The Women’s Room

One of the signs of enjoying a book is when I prolong its completion, choosing to sip at the bubbly goodness instead of gulping it in one sitting. Thus went reading this one, a feminist classic from 1977. Brilliant in parts, somewhat draggy and long-winded in others, but overall a gem. The narrator inserts herself into the story in 3rd person as Mira, revealing her dual identity at the end as she’s writing this book over the summer break along the Maine coast, the months free from her teaching gig. Throughout there is a recurring theme of string beans and shit, “years spent scraping shit out of diapers with a kitchen knife, finding places where string beans are two cents less a pound…” —the image is referenced seven times through the book. “When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

Mira at the beginning is hiding in the women’s room at Harvard, unable to face the fact that, as a 40-year-old woman in graduate school, people look right through her. We then whirlwind back to her previous 15 years, a marriage that breaks up with two sons in tow, but more importantly a grim and extremely detailed view of the madness gripping suburban white women that Friedan covers in Feminine Mystique. All the women in the group Mira joins end up going insane, attempting suicide, or just being beaten (or beaten down). After Norm, the husband, asks for a divorce, Mira tots up a bill for her services over the fifteen years and gets a nice settlement for herself.

On pregnant women: “It is this sense of not being a self that makes the eyes of pregnant women so often look vacant. They can’t let themselves think about it because it is intolerable and there is nothing they can do about it.”

“I wanted my life to be a work of art, but when I try to look at it, it swells and shrinks like the walls you glean in a delirious daze. My life sprawls and sags, like an old pair of baggy slacks that still, somehow, fits you.”

The acronym “mcp” (male chauvinist pig) was so common in 1977 that it’s scattered throughout these pages without any explanation.

A couple of great scenes:

  • Early mansplaining: The party where Mira discovers Harley is a monologuist and cannot carry a conversation. When two men are speaking together, “it was not dialogue, it was one-upmanship… it was two monologues carried on simultaneously…. He was interesting as long as he was explaining things…”
  • Val’s radicalization after her daughter is raped, where she resigns from all her social justice work and only focuses on radical feminist causes (which ends up getting her killed by the police when they try to free a prisoner, a woman who stabbed her rapist and was convicted of murder).
  • Description of Mira’s visit to her parents where conversation rules kept things extremely boring. This reminded me painfully of the gulf between myself and family, a gaping void into which real conversation is not permitted. “But still she had to listen to the boring recital of actions performed by strangers, or people she could barely remember. They were actions without motive and without consequence, and about as interesting as the parts list for an atomic submarine… But on and one they went. They could fill three days with it.” More telling, “They shuddered at the word socialism, and even socialized medicine seemed to them something tinged with evil… She tried, in simple language to suggestion something of this to her parents, but they could not hear her. The things were in two different categories in their minds: capitalism was good, high medical bills were bad, but they had no connection with each other. She gave up. By nine thirty, Mira’s head ached. She longed for ten o’clock, when the Wards would turn on the news, after which they would go to bed.”

Also interesting to note that it was a common practice for people to bring their TVs over when they visited people, or to rent them when her sons were in town visiting. The portable sets of the 60s and 70s would just plug in and get the channels the antennae fetched.