Tuesday 19 May 2009

The Women's Room (Review - contains spoilers)

This review was first published on 12th January 2008. I am reproducing it today in memory of Marylin French who died a few days ago (21 November 1929 - 2 May 2009)

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.

And yet...

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.

Copyright 2009

Next post: 'Goodby, Mr Poet' to be published on 21st May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Qué buena reseña, Cuban, y que ganancia también saber que las preguntas están en mayoría al final... A mí me gustan los libros así.
    Saludos desde un Berlín lluvioso,

  2. A thoughtful post revisted is a lovely epitaph. I am quite sure a lasting impression is every author's dream....

    BTW, best of luck on the dentist's visit. Hope my post didn't alarm you! Good for you for closing this important gap in your health care!

  3. You've convinced me to give the book a read. I enjoyed reading your perspective. Many thanks.

  4. What an interesting review of an important book. I’m sorry to hear that the author died but this is a fine tribute to her. I’ve heard of this book but not read it myself. Now I want to read it expect for one little problem; it sounds a little too close for comfort:

    “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.'”

    I love your reading approach of applying a 1950s book to our times via substitution. If we see prejudice as going beyond a certain gender, religion, or race it becomes a universal problem. Fabulous review!

    -says the over 40 Harvard grad who returned from abroad to live on the coast of Maine and is worrying about the economy, sigh. Please say I’m not going mad!

  5. It is totally time to change it.

    I have never read the book. But now I feel as though I know what I need to know of it.

    I was more interested in the tidbits you gave us of your life in Cuba and in the end in London.

    Were your women (the 4) strong and just did what they needed so that you did not see them in the roles of victims I wonder.

    Like so many times I am out of step with many social issues because it seemed like I grew up in a family where everything was kinda fine. Like there was never talk about other people or cultures. It was just live your life and I guess in our home (huge family) we all had friends or boyfriends or girlfriends that went across all races and cultures. For our family it was never anything. I was raised under the umbrella of respect everyone and treat others how you want to be treated. We were also taught that judging someone was not our role but Gods. I sound like I'm rambling and not making sense. Which I just decided I'm not. So I will quit here.

    Funny thing though is that I just wrote about a 50s housewife today on my post and as you see it has some violence.

    Reminds me of this book.

    Love Renee xoxo

  6. Thank you for this suggestion!

  7. Kisses and hugs xxx and ooo.

    Cheers to peace and laughter and a good life.

    Love Renee xoxo

  8. You write the most thought provoking posts my friend!!
    How true, how true, how true it ALL is.

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  9. You would think that time has changed things but hasn't that much. Just look what is happening in Africa and in the Middle East to women. Yes, completely agree with you, time for a change, for a desperate change. Thank you for the review. I can always rely on acumen.

  10. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  11. While I certainly agree with your observations and conclusions in regard to women, CiL, I also find it fascinating that nearly every group which exists believes itself to be the underdog and to be treated unfairly by the world around it.

    This might be true in many instances; however, my suggestion to those who think that way would be to identify less with a group and to function more as an individual. Those people who run free under the strength of their own two legs generally thrive no matter what obstacles other factions of society might throw up trying to suppress them.

    As others have mentioned, I, too, particularly appreciate it when you involve your own experiences as a Cuban to the topic you are discussing. Thank you.

  12. Such a thorough and wonderful review...

  13. Se me borró el comentario... Recomienzo.

    Cuban, ¡qué reseña tan fabulosa"! Más aún aderezada con todos esos paralelos que trazas con la realidad de tus cuatro mujeres fundamentales en Cuba. Confieso mi ignorancia: no conocía esta novela, pero puedo anticipar que me gustará pues soy una defensora de los derechos de las mujeres. Por lo que aquí cuentas, veo que la problemática de fondo es común a todas las féminas. Incluso, en algunos pasajes que evocas me parecía estar asistiendo a mi propia vida, lo cual es una clara muestra de la universalidad de esta obra. Por cierto, soy de las que opina que siempre se está a tiempo para cambiar.

    Otra cosita, me llena de orgullo leer que un hombre cubano de mi generación exprese una opinión que constrasta con el ostracismo de tantas mentes masculinas: cuando una mujer dice No, ¡es NO! Sencillamente, no nos podemos librar de las secuelas del patriarcado que ha sembrado la aceptación de cosas monstruosas como estas en el comportamento social. Cosas que todos sabemos que no están bien, pero ante las cuales por conformismo o resignación, muchas veces se calla.

    Tengo que leer The Women's Room sin falta. ¡Gracias por hacerme conocer este libro y su autora!

  14. Mr C, hello to you,

    The Women's Room had a great impact on me when Marilyn French wrote it. I was thinking, on reading her obituary, that I should reread it but after my last reread I am concerned. I reread 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', and was sorely disappointed...I could not understand how such a seminal read for me had become... well ... boring and a slog...

    so I may leave Marilyn in context, in both the history of the world and in my own personal history where she stands a guiding beacon.

    Happy days

  15. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Fram, I totally and completely agree with you (actually I will copy and paste this response on your blog, too). Although I focused on the impact this novel had on me when I first read it I did not go into the intricacies of what gender politics, class struggle or affirmative action represent nowadays. It would have been too much. I believe that despite the minority or ethnic group into which we are born (and sometimes this category is foisted upon us from above, mind!) it is our individual effort that should ultimately reward us. I am with you that I would not like to wait for crumbs from the table of power. I'd rather go and get what I think I am entitled to.

    Isabella, mi pensamiento ha cambiado radicalmente en los ultimos 15 o 16 an-os. Vi bastante en mi tiempo en la universidad y la experiencia del "periodo especial" me convencio de que Cuba esta muy, muy alejada de la panacea a la que aspiran las mujeres en el occidente.

    Hi, Delwyn, I'm sad to read that 'The Unbearable...' has lost its lustre, but I'm not surprised. Marilyn is a very different read and I would urge you to pick it up. Just the other night BBC showed a documentary focusing on women and men's pay gap and coming on the back of Marilyn's death, it could not have been more appropriate.

    Many thanks to you all.

    Greetings from London.

  16. I forgot a very important detail: 'night flowers' in the review refers to 'prostitutes'. It was a phrase used by the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez in the same-titled tune.

    Many thanks.

    greetings from London.

  17. Thanks for this recommendation, sounds like I'd enjoy this book, I'm going to look for it. I'm always inspired by stories about women and that's not just because I'm a woman myself. So many strong women in history have not been appreciated. I don't agree with Fran, I don't think men could see themselves as underdogs in the same way that women can.

    Thanks for this, I'll definitely read this book.

    Polly x

  18. Many thanks for your kind comment, Polly. I don't think that Fram meant men as the underdog, I think he meant social and ethnic groups in a general way. What I have seen time and time again, mainly here in GB, is what I call 'victims' monopoly' whereby a particular sector of society hijacks suffering for their own sake and establishes a competition with other groups. A typical example is the phrase 'Well, if this writer/columnist/presenter referred to (insert minority here) in the same way he/she would be pilloried.' That type of discussion doesn't help anyone and in fact alienates the very people you want supporting your cause. However, if what Fram implied was that men have it as bad as women, well, I disagree totally.

    Many thanks for your views.

  19. Hello there Cuban!

    I had time to re-read your post again, with more time. Some of your considerations from Cuba are just fascinating. What I really liked was when you said that you lived for many years with four women, and yet you were unaware about some of the issues (gender issues) and challenges that they needed to go through.

    What is it with us humans that we live with people just next to us, who suffer in their lives in one or another way, and we just don't see it? So much of this is happening to me as well...

    In regards to gender... Living in Africa, and dealing with causes of poverty every day, it is difficult not to think about the role women are allowed to play in their societies.

    I sometimes wonder... if there was some kind of miracle happening, and women managed to be trully equal in every sphere of lives... I bet we would all live in a much better world within months.

    Thank you so much for your post! Truly enjoyed it!


  20. I think you raise some very significant points about gender politics. Women remain on the bottom of every society, whether it's acknowledged or not. My experience with Cuban women gave me the impression that machismo aside, women were able to achieve managerial and political positions that are still difficult for women in the U.S. to obtain. Have you read "Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban"? It's an interesting take on how women survive in Cuban society although from an outsider's point of view.

  21. Referencing Polly & CiL:

    Fram most definitely was not trying to establish a "pecking order" to determine which group is most mistreated and which group is least mistreated, and which fall between the two extremes. To do so only serves to exacerbate the problems and creates ridiculous, harmful competition between the groups.

    This is precisely why progress so often moves at a snail's pace. Keep the groups preoccupied fighting amongst themselves, and they will remain downtrodden forever. This also is why individuals in any group need to rise above the group, where he OR she can better his OR her own well being and can serve as a role model and leader for others.

    There can be power in numbers, but numbers often are meaningless without individual strength and leadership.

    Ah, I am so often misunderstood. The world is against me.

  22. "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."

    I think part of the issue is that this unjust system is being seen as a problem for women, who are in need of 'liberation'. Leaving aside for a moment the implied passivity and weakness of women, the other implication is that men are fine as they are in the system and need no liberation. Why would then men work towards a more just system?

    If we'd think instead that all groups would benefit when injustice of any kind is eliminated, then the group differences lose their divisive power.

  23. Many thanks to everyone for your comments.

    Kacper, definitely agree.

    Fram, now that you've cleared the matter I feel better because I thought that was the point you were making.

    Fly Girl, Cuban vs USA women, no contest. Their daily lives are so different that I would not even know where to start. Have not read that book, so I will look it up on amazon.co.uk

    Manuela, that's why I placed 'liberation' between quotation marks. It's a good question you ask and the answer is given in the paragraph that follows it. That's why I read what is called 'feminist' literature, which to me is just literature, really. Because I want to challenge myself beyond the realms of my Cubanness, my blackness, my immigrant status. I want to question society on why it does what it does and what the solutions are. I want to be part of those solutions from my own position as an individual, a member of this society.

    Greetings from London.

  24. Your thoughtful critique has enticed me to read The Women's Room - I could do with some thought provoking reading so I thank you for the suggestion. Enjoy the long weekend and thank you for visiting French Essence and your spot on comment, xv.

  25. Stellar article my friend with excellent analysis and insight and personal introspection. I'm going to put this on my to-be-read list.

    I have an all women book club that this might be an excellent read for and discussion stimulator. We have found that often we gravitate towards women-centric books, and this seems like another good fit.

    I also really enjoyed reading your commentaries on your own experience growing up in Cuba in a women-dominated household.

    Wishing you the best!

  26. Many thanks to you both for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  27. having never read the book)or heard of it before now), i'm intrigued by your perceptive analysis and the way you related it to your own experiences.

    i love your last paragraph. the second sentence strikes me the most.

    this brings to mind a point i brought up in an english class once concerning _the house on mango street_...about how even though the cultural context of what happens in the book is different from my own, i can still relate it to my experiences and situations i witnessed growing up black in a predominately black community in the US.

    same script different cast, as the saying goes.

    now i've *got* to check out this _native son_ review.

  28. 'same script different cast, as the saying goes.'

    Ditto here. Yes. Many thanks. fly.

    Greetings from London.



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