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.