If you remember, The Women’s Room was a novel I had read many years ago and lent to someone who never returned it (how I LOATHE people who do that), so I bought myself another copy at the start of last month. It was interesting to re-read the novel with an older and wiser head.
When I first read it I was nineteen, had little knowledge of feminism and was only somewhat aware of the cultural impact the book had upon its release in 1977. My boyfriend at the time asked me about it and I compared it to Star Wars (an analogy I thought he’d appreciate): at the time it was revolutionary and although it seems dated now, you must appreciate it for the fact that it was so groundbreaking on its release.
The Women’s Room is the story of Mira Ward, a woman who at the beginning of the book is as a good suburban girl in New Jersey in the 1950s, and goes on to fulfill her parents’ expectations and get married to a nice boy. Even though Mira is obviously intelligent there is no question that she will work or study and instead she becomes a housewife, as was normal at the time. Her experience of marriage is terrible; her pregnancy is difficult and lonely, she finds looking after her children dull and unfulfilling, she has an unsatisfying sex life with her husband and they grow further apart as the years go by. As the narrator says, there are easy 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.”
Mira eventually is divorced by her husband after many years of marriage and with her newfound freedom she decides to attend Harvard as a graduate student. There she meets a group of likeminded women and has her feminist conciousness raised. The character of Val, a radical feminist, is the mouthpiece for such statements as, “…all men are rapists. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes…” but thankfully few characters in the book are guilty of such misandry and many are sympathetic and brave.
Reading The Women’s Room as an adult woman is a very different experience. On the one hand, it’s not so enjoyable as a novel, as at times it comes across as feminist polemic, with instances of lazy writing, and some characters that seem to have been created purely as vehicles for feminist rhetoric and not as three dimensional human beings. On the other hand, it is books like this that have enabled me and my female contemporaries to have careers, buy property, choose not to have children, have rights over our own bodies and voice opinions such as the ones found on this blog.
For an appreciation of how far we have come as a gender, I believe reading The Women’s Room is something every woman should do. For an appreciation of how far we have yet to go, I recommend Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy.