In 1977, Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room was a huge hit. And the award-winning novelist Anne Tyler helped put it on the charts with a rave review in The New York Times.
In order to appreciate the fine writing in The Women’s Room, you should do your best to forget any recent books you may have read about women’s liberation. It’s not, after all, Marilyn French’s fault that others before her have gone on and on about the same subject. Pretend you’re from Mars, you haven’t heard a word, and you want to know something about the lives of certain women in midcentury America.
I remember picking up the paperback at Howard’s Books (I lived above the store) and devouring the book in a few evenings. The vulgar cover appealed to me: I had written political graffiti on restroom walls in my teens. And so I have decided to reread The Women’s Room for The 1977 Club, a week-long event devoted to reading books published in 1977. (You can learn more about the event from Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.)
Several novels in the 1960s and 1970s were (at least partly) inspired by Second Wave feminism, among them Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, and Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions (which I wrote about here). But The Women’s Room was different, a compelling mix of narrative, sociology, history, and even literary history. Marilyn French, a housewife-turned-Harvard Ph.D., wrote not only novels but scholarly books, including the four-volume From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women.
In The Women’s Room, French chronicles four decades in the life of a heroine who eventually escapes from a bad marriage, though she does not ascend to a much happier state. We first meet Mira hiding in the ladies’ room in the basement of Sever Hall at Harvard. Mira is in her thirties, a housewife who has gone back to school in the 1960s. Everything is alien to her, including the political graffiti on the restroom walls.
There is also a first-person narrator, who we learn later is Mira in the 1970s. The narrator lives alone in Maine, where she unhappily teaches the dull classes so often assigned to women at community colleges, grammar and elementary composition. And so she often interrupts the traditional narrative to analyze the historical, sociological, and political events of the twentieth century that shape the lives of Mira, and of men and women of the post-war society.
Early on, the narrator compares Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” to the women’s room in the basement at Harvard. Is the women’s restroom as close as Mira will ever get to a room of her own? The narrator loves Woolf, but she wonders if Woolf’s method of narration could really describe the menstrual blood, pregnancies, dirty diapers, male disapproval and lack of privacy that define Mira’s life?
The narrator reflects,
Virginia Woolf, whom I revere, complained about Arnold Bennett. In a literary manifesto, she attacked his way of writing novels. She thought he placed too much emphasis on facts and figures, grimy dollars–or pounds–or exterior elements that were irrelevant to the dancing moments that were a person. That essence shone, she felt, through my accent, through ten-year-old winter coats and string bags laden with vegetables and spaghetti, shone in the glance of an eye, in a sigh, a heavy if enduring trudge down the steps of a train and off into the murky light of Liverpool. One doesn’t need a bank statement to see their character. I don’t care much for Bennett, and I love Woolf, but I think his pounds and pence had more to do with her Rhoda and Bernard than she would admit. Oh, she did know. She understood the need for five hundred pounds a year; and a room of one’s own. She could envision Shakespeare’s sister. But she imagined a violent, an apocalyptic end for Shakespeare’s sister, whereas I know that isn’t what happened…. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m only saying it isn’t what usually happens…. And there are 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.
French rants on about this for a page. It’s fascinating, whether you agree with it or not. And, as the book goes on, she also dissects class in post-war America. Sometimes the lectures fit, sometimes they are too much.
There is lots of gritty, naturalistic detail–more Bennett and Dreiser than Woolf. Mira, one of the smartest girls in school, is promoted up so many grades and so much younger than her peers that she is friendless. She reads constantly but loses her confidence in college, when a boyfriend pressures her to have sex and then drops her; and she later narrowly escapes being gang-raped by him and his friends, but one of them tips her off and locks her in a room to protect her. The room again: this time locked.
Traumatized, she needs male protection. She drops out of school and gets married. The marriage isn’t happy, but for years she is absorbed in her children, and has friends among the women in her neighborhood.
It is a long book, and I’m not even into her life at Harvard yet. There’s a lot of housewifery so far, a phase I didn’t go through myself, though certainly my mother did.
It’s a naturalistic novel, with commentary. Is it great? No. But it is historically important, and details the influence of Second Wave feminism on mid-century America.
I’ve read this a couple of times but it was too long for my schedule this week. It’s certainly a book I press on young women frequently!
I’m glad to have rediscovered it! It IS long, though.
Thank you for this summary and evaluation. I never read The Women’s Room — though I did read Lady Oracle and a couple of Ann Tyler’s books (much later for both); recently I read French’s memoir of having cancer and how she spent huge sums, called on every friend, every connection, every hospital plan she could and survived, just. Real grit.
She has a point about Woolf. I’m trying to teach Woolf this term and coming up against her elitism and cannot myself defend it. Woolf is deeply subversive but she has inside her instill such a adherence to decorum she cannot write about this level of life. It’s a problem if you want to find in her a model for feminism and true progress. Not her ideas, but the surface presentation.
Well, French ( Mira) loves Woolf but she feels she cannot tell this story without wallowing in naturalistic detail! It seems to me a uniquely American book.. I think of male writers like Norman Mailer, with their candid, sometimes shocking observations.
I had hoped to read this but for some reason my copy is in Middle Child’s flat… I imagine that it’s dated to a certain extent but still an important text.
Gosh, it must be having a revival! It’s an excellent read,
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Oh, and the great thing that keeps it from being too dates is the detail about women’s lives and the fact that she doesn’t used ’70s slang!
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Good addition to the 1977 club, The Women’s Room made a great impact on me when it was first published and I am shocked to find it was so long ago.
I had missed the analysis of VW’s A Room of one’s own, and since I reread that and included it in the Decades project on my blog last month, I will have to go back to The Women’s Room. I am trying to reread more at the moment. But it is so long.
Thanks for this.
It’s a good read!, but, as you say, long. What really makes it memorable is French’s brilliance and wide-ranging knowledge.
For some reason, I’d always thought this was non-fiction – thank you for correcting my assumption! That passage about Woolf is enough in itself for me to buy a copy next time I see it.
Parts of this are very good, so I see why Virago reissued it. The commentary is the best part!
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This book has profoundly taken me back to my own budding feminist emergence. The setting is more about my mother’s generation, but I emerged in the tale end of the book enjoying the aftermath of the character’s stances and my own pride as a women in the 70’s. I’m ok with male characters not having in-depth characterization. Heaping men as flat characters in with the institutions and expectations were necessary to show the backdrop these vivid women beating their wings of independence and the complex themes of the times. I really like how French worked the characterization of Mira. The ending is predictable, but alas dissatisfying though realistic. Being a feminist in those days was damaging. French delivered these times to the reader in a way that is crushing but also liberating. I like her writing, especially the original similes. Long, yes. Necessary? No. I could have happily dismissed some female characters as I wanted to attach myself more to Mira. Reflecting on that, French did an excellent job of developing the growing strength of the narrator with the reader’s attachment to her. Imagine reading this in the 70’s!
I found a lot to respect in this book. You never know about best-sellers: this one was more literary than not, though I seem to remember its having an iffy reputaation, despite Anne Tyler’s positive review.
That said, I read it just long enough ago that I remember very little about the characters except Mira. It was deeply stirring, because nobody was quite able to get these things across in fiction. Erica Jong and some other best-selling writers tried, but this had a lot of theory in it–if i’m remembering right! Glad you enjoyed the book!