Small Changes by Marge Piercy

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Women in Marge Piercy’s novels have messy lives, and I wonder if that’s why Small Changes got short shrift in a one-line review in The New York Times in 1973:  “A rambling story of two women, one working class, the other middle class, and their doomed stratagems for escaping hellish marriages.” No mention of the fact that the two women are radical feminists, or of Piercy’s messy, brilliant details about how we lived then:  applying diaphragm jelly, going on gay rights marches, and burning bread.

Small Changes is a fast-paced novel with fascinating characters, but it is also a brilliant study of the women of the counterculture of the 1960s. Piercy interweaves the stories of two radical women, Miriam, a flamboyant, sexy mathematician-turned-computer-scientist-genius who is in love with and has sex with two egotistical men, and Beth, a working-class woman who runs away from a controlling husband,  works for low wages as a typist, and eventually forms a women’s commune.

Few novelists successfully managed to capture the earnest feminist politics and experimental living arrangements of the ’60s and ’79s.  Piercy is savvy not only about feminism but about communes: she knows both the loosey-goosey house-sharing and the politically-motivated structures. The few communes I knew of were essentially house-sharing for the poor.  I  heard much more about “collectives”:  A friend’s parents lived briefly in a collective, organized around radical politics.

When we first meet Beth in Syracuse, she cannot believe she fell into the marriage trap.  Beth muses about how women’s magazines encouraged her best friend Dolores and herself to build a life around men.

If your hair didn’t please, you cut it or you curled it or you straightened it, and if your parents let you, you streaked it or dyed it. If your voice didn’t please, you went around trying to talk in your throat. You did exercises supposed to make your breasts grow and your waist shrink, and always you dieted. You shaved your legs and under your arms and bought creams and lotions and medicines to fight pimples. The constant message in the air was that, if you didn’t attract boys, you must change your body, rearrange your head, your personality, your ideas to fit in with what was currently wanted.

Small Changes Marge Piercy paperback 9780449236710-us-300When her husband flushes her birth control pills down the toilet, she runs away to Boston and changes her name. She reads widely and gets to know some interesting peoplein a commune.  When she tires of the power struggles between the men and women, she starts her own commune for women.  They want to form an identity outside the world of the nuclear family and consumerism.  At night they do improvisational theater.

Miriam, a brilliant computer science student at M.I.T., is sexy friendly, and maternal, and worries about and coddles Beth. Some men love Miriam, but she is working in a man’s field, and weak men resent her success.

The night before, something gratuitously nasty had happened. She had run into Barnett from her course in compiler generator systems and he had asked her how she had done. At her answer he had given her a mean squinty smirk and said, “Maybe if I had tits to shake in his face I’d ace it too.” He had walked off leaving her feeling daubed with vomit. As if she hadn’t been eating and sleeping and breathing that course.

Who of my generation hasn’t had such an experience in school?

And Miriam has such bad taste in men.  It is very painful to read about her experiences with Phil, a poet who writes sexist songs that insult Miriam, and Jackson, Phil’s sadistic best friend.  Miriam, Miriam, Miriam!  Get out!  But when she marries another computer scientist, things get even worse.  And then we see the worth of Phil.

I very much enjoyed this novel: it really is a (fictional) record of women’s history.  Most of Piercy’s novels have been reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  She won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her science fiction novel, He, She, and It.