race, class and gender intersect with one another. Reading the novel in 2014, these omissions cannot be ignored or glossed over, and must be critiqued.
Physical and sexual violence runs like an ugly vein throughout the novel. Through the rapes, attempted rapes and domestic abuse experienced by her characters, French forces us to confront how male violence is used to uphold patriarchy and maintain the power structures that oppress women as a class. As Norm congratulates himself on not being a wife beater, we witness the emotional violence inflicted on Mira by his refusal to see her as a full human being. Through the attempted gang rape, we see how male violence forces Mira into recognising that the freedoms given to her male peers are denied to her. And through Chris’ rape, we are forced to confront how patriarchal society colludes with the rapist to deny women their basic human rights.
Since The Women’s Room was written, feminists have done incredible work to tackle male violence against women – from setting up refuges to bringing about legislative change such as criminalising marital rape in 1991. Their efforts have led to an important shift in the way we talk about male violence, and the way the crime is dealt with across our society.
And yet. Reading the section on Chris’s rape in 2014, it is impossible to ignore where things haven’t changed.
First, there is the fact that rape and domestic abuse remains so astoundingly common. Statistics released by the ONS and the Ministry of Justice in 2013 revealed that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault and that of the 473,000 sexual assault crimes committed in one year, between 60,000 – 95,000 were rapes. Only 15 per cent of those rapes were ever reported, and a scant 1,070 led to a conviction. Meanwhile, two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner, and statistics released in 2013 detailed 1.2 million incidences of domestic abuse over one year. The frequent and sustained violence experienced by French’s characters is not confined to the past. It is the reality for millions of women living in the UK today.
The ugly truth remains that – 36 years on from publication – too much of this book remains relevant. Women are still being raped and murdered because they are women. Women’s unpaid labour is still undervalued. The vision of liberation that Val and Mira and their Harvard friends dream of has yet to become a reality.
Reading The Women’s Room again, I wonder whether French, who died in 2009, hoped that in her lifetime she would see a change that meant her book would no longer be relevant to women’s lives? Perhaps she hoped that by the time she died, the world she depicts in the novel would be completely alien to my generation of women. It saddens me that this is not the case. But reading The Women’s Room in 2014, I feel hope. I read the conversations between Val and Mira, and watch Mira emerge from a life of oppression to find the strength to start living truly, and I find myself believing that a different world is possible. Every time I re-read The Women’s Room, I trust that a new world will be made possible. But that world can only be made possible by building on the gains made during the second wave, and continuing with the feminist revolution that will liberate all women from capitalist patriarchy.
Perhaps when I read the novel in another forty years, Mira’s battles will no longer be relevant. I hope so.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue was published in 2013 by Our Street Books.