The Women’s Room

I finished reading The Women’s Room at 5am in the morning today, then switched the light out. I just couldn’t put it down and had to know what happened to the women in the novel.

Where to start? This book filled me up with the power of the women within it, with their struggles and pain and achievements. It made me think and touched me a bit deeper than a book has for a while. I can believe that this book helped women to see that there was more to life than the ‘shit and string-beans’ that French alludes to. This book reminds me why I am a feminist, why I am angry.

It is still so powerful after all these years – it still feels contemporary and relevant. Most of all, it is compelling. It is hard to read because of the righteous anger I felt at times, and the tears I shed at things these women go through, or what we women have been and continue to go through, sometimes without realising it. I know we are all very different, we are all unique and have our own different opinions about things. Feminism is most of all a movement that consists of a myriad of difference, it is a celebration, I feel, of the many differences women have. It is like deafness – all deaf people are different but at the same time we all experience the ignorance and general discrimination (however subtle) that we get in society.

I also watched the second episode of Women on BBC Four tonight. It was all about the division of labour in the family, and interviewed various couples about their attitudes towards equality in the household and with childrearing. In some ways I am pretty shocked how things haven’t necessarily changed an awful lot. It seemed like an unspoken agreement that the women would do the bulk of the housework.

They interviewed one househusband (where the woman was the breadwinner) and I found it striking how this threw up all sorts of uncomfortable assumptions – that maybe the man might feel somehow less of a man because he’s doing the housework and looking after the kids. Isn’t that just a sort of bizarre double standard operating? It’s okay if a woman is doing the housework and child rearing, we don’t ask if she feels like less of a ‘woman’, but we do ask if a man feels like less of a ‘man’. It shows how far we have to go with busting all those stereotypes of a macho man and a pretty feminine woman.

What annoyed me is the assumption that feminism wanted to denounce childrearing. It wasn’t about that; it was always about the division of labour and how the housework can swallow up a woman so her life becomes one of drudgery, of slavery. There was no choice – they had husbands, children and housework. Do we still have husbands, children and housework? I found myself relating to some of the women about how they felt they had to plan everything they did every day, because sometimes I slip into that and find myself really pissed off because we haven’t cleaned the bathroom or the room is a tip. Yet I blame both of us, my partner and I for that, because we are both pretty lazy about housework.

What is striking for me is that my parents have always shared the division of labour, and I always thought that this is what it should be like – shared housework and DIY. My Dad always got me to help him with heavy lifting or stuff that might be considered ‘men’s work’ to other people (don’t worry, this was when I was a bit older, not 5 years old or anything!), and I never thought there was anything odd or different about that. My Dad does a lot of the cooking (well, most of it, really), he takes the rubbish out, mops the floors at the weekend, and so on. We generally try to share all the household tasks out since we are all adults now.

When I went to stay at Dan’s parent’s house last summer for two months, I found myself noticing more and more how much his Mum does around the house. A lot of the time, I felt like I was in the way, trying to do my writing, to read or something. It made me think about how, even though things might be different for a lot of people now, there are a lot of couples who sort of relax into stereotyped gender roles.

Examining my own feelings, it feels as though maybe I have some prejudice towards women that do all the housework, cook, and not a lot else. I feel it’s because I know how boring and repetitive housework is – I looked after myself for three years at University, and one more year doing the MA. Or maybe it’s because I expect more from life than housework? So we should, really.

I feel that the programme tonight didn’t make it clear that there is a difference between childrearing and housework. One is essential and though difficult, ultimately rewarding. I’m not saying that housework isn’t essential, but it shouldn’t be the focus of someone’s day and life. Women need, like men, an inner life, a social life, something more than just the drudgery and struggle of survival.

Another element in The Women’s Room is the activism and consciousness raising that the women undertake. I know that when I first started with feminism, about five or six years ago, I was partaking in my own consciousness raising by reading feminist blogs and taking part in the feminist blogging community. The book shows the journey that these women make, how they figure out their own views about feminism and women in society.

I admire women who can give their all to feminism, who can be wholly engaged and constantly part of that community. Yet I am not completely part of that community. It could be because I am too much of an independent and questioning thinker, and constantly feel that I need to carve my own way through feminism, to arrive at my own conclusions. In the beginning, I was all too readily accepting of everything the community, or a part of the community, said. So at the moment I am in the process of thinking this out myself, and working out what I really feel.

Part of this working out is about healing myself because I felt pretty emotionally screwed up when the community sort of began imploding a bit. Disagreements turned into full blown ‘blog wars’, where there are too many people shouting all at once and none of them really getting heard. You know, it is like feeling safe and then realising that things never were safe, that things weren’t as good as they first appeared.

So it’s taken some time, but I feel like my feminism is slowly getting back on track again after I’ve done some reading and thinking. Doing the MA helped a lot too – York Women’s Studies department is a very special place.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. LonerGrrrl says:

    I also found The Women’s Room a powerful read. The whole thing of women devoting their lives to housewifery, and the dissatisaction that can stir in women, is something close to my heart, for that’s my mum! And I’m sure there are many other women like her out there- housewifery hasn’t been completed consigned to history. And of course, as you say, even within het relationships in which both partners work, there’s still this assumption that women will do the bulk of the housework, or it’s less likely the men will take on the childcare. Still a way for feminism to go in breaking all that down…

    I know what you mean about not feeling part of any particular feminist community, because you think for yourself too much. I’ve defintely come to a similar conclusion over the past couple of years. I’ve found sticking to a rigid set of feminist principles impossible, for depending on my life situation, I could be feeling/thinking anything which could strengthen or contradict my feminism and cause me to re-work it. But that’s also good, because it means you’re constantly thinking and developing.

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  2. Liz says:

    I agree – I think it’s healthy to keep re-evaluating and reworking your feminism. Being open minded and willing to think about things differently, or just finding something else that means something to you, is important. I feel like people don’t understand that even within feminism, there are lots of different perspectives and ideas, and that ideas develop and change quite a lot.

    I read your blog post, so I understand how it affects people, even if I feel I don’t live it every day. My Mum gets upset if the house is messy or whatever (it constantly is for some reason or another), and I wonder if it’s because mess sort of reminds us that we have to have ‘order’ in our lives, even though life is messy and disordered. Having said that though, I like having a tidy environment, and get annoyed if I’m writing and there’s a big mess distracting me. I think balance is key, and its just strange when housework takes over and obliterates someone’s personality, you don’t expect to find it, but it’s still there, maybe more hidden.

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