On reading The Women's Room

Sunday, 4 April 2010

'By this time, all of us had a word. It was THEM, and we all meant the same thing by it: men. Each of us felt done in by one of them, but that wasn't it. Because each of us had friends, and our friends were also being done in by them...'
'...We understood that the laws were all for THEM, that the setup of society was all for THEM, that everything existed for THEM. But we didn't know what to do about it. We half believed that there was something terribly wrong with US.'

This week I finished reading The Women's Room, the last of the books I got for Christmas.

I can see why some critics have said it could seem so relentlessly depressing and OTT to women in the 21st century, with its catalogue of failed marriages, domestic abuse, stifled women, desperate housewives, suicide attempts, rape, misogyny, lost dreams and dissatisfaction.

But as many others have said, particularly women who lived through the 50s and 60s as married housewives and mothers, it's the real story of thousands of women who had no rights, no status and no choices of their own. Considered nothing more than an extension of their husbands they were forced out of the workplace when they became pregnant, expected to create the perfect home and bring up children alone without complaint. This was a world where rape couldn't happen within marriage or to a woman who was friends with her attacker. A world where mothers who wanted a job were considered either a joke or selfish and greedy. And a world where the wives who cracked under the pressure were committed to mental hospitals and left there.

I think one of the things which impacted me most was the complete lack of appreciation by some of the husbands for all that their wives did all day, every day in terms of cooking, cleaning and childcare. Refusing to put up a blind or play with the children because 'he works all week'. Insinuating that the women 'never do anything' while at home then raging over cleaning not being done to a high enough standard. What's sad is that as we all know, these attitudes aren't a thing of the past.

I know the book paints a vision of a very particular, white, middle-class suburban way of life. Indeed, the main character finds new friends, (a certain degree) of fulfillment and involvement in radical politics while undertaking postgraduate studies at Harvard. It's there that, for the very first time, she meets and becomes friends with black people (we have learned that most of her old acquaintances and family members are in fact outwardly racist). It can't be ignored that it's a fairly limited account of women coming to find feminism. And of course it would be ridiculous to assume that all marriages were so miserable and abusive.

But when you think about how second wave feminists are often vilified as man-haters, vicious and unstable, it's easy to see how they came to be filled with this anger and hatred. Today a lot of us have so many choices which we often take for granted. As Marilyn French says in her preface to the book, she couldn't buy a car, get a mortgage or a telephone line in her own name when she divorced in 1968. When feminists back then called for the 'destruction of the family', it was the set-up described in books like The Women's Room that they sought to bring down.

Reading The Women's Room really cemented for me how much I hate the ongoing trend that idolises the imagined lifestyle and family set-up of the 1950s middle-class. Whether it's the right-wing press ranting about working mothers, divorce and the evils of feminism or women's magazines and blogs getting excited about the joys of aprons, domesticity and 'the new vogue for being a stay at home mum', it's a trend which co-opts the good, ignores the bad and shuts out anything which hints at something other an a sweetness-and-light vision of domestic perfection.

I don't care if people want to enjoy baking or crafting or caring for children; that's great. But holding up the life of the 1950s middle-class suburban housewife as something to aspire to? No thanks. All about choice, you say? Yep, it certainly is about choice. But it's a choice that millions of women still don't have. Cooking and cleaning isn't a cutesy lifestyle option. Raising children isn't a 'new trend'.

This is a discussion I've seen a fair bit across the blogosphere, but I felt like it was important to say something about it in light of the post I made last month about equality and privileged women. It's vital to remember the women who have gone before us and the lives they were expected to lead before we judge them as 'extreme' or somehow amusing for the way their frustrations eventually exploded. I say this because this is a judgement I see all the time.

"I believe in equal rights, but I'm not one of those feminist extremists, you know."

"That's why I don't call myself a feminist, because of what it seems to stand for - hating men and motherhood and family life."

"I think everyone would be happier if things were like they used to be before the 1960s; at least they had morals and valued the family."

Sound familiar?


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

thx u very much, i learn a lot

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Zoë said...

I have to add this to my reading list! I don't know if I'll ever get through all these books!

Anonymous said...

Found your site after reading your post on the UK Feminista Summer School. Enjoying what I've read so far, so thank you for the link!

I read this book about a year ago, so it was interesting to hear what you thought about it, as I haven't had the chance to hear many other peoples' opinions.


Hannah Mudge said...

Glad you enjoyed reading. It was a book that affected me for days afterwards :)

Anonymous said...

I have started reading, and can't wait to read on. I was also struck by the introduction; the things women didn't have then that we take for granted now. It's perhaps easy to be complacent, and perhaps that's why feminism stalls and women say: I'm not a feminist but... We're made to feel guilty about the things we have acquired, and yet the reality is that there's still a long way to go!

Cat said...

Thanks for the post! This is one of my favorite books ever. I have passed it on to all my friends. I recently had a friend tell me that this book had totally opened her eyes to feminism. The thing that scares me the most about this idea that we are "post-feminist" today is that although things have progressed, a lot of the same sexism is still there oppressing women but its often more subtle or said to be a choice (a good point you make in your post). Its why my friends and I are trying to do our bit for gender equality. Would love it if you joined us on twitter @feministletters or on our blog at http://feministletters.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

I love that book so much! I realise it may be extreme in some places but a lot still rings true today, such as the slut-shaming (e.g. Mira's treatment after Lanny attempts rape, one of the adulterous husbands telling the wife he divorced that, if she ever tries to have a relationship again, he will take the kids off her) from the home/work balance faced by the divorced women, to the disbelief that a woman could have been raped because the perpetrator said they were friends to Kyla's inability to match the woman she wants to be with the wife her family expect her to be. It made me angry, it made me cry and it showed my fourteen-fifteen year old self an entirely new world.


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