The Women's Room
Marilyn French’s The Women's Room, first published in 1977 and republished this year (a re-release ironically in the works before French’s death last May), has been touted as one of the most influential novels of the second wave of feminism. The book reads like a combination of a personal journal and a traditional novel. It is the most intense, real, and painful story I have ever read—except maybe for Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, which I read when I was a clinically depressed teenager, and which made me feel a little better because I knew I wasn’t as crazy as Wurtzel. But the women in French’s novel are not crazy—they are “normal” (whatever that means) women struggling to exist with integrity in a world that systematically disparages and oppresses them—and this makes The Women's Room a lot more heartbreaking because there is no trace of an excuse to justify, so to speak, the suffering.
This is primarily the story of Mira’s life, from childhood through late adulthood between the 1950s and the 1970s, and that of her female friends. Mira is a white suburbanite in the U.S. who discovers early on the harrowing destiny she is up against simply because she is a woman—regardless of her racial and class privilege. Mira then chooses to do her best as she trudges through it, refusing to efface herself as much as she can in the process.
We think we—you and I reading this—have it hard. (And we do.) All the same, let’s remember this: we have access to the Internet, we are literate, we can easily find and contact fellow feminists for a sense of community, we are not always thought of as ridiculous and selfish for wanting to prioritize ourselves before (or refuse altogether) marriage and children, and we have the possibility to do this. This puts us ahead of, I don’t know, ninety-five percent of all women on Earth, and certainly ahead of even the most privileged, well-to-do, and educated white women in the U.S. just thirty years ago—women who were buried beneath so much systematic antagonism they had trouble breathing.
This book wounds the reader—or, it wounded me—in part because so much in it remains recognizable to even the most privileged of us today. Today. I know my mother went through comparable circumstances when she had me in Argentina in the 1980s, and even later, even in the U.S. Some of what Mira’s experiences during young adulthood happened to me too, and I remember having the very same reaction as she does despite her young adulthood and mine stretching a span of about forty years. I find this difficult to grasp and to accept: as a feminist during the third wave of feminism, I faced some things that ought to have been long gone. This makes The Women's Room relevant even today.
The intertwining stories encompass a staggering amount of women’s lives throughout numerous decades and vast territories. French also untangles precise impressions and sensations into expanded, detailed descriptions and dialogues that open the way for the reader to delve into the characters and feel for them and everyone like them. To understand intimately the minutiae of what it was like to be them, and especially Mira, in uncountable ways. French has a power few writers enjoy: she can capture half-thoughts and emotions and iron them out so that they are clear and communicable. She has amazingly put into words sensations I have had and found utterly ineffable. This book is full of little gifts like this.
The Chicago Tribune did not exaggerate when it wrote that The Women's Room is “a book you’d like to give to twenty women (and perhaps anonymously, twenty men).” I am not exaggerating either when I say that twenty or forty would be too few, and that I wish everyone I can think of at this moment would read this book with the consideration and mindfulness it completely deserves.