A conversation on Part 1 of The Women’s Room written by Marilyn French
The Women’s Room called to me long before I saw, from the corner of my eye, its mass market paperback copy at the second hand store. “For every man who ever thought he knew a woman! For every woman who thought she knew herself!” the advertising cried. Having an affection for pre current era feminist literature, I readily grabbed it from the musty shelf it sat on and, for fifty cents, thought it a worthwhile purchase, even if it went straight to the shelf.
It did not, however, go straight to the shelf. How could it? When a critics’ review on the first page states, “ an important fictional account of a whole generation of women…arresting, very real and poignant. -Cleveland Plain Dealer”, and whose 1978 cover boasted, “the 3-million copy blockbuster!’ ( the sale count has now reached 21 million). The Women’s Room, was the author’s first published novel.
This 687 page behemoth is broken down into 4 parts and I cannot help but jimmy my thoughts down on part one before reading another page; I am too hyped up on adrenaline and Cafe Bustelo. I sat down to write this because the book demanded I do so. After reaching the end of part 1, more time has been spent nodding my head and gritting my teeth in a constant, “yes” reminiscent of my husband watching his beloved Gators score a touchdown.
The story opens with Mira, sitting in a bathroom stall, at Harvard University in 1968. It is her and several other ladies whose stories we are being told by a narrator who has gathered them all together at once and is relaying back to us at a later date. Mira’s complete story begins with consistency in chapter 5 because, “somehow it all starts with Mira”.
And so we follow Mira from babyhood to puberty, highschool and sexual awakening ( and disillusionment and near abandonment of) and into, “a small local college”. It is here, among other happenings, that she meets Norm whom she will marry and have 2 children (boys) with. Marilyn French takes us through the pregnancy and delivery of the first, Normie, and it is here I am most sympathetic with Mira.
During much of the beginning of the book I was internally and externally yelling “yes!” and, “I know!” to the emotions Mira was feeling and what she was experiencing from her male counterparts, even if we are a few generations apart. I can recall my own labor at a learning hospital, where my cervix, spread open like an art display, was examined and felt up and treated like a plastic classroom dummy. Violation and pregnancy seem to go hand in hand it seems.
I do not think things have changed all that much in some areas of the male (and sometimes female) mentality, at least in my experiences, as society as a whole might think, (even the female nurses told me not to scream when the anesthesiologist was not available for the epidural. I screamed anyway, thank you very much). Certain laws have been enacted, women are encouraged to pursue work and school, and careers, whether or not they have children. Be superwomen. And yet, internally and in the real world women live in, despite being told she does not have to choose between the 2, one really is choosing, are they not?
Many in both sexes consider the man to be the primary breadwinner, and if this is true, then in a relationship, if one must leave their position in school or work for whatever reason, it will be the woman. She is the mother and primary caregiver. Judges will typically grant full custody to mothers in divorce cases. It is as though this is a man’s world still and anything stemming from that insular world, be it wife, girlfriend, children, household chores or the woman’s career, are secondary to the life he lives and the work he does. Mira understood this dependency, in her own day, hearing a song in which the singer, “asks the woman to follow her man, in whatever condition he chooses to live, as if a man alone could be a substitute for a life”. And yet, is this much different than any of the popular music on today’s airwaves, even if the message is mirrored asking the man to follow the woman? I am thinking here of Tim McGraw’s, Just to See You Smile, where the male narrator tells his person,
“Just like when you were leaving Amarillo
Takin’ that new job in Tennessee
And I quit mine so we could be together
I can’t forget the way you looked at me”
Perhaps I am taking something away that wasn’t meant to be insinuated, and of course we never have the full context of any song, but relationships are supposed to be about compromise. This one always rubbed me the wrong way.
Hearing Mira’s story, where in the early 1950’s it was not appropriate for a woman to “appear” to be out alone, lest certain men and boys assume their dominance over you, is not too out of place in today’s world either. Everything is fair game until it is proven you are in the charge of another. I myself have been a victim of this and the feeling is quite degrading, especially as I was a highschool girl at the time.
Do you now think I am a man hater, a militant feminist? That I do not see all the progress that has been made? I am not, and I do. Gender equality, with all its new laws, court decisions and acts and amendments, does little to address society on a micro level. Gloria Steinem stated, “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman, It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie, there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie”. My own mother, who, while only 6 in 1968, has said, “things have changed a lot, but we have a long way to go”. The older I get, the more I see how true this is, because as Steinem also said, “women may be the one group that grows more radical with age”.
Trigger: to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in (someone)
I think we have been using the word, “trigger” incorrectly, and by we I mean various social media keyboard warriors, who seem hellbent on downplaying the reality of what it truly means to be triggered. And we hear it by so many who are disgruntled and wore out by political correctness, calling those who say they are triggered, “weak”, and “pansy”, “dramatic”, and “overly sensitive”, sarcastically speaking all the while. Is this a sort of genuine ignorance or deflection of your own issues that have not been addressed and dealt with? Whatever it is, those who deal with issues that require a trigger warning, are truly being harmed. Veterans, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse survivors, accident victims, alcoholics, the list could become tremendous.
And while yes, several are certainly being overly offended because, why yes, you can change the channel, hit the mute button, ignore, look, and walk away, and take responsibility for one’s own mental status. We do have the power to close the book. Yet, what of those who cannot? What about children, the physically and spiritually poor, those who have given up and those freshly damaged? What of these, we are called to protect? To respect, validate, defend, and stand up for? Bullying should not be tolerated as a “normal” rite of childhood or as something that “is what it is”, and those with PTSD and other mental and physical considerations have the right to fight these injustices; out loud or silently. And everyone, no matter what they are going through, ( and you don’t know what they are going through), has the right to say no, to say stop, and to have those requests honored.
God commands us to be compassionate and loving and respectful. Instead of aggrieving those who cry “trigger”, we must empathize, look for context, and try to help them, even if we can only pray for them. Yet, “only praying”, is conversing with God and is that not the best way?
What started as a study in female contraception, soon led to population control, and deadpanned into the subject of child marriage. My stomach churned and rotated and all but emptied its contents while reading about my own state, in the United States of America, curtailing a sum in the hundreds of thousands of young girls, some as young as 11, forced, coerced, or willingly because they think they have no other option, waltzing into the den of marriage. And this, just in the last few years. *
I didn’t set out to find this. To consider this. It wasn’t my plan, to get involved, or invested, emotionally sewn into the lives of millions of children around the globe, to share stories and statistics with my poor husband who graciously listens, nods, and partakes in a shared astonishment. But, here we are.
There has always been this assumption by myself and others, that child brides, child marriage, underage marriage, whatever it needs to be called, only ever happened, or is happening, “over there”. “over” in Niger, “over” in Afghanistan, “over” in India, “over” in anywhere else. The closest I would have ever believed it would have come to was the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Fundamentalist Warren Jeffs, who took an estimated 70 brides, some as young as 12. I was even only mildly affected at the southern family members who married at ages 13 (her) and 19 (him), and had remained happily married until their deaths-50 years after marriage. I knew that in the deep south, in the 1940’s, that it had been acceptable. I read this couple as being in love. Red flags never shimmied up the pole and the alarm was never sounded. And I assume that is where we all fall on one issue or another. Our senses are heightened at the necessary time and place, when our minds and hearts are ready and open and malleable.
But just like many so-called “taboo” topics–I’m thinking here of Female Genital Mutilation, human trafficking, and serial abortion of minors–we tend to believe these things happen “elsewhere”, and to “other people”. Certainly, not next door and certainly not in our own families. But, my friends, this is certainly not the case.
Hours of reading and research. Books and papers and bills and acts and statistics and I simply can not fathom WHY. In some states, such as Florida, proposed laws for total bans on child marriage are thwarted in favor of, “accounting for real life situations, including pregnancy”. 1
As recent as June of 2019, Louisiana Rep. Nancy Landry stated, “If they’re both 16 years old, and they both consent to sexual relations, and they’re about to have a baby, why wouldn’t we want them to be married?” 2 Following this, the new bill raised the minimum age of marriage to 16.
However, research has shown the younger a couple is at the time of marriage, the more likely that marriage is to suffer from poverty, illiteracy, and end in divorce, an event that can be destructive to any children bore from this immature marriage.3. At what point, does it become the young couples choice and not a decision made out of expectation from their elders to “save face”? And if legislatures have a concern with this, why would they consider it child abuse, to marry under 18, globally? Surely not all marriages between 16 and 18 year olds throughout the world are coerced or forced? Are American teens much different than those surrounding the globe? A petty argument? Perhaps I am walking the line. But I have been a teenager. I have known teenagers. I have teenagers. They are not ready in any emotional, psychological or even physical capacity to deal with becoming a mother, a wife, a husband, a father. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. There always are. But we are discussing the rule. Before the age of 18. Before they can legally vote. Before they can legally drink, smoke, join the military, or consent to sex, they can — depending on your given state — with one parent and in some cases, one judge, enter into a legally binding, state contracted and approved form of child abuse. And in many states, they will not have the legal ability to file for divorce until they are…18.
Both the United States and the United Nations recognize that on a global level, a “child marriage” exists when one of the individuals is under the age of 18. Period. No exceptions. No ultimatum.
Consider, in December 2019, the Preventing Child Marriage in Displaced Populations Act was enacted and “… directs the President, through the United States’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations (U.N.), to push for the U.N. to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the problem of child marriage in U.N.-administered refugee settlements. The strategy shall include a mandate to collect and report data on suspected child marriages, protocols for preventing child marriages, and programs to support and rehabilitate victims of such marriages. The Permanent Representative shall also advocate for the U.N. to (1) examine the relationship between child marriage and violence against girls in all of its research into child marriage, and (2) adopt a standard definition of “child marriage.” In section 3 of this document, Child Marriage is defined as, ” a formal marriage or informal union involving at least one person younger than age 18.” 7
Of course I realize it’s all politics. It’s all money. Culture. “The way we’ve always done it”, heritage, poverty, lack of options or knowledge. But sometimes we know better. And when we know better, we should do better.
*As of October 20, 2020, there are currently only four states in America (Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey) with a MINIMUM age set for marriage at 18 with NO EXCEPTIONS. 8
What I think about in the long run while driving and children fighting and children laughing and bills and obligations mounting; what I think about then when my jeans are too snug and my husband is curt and myself, I am curt and unloving and sharp mouthed as a broken tooth; what I think about when I think about life, how it is slow and then how fast it goes, passes me by flippant and dishonest and then who am I to coddle the hurt masked as truth, seizing morsels of peppered life along the way.
When anxiety/depression sets in I find the first thing to go, is the shower. Not hygiene per say. There can of course still be cleanliness without a spout of waterfall caving in on you—-no matter what the developed world says.
Podcasts are my saving grace. Interviews. Sermons. Books. As much a music lover I am, believe me if you dare, but I find it to worsen my anxiety and claustrophobia. Just like that. In the car. In the home. The world simply closes in. And so, podcasts. Audiobooks. Talk radio. Sometimes silence. And yet this silence too, I have found, mustn’t invade the shower space for it too becomes much too loud, leaving no escape.
And so, podcasts. My favorite? My interest knows no bounds, and so Mother Angelica, Project Life Mastery, Tim Ferris (the king of interview, methinks) and almost every author interview on New Book Series, which spans an academic shmorgeboard of genres. Lamar Burton? He reads amazing short fiction, mostly sci fi which is not my favorite pizza and yet isn’t that the grandest thing about podcasts? Something for everyone even when you think it’s not for you. A former co worker of mine listened to one about unsolved serial killer cases.
The point is I have found a way to keep up a decent hygiene routine. More importantly, I have found a way to cope. Without a harmful addiction or self deprecating antidote. I have realized what is wrong, found a solution, and reaped the reward of recovering a sense of normalcy in my life.
We all have things in our life that have or do cause some level of depression or anxiety on any scale. Whether we notice or not, there are always coping mechanisms in use. As long as they are not self-destructive or harmful to you or others, rejoice that you have discovered your own path towards healing.