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Activism and... The Women's Room by Marilyn French

It was a long time ago that I read The Women’s Room, nearly 30 years ago now. Another time in my life, almost like another life. Sometimes life can be like that, the feeling of having lived a number of lives in one life, like a snake shedding its skin and starting renewed.
I was given a copy of The Women’s Room by a woman who lived in a flat downstairs, I read this book that proclaimed to “change lives” when I went into hospital to give birth to my first child. At the time I had been living with a male partner who was extremely violent to me. The birth of my son was incredibly wonderful. Not the bit when my legs were trussed up in stirrups by medics, like a Christmas turkey, waiting to be stitched up, but giving birth somehow reconnected me with my body. When lying down in bed one afternoon, I thought: “Do I want to spend the rest of my life in this violent relationship?” and a voice inside me replied: “NO!”. The very next day I told my partner that I was leaving him, leaving this violent relationship, leaving the fear, the humiliation and the desperate eroding of my self-esteem.
As soon as the women around me knew that I wanted “out”, they surrounded me with practical support, even putting themselves at risk to do so. Within a year, I managed to get my life together, found an incredible place to live, which when I moved in felt like a gift from life for having been so brave. I can’t exactly recall what the book was actually about – just another women’s book really, one of those big fat books that women read all the time, bought off a shelf in a supermarket or an airport. The book proclaimed that it would change lives and it did!
The Women’s Room somehow supported me as a woman to say: “No – enough is enough”. I stepped out of a door, shutting it behind me, into a life where over the next few years I would discover my self, my whole self.
Activist in women’s movement, rape crisis centres and community organising, Tunbridge Wells

I must have been about 14 when I read The Women’s Room. I absolutely hated it. I recognise that it’s considered a seminal novel, but it never really spoke to me. Maybe I was too young to understand it, or couldn't relate to the story because it was so far away from my observations of my parents’ very happy marriage. But I think the reason I didn’t warm to the book ran deeper than this. After all, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird at the same age, I was completely fired up to challenge racism and I had no experience of that either. What put me off The Women's Room was that its message was so shrill that I felt bludgeoned. It took me several years to decide to be a feminist, and when I did, I was influenced by writers who told their tales with more subtlety and grace: writers such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, whose wonderful novels and stories still enrage and inspire me now. I can see why Marilyn French’s novel shocked a generation into feminism, but it took better authors, writing better novels, to bring me into the fold.
Peace activist, Oxford

I’ve come to The Women’s Room late in life. Somehow I missed it the first time round; I judged it as a blockbuster: “the Novel that Changes Lives” annoyed me. (Perhaps I just didn’t want to engage with it).
Now I’m reading it, half-way through, fascinated. I’m looking back at a series of sharply etched photos. I’m surprised at how much I’ve forgotten of how women were at that time. How we mainly accepted our position, took on the roles assigned to us, didn’t challenge so many unjust aspects of our lives. I recognised instantly her portrayal of men and women then, of sexual and social relationships. How could we have been like that? Where I came from, it was assumed that you would train to be a secretary, work for a male boss, maybe aspire to be an air hostess, marry and “settle down”. And always wear gloves!
How would I have reacted to reading The Women’s Room then? I would have been taken aback and yet elated by its shocking honesty, angrily in agreement, strengthened. Now, while parts of the book do inevitably seem old-fashioned and creaky, I’m shocked at women’s lives then, and how things still are. But we’ve come a long way. I haven’t got to the end of the story yet. None of us has.
Peace activist, Suffolk

Marilyn French, academic and author, 21 November 1929 – 2 May 2009.

Topics: Women | Activism