There’s nothing subtle about The Women’s Room. It’s a book I reread for the 1977 Club, and I was curious about whether it would affect me the way it did the first time, years ago.
It is the story of Mira and her awakening consciousness of the role of gender in our society. In its time, the novel was an important feminist work that profoundly affected the thinking of many women and perhaps some men. I remember vividly watching the movie on TV with a male coworker. He was astounded at the examples of sexism but even more astounded because I kept saying “That’s happened to me,” pretty much for every example.
French uses the vehicle of the novel to tell the stories of many women. First, it focuses on Mira’s suburbanite girlfriends when she is a young wife and mother in the 1950’s. Without fail, they are all treated poorly by their husbands. She prides herself on being the perfect wife and mother even though she finds life unfulfilling, but that doesn’t save her from a divorce when she is in her late 30’s.
The bulk of the novel focuses on the women she befriends as a graduate student at Harvard. These women are awakening to paternalism in our society. Still, they, too, are all betrayed in some way by their husbands or boyfriends.
I’m struggling now to express my many thoughts with some kind of coherency. One is about the crudeness of it all. First, I was struck by some of the things the men said to their wives in the early portions of the novel and by how the wives accepted this kind of stuff without being outraged. I’m talking about terrible name calling and reducing everything to sex. These women were more my mother’s age than mine, so I have no way of telling whether these scenes were exaggerated.
But overall, I feel that French makes a lot of generalizations and stereotypes men as badly as the men stereotype the women in her novel. I was always confused in the 70’s by some men who seemed to equate feminism with man-hating, but rereading this novel, I can see where that idea comes from.
Finally, it is just plain crude. I understand that women were taking pride in being able to discuss sex and use words that were only allowed to men before, but the language really grated on me. Moreover, there is free use of ethnic slurs. Maybe we’re supposed to know that they are used ironically, but there’s no overt indication that this is the case.
I think The Women’s Room is important as a historical document but not as literature. There are, for example, many places where the story is interrupted by little polemics by a narrator who is unnamed until the end of the novel (although it’s not too difficult to figure out who she is). I found these interruptions, where the narrator has to overtly draw conclusions about the events, irritating and unsubtle, as if French thinks her readers are too stupid to come to the right conclusions. Same with many of the discussions between her characters, although that’s a better way to handle the subjects.
Although my memory of my first reading of this book, when I was in my 20’s, was that I was struck by how much of it mirrored some of my experience, I do remember that French wrote another book, which I also read. And I remember thinking, oh, more of the same stuff, and putting it aside.