“Marriage accustomed one to the good things, so one came to take them for granted, but magnified the bad things, so they came to feel as painful as a grain in one’s eye. An open window, a forgotten quart of milk, a TV set left blaring, socks on the bathroom floor could become occasions for incredible rage. And something happened sexually in marriage–the swearing to forsake all others, despite its slight observance, had a profound effect. Some people felt trapped by it, impelled to assert what they called freedom. Some accepted it like a rein, and in the effort to avoid pain in the form of hopeless desire, cut off occasions of desire, avoided having long talks at parties with attractive members of the opposite sex. In time, all feeling for the opposite sex was cut off, and intercourse limited to the barest politenesses…. But something happened to you when you did that, a kind of death seeped up from the genitals to the rest of the body, till it showed in the eyes, the gestures, in a certain lifelessness.”
-MARILYN FRENCH, The Women’s Room
My class on sex and gender has taken me over a diverse and contemplative road. French’s book, The Women’s Room, was new to me, and required reading for the semester. Published in 1977 it somehow bypassed my tentative awareness of feminist anger at the time and yet remains a pertinent and interesting read. Within the early chapters I clearly saw aspects of my first marriage and the expectations imposed upon me as a woman.
On the one hand I was a homemaker, mother, and sexually available wife. I did all the childcare, cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, canning, lawn mowing, grocery shopping, and cheerleading. I didn’t have regular hours of work and leisure; I was expected to be there day and night for whoever needed me. On the other hand I was judged negatively by members of my then-husband’s family for staying at home. “Why don’t you get a job and contribute so he doesn’t have to work so hard?” I was asked this in various ways but always with the same condescending voice. I felt like nothing… and was valued at exactly that.
Despite the endless jobs I was doing as a homemaker, it was assumed I had nothing but free time. “Since you don’t work, can you pick up Dad?” “You’re at home all the time…can you watch our child for a couple of days?” And so it went. Until I left the marriage.
French’s fictional story walks a similar path to mine except her women characters became angrier over time. They too, ultimately left husbands and lover’s and came to rely on themselves. What I struggled with most was the caricatures of the men. Not a single man in the book escaped being selfish, deceptive, or dismissive, and I don’t believe that is true in reality. There are men who are loving and faithful, but for some reason or other relationships still fail. There are also women who are selfish, deceptive and dismissive.
French’s women were sex-maid-mothers easily disposed of once careers took hold and younger lovers appeared. And although I had a taste of that, I was strong enough to move on when enough was enough.
I was judged harshly by others for leaving my marriage, but I had to live in my own skin. I had two young children watching me navigate adulthood and I had no intention of letting them see me crumble. It wasn’t a male or female thing, it was a being responsible thing.
I asked my friend Claudia if she had read the book, and she said she had. “It was a time of women’s anger,” she said. Through Claudia’s insights I came to realize we need authors to shake up the status quo from time to time, to be the voice of the silent, and to shed light on cultural norms that are harmful. I would guess there are a lot of Baby Boomer women out there who have stories echoing those in The Women’s Room, and others who shrugged off society and cut their own path in this world. I would love to hear from you. Really.