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Category: Art and Entertainment, Feminism, Education

Marilyn French’s Characters Speak to Me

| September 16, 2009


A college senior considers both The Women’s Room and French’s posthumously published novel, The Love Children, from the point of view of her own generation. And the experience clarifies her feminist sensibility.

As I plunged headfirst into The Women’s Room, the most famous novel of the late feminist Marilyn French, I found myself submerged in a foreign world, or so I thought. Beginning in the 1950s, the novel follows Mira Ward through her teenage years, her young marriage, her life as a stay-at-home mother, and her subsequent feminist rebirth during her forties, while a student at Harvard University. Hers was a world where women were second-class citizens; where all that many young women had to look forward to was a life of suburban discontent and servitude. I found it shocking. But at first I just couldn’t relate to it.

Flying through the first few chapters, gripped by the grim reality Mira and her friends faced, my perception changed, the way one’s eyes gradually readjust after the room suddenly goes dark. On the last page of Part I of The Women’s Room I realized I was reading a story that was my own, every woman’s. Isolde, a friend of Mira’s, says to her, “I hate discussions of feminism that end up with who does the dishes.” French ends the chapter with, “So do I. But at the end, there are always the damned dishes.”

I don’t know why, but that struck me. Maybe I couldn’t see myself reflected in the exact life experiences of these women on a surface level, but I couldn’t help thinking of what I would do in their places, how I would feel if I were them. Page after page, I found myself shocked, outraged, and terrified at the depth of unhappiness of the “typical American housewife” of the time. Even after Mira left this life—dumped by her husband and forced to pick up the pieces and start anew, she moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard—I still thought of the women she was leaving behind. Women trapped in loveless marriages, with no means to survive on their own; women doomed from the start.

As I continued reading, I found the women who “made it out,” the women whom Mira met at Harvard, still experienced unhappiness, emptiness, rape, rage, alcoholism, and adultery. But somehow, they fared better. The difference, and it was no small thing, was that these women recognized themselves, and one another, as women at their core, as burgeoning feminists.

They formed a community. They shared in each other’s every experience, not on a superficial neighborhood-acquaintance level, as Mira’s friends before had, but on an existential level.

Celebration of Marilyn French On Thursday, October 15, 2009, the Center for the Study of Women and Society (Graduate Center of the City University of New York), The Feminist Press, and Marilyn French’s children are sponsoring a celebration and discussion of her work. Speakers will include Blanche Wiesen Cook, Carol Jenkins, Charlotte Sheedy, and Gloria Steinem. (6:30 to 9:30 at the Proshansky Auditorium, 365 Fifth Avenue at 35th Street, New York City)

Something Gloria Steinem said has stuck with me: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke… She will need her sisterhood.” As I read The Women’s Room these words kept ringing in my head. She will need her sisterhood.

This got me thinking about my own times. Many women of my generation, myself included, were raised on feminist ideology without ever embracing or even accepting the label. I never questioned that I was equal to my brothers or the boys in my class; I never doubted that I could be anything or do anything I wanted to do. The values instilled in me—values that I now recognize are as feminist as they get—were never called that. Although I eventually came to identify as a feminist, I began to wonder if it really matters whether or not women called themselves such. The so-called non-feminist feminist statement “I’m not a feminist, but…” has been tackled time and time again, but part of me thought, maybe it was a good thing that this pro-feminist thinking has become so accepted that we don’t need to brand it. I never really made up my mind on how I felt about this question of terminology, until I read Marilyn French’s novels.

The difference I noticed in Mira’s life before and after she identified as a feminist, I found in French’s last novel, which is coming out this week (September 15). The Love Children tells the story of Jess Leighton, who comes of age during the late sixties. Raised by a feminist, Jess and her experiences seemed closer to my own. She knew she could be more than a secretary or wife-as-servant; she knew she was as smart as the boys. But when she found herself seemingly trapped by double standards and misogyny, she found her way out. She made her life her own.

When I reflected back on the two books, I think I found my answer as to whether it matters if we label ourselves as feminists or not. Sure, there will always be people who think like we do, but won’t call themselves feminists. We largely have the anti-woman vilification of the term “feminism” to thank for that. While I can’t blame women for shying away from a term that carries a lot of, well, baggage, I think they’re just missing out. Feminism isn’t just a word, I’ve found; it’s a community. I never fully realized it until I found my self head-over-heels submerged in it. Yes, it all sounds sickeningly cheesy, but to have smart, compassionate, progressive, and funny women recognize you, back you up, challenge you, impress you, educate you—it is something warm and fuzzy. Mira found happiness in her later years, yes, through self-acceptance and education and real, true love, but these were all things that feminism opened the doors to. And Jess—a young, single mother—may not have fared as well without a feminist mother to back her up.

In the end, some things change. Feminists of my generation aren’t concerned with exactly the same things as the generation before us, or before them. But at the core of it, we are still fighting for the chance to be taken seriously, to be heard, to be valued equally, to value ourselves wholly. Just as Mira needed it, Jess needed it, and I need it, any woman striving for these things needs her sisterhood, and so feminism thrives on. That and, there are always the damned dishes.