I confess to having approached 'The Women's Room', the legendary feminist novel by Marilyn French, with no prior knowledge of its importance. When I announced my decision on the Guardian's talkboard, where I sometimes post under my blog moniker, the general feeling was that the novel was dated and its main themes obsolete. It turned out, rather, that they were not.
To me, the piece works in three acts like a play with a short epilogue that barely amounts to half a dozen pages.
Part I opens with Mira Ward, the main character, hiding in the ladies' room. Yet, this scenario is nothing but an excuse to throw the reader into the vortex that this woman's life had become and see it in retrospective. And what a life. Like the saying that goes 'still waters run deep', Mira's life, whilst apparently placid on the surface, reverberates a mile underneath. This first part deals with Mira's pursuit of the American Dream. A panacea to which many women, not just in the US, but also around the world, suscribe, without many times realising what is at stake. Mira marries young and dies young, metaphorically speaking. After her second son's birth, her husband, Norm, neglects her to the point where a glass of wine, and on occasions a whole bottle, become her companion par excellence.
Part II picks up from this calm destruction into which Mira's life has contracted. With Norm's success comes a change in her life as they up sticks and move into a posher neighbourhood. New friends obliterate memories of her previous ones and her daily existence takes on a more stay-at-home Mum-role. At this point in the book the first signs of disquiet emerge and it is not long before we witness how her marriage founders. The surprising note in this section is that it is Norm who leaves her with no indication whatsoever that this is an outcome he would have considered at some point. During the divorce settlement Mira 'submitted a bitter bill, totting up the cost of her services for fifteen years.' Needless to say the word 'amicable separation' was not once on their lips.
Part III finds Mira suddenly thrust into freedom. And as it becomes evident there is no better freedom than that from a slavery one did not know it existed. Shackle-free, Mira turns her energy into university studies and new friendships. The latter lay the grounds for what becomes the heavier emotional section in the novel. The group of women, and some men, Mira meets at her university serves as a very accurate portrayal of the heyday of social and radical politics in the late 60s and early 70s in the USA.
The novel ends with Mira travelling through Europe with her divorce money, returning to the US and on realising that the market for over 40s Harvard-graduates has dried up, decides to go to live in a little 'community college near the coast of Maine where she walks the beach every day, drinks brandy every night, and wonders if she's going mad.'
To me 'The Women's Room' was an eye-opener in terms of gender politics, an issue with which as a Cuban-born man, I had not fully engaged. Despite having lived with four women (my Mum, granny, auntie and cousin) in a one-bed flat in downtown Havana since my early teens (when my Dad left), women's situation in my island was off my radar. Saying that, some of the themes explored were familiar to me from a different viewpoint.
Let's forget for a minute that we are dealing with 1950s suburbia in the US and that the world the novel tackles is full of mainly WASP wives. The issues of exploitation, housework being taken for granted, abuse, both physical and sexual, low self-esteem and the existence of a glass ceiling ring the same bells no matter in which part of the world you are.
Women are at the bottom of the ladder. This is a point I made briefly whilst writing about 'Until the Violence Stops', a gritty documentary I screened at the arts centre where I worked for five years. Women's position in society was a phenomenon I grew up with, although unaware of its complexities, in my native Cuba. And in 'The Women's Room', the parallels were there for me to see.
The formation of the FMC (the Cuban Women's Federation) after The Revolution came to power, was supposed to 'liberate' Cuban women from their drudgery and low expectations of life. Whether it has achieved these ambitious targets or not remains a moot point but what cannot escape the observer like me, with a more critical and empirical eye, is that over the years the FMC has merged with the status quo and accepted blindly the social norms that the system imposes. Women are still at the bottom of the ladder in Cuba. True, there are more working women in the Caribbean island that there were 50 years ago (including those 'night flowers' on 5th Avenue, Malecón and Rampa), women hold senior managerial roles in stark contrast to the position they were in half a century ago and equal rights protecting women are part of the Cuban Constitution. Said constitution was first drafted in 1940 by the way.
A male supreme leader, an almost-all male Parliament, a heavy military presence in government (in fact it is the last government in the Americas where the statesmen still wear military fatigues), also male, and a system that caters to and protects the male of the species cannot be conducive to a total, or even a partial 'liberation' of women.
The key words here are 'looking after' and 'help'. For in Cuba, and I am a victim of this mindset myself, women are looked at as creatures in need rather than as beings on a par with men. When Mira meets her new friends at the beginning of the book at one of the many parties that are thrown in her neighbourhood and both men and women part ways in opposite directions, I was reminded of the segregation I witnessed at the parties I used to go to (soirées I am referring to here). Women talking about women's topics, children and housework, men debating baseball. When Mira finds out that some of her female friends' husbands are sleeping around including with some of her own chums, her initial reaction is anger only to abate quickly and be replaced with apathy. As I read those passages I had flashbacks of the women in my household discussing the 'secret' affair that Mr So and So was having with 'this or that woman' who lived next to the baker's or the fishmonger's. This was normally followed by a shrug of their shoulders. When Mira's best friend's daughter is raped and is put through the terrible ordeal that can only be the whole legal tribulations of trying to snare a rapist, I was reminded how since my early teens the general consensus in school was that 'no' was actually 'yes'. Well, guess what? 'No' is 'no'. Pure and simple.
The novel throws up other issues, although more marginally. For example, Mira's racial prejudices to begin with, not apparent at first, but more obvious when she meets Val's daughter's black boyfriend. By way of explanation the author, Marilyn French, points at Mira's background amongst mainly middle-class, same-age, white people. This issue unveils a deeper schism between the liberal, white, middle-class Mira belongs to and the black minority referred to by Angela Davies in her ground-breaking book 'Women, Race and Class' and also addressed by yours truly in my analysis of 'Native Son'.There is also Mira's relationship with her two sons, one of the more beautiful passages in the novel as the generational conflict that flares up is solved in an organic and natural way and serves as a contrast to Val's indictment of men following her daughter's rape trial. To Val all men are potential rapists. The epilogue acts as a reminder that this is not the case. Homosexuality, too, gets a walk-on part in the form of Iso, whose heart gets broken when her long-term partner leaves her to start a new life in a different city.
'The Women's Room' is a timeless reminder of why our complacency has led to women not having had a 'Holocaust' or 'Transatlantic slave trade' moment. Whilst the entire world witnessed the effects of the Shoah, and only lately we have come to terms with the barbaric outcome of the slave trade, the truth is that we are not able to apportion the same degree of gravity to women's exploitation. To me the reason lies in its on-going, non-stopping nature and the intricacies of the phenomenon. Can you campaign for the same rights for Cuban women as you do for their British counterparts when the former lack even the wherewithal to live day by day? What is the first step in the struggle, food, childcare or pay gap?
Marilyn French leaves me with more questions than answers and that in itself is a positive outcome. As a man, I take things for granted because I live in a world that favours me and caters to my needs. As a black man, these opportunities are reduced. As a black immigrant in the UK, the choice is cut even more. Take away the identity of the main character of 'The Women's Room' and substitute it for Jew, black or gay and we are all in this together. And it is time to change it.