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"The Women’s Room: An Iconic Novel by a Visionary Novelist"

As I began to think about The Women’s Room as an iconic novel, I thought at once of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Were their similarities that might lead me to a definition of “iconic”? I assumed, for example, that an iconic novel would have had to be produced at some especially key moment. But as I looked at this pair of novels, the idea of a key moment slipped away. Stowe’s novel was published in 1852, nine years before the Civil War, and French’s novel, published in 1977, appeared, as Alida Brill writes, “after the word feminism was common, after the writings of other famous feminists and after we had a magazine called Ms.” Stowe’s book, it would be fair to say, came out of her politics and those of her extended family, members of which were active in one or another of the several splinters of the anti-slavery movements of their day. French’s novel came out of her own and her friends’ experiences, either as middle-class white housewives in suburban New Jersey or as white graduate women students at Harvard. Both wrote their books as mature women and mothers. Both books were immediate best-sellers at home and abroad. They were reviewed both negatively and positively—but they were certainly newsworthy, as were their authors, seemingly famous overnight.

Ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Stowe was invited to the White House in 1862, President Lincoln is said to have greeted her with the sentence, “Is this the little lady who made this great war.” Even then, its readers—far more women than men—could be brought to tears and also to burn with maternal indignation, and perhaps, in some manner, prepare themselves—at least in the Northern states for the loss of their sons.

Far more than timing or sales, or immediate fame is another quality: these books are simply page-turners with particularly long-lasting power. Readers have continued to find these novels revelatory, emotionally resounding, compelling, disquieting, moving readers to anger as well as tears. Again and again, readers, remembering their first encounter with The Women’s Room, may say, like Brittany Shoot, “I unapologetically loved French for most of my young adult life.” Or like Deborah Orr, who read the novel when she was fifteen in 1981: “I couldn’t put it down . . .” Or even like Kate Murphy, who was a college senior when she first read the novel in 2009; “I was reading a story that was my own, every woman’s.”

Perhaps I should have seen this from the start, but I didn’t: It’s clear to me now that to be iconic a novel must remaining revelatory over time, and hence its subject has to be of such immense proportions as the racial hatreds that continue to infect our world, now described as discriminations against men and women of color. Similarly, not even the accomplishments of the women’s movement have put an end to forced marriages, cliterodectomies, wife-beating, mass rapes, and other horrors I don’t need to list here, which still govern the lives of most women on the planet. Just the other day, a reporter writing in the New York Times on Ireland’s laws against abortion, which had come up against the European Court of Human Rights, quoted the Irish government’s anti-abortion restrictions as “based on ‘profound moral values embedded in Irish society.’” The European Court, responding to the appeal of two women who had had to leave Ireland to have abortions necessary for their health, ultimately upheld the national right of Ireland to hold its anti-abortion policy against women’s rights: [I quote] “…while Ireland’s restrictions on abortion interfered with their right to have [women’s] private lives respected, the interference was justified because of the ‘legitimate aim of protecting public morals as understood in Ireland.’” Marilyn would have clipped this piece and used it when she could to illustrate how far we have gone and how far we still need to travel.

As I wondered whether Stowe’s novel was still iconic—158 years after publication--I came across a writer who, admitting to not having read Stowe’s novel, then described it as “dated, stilted and full of distasteful stereotypes. We have all outgrown it,” she said and continued, “And yet history suggests that if any single book helped form the world we live in, that was the one….[which] served as a prism to focus all the inchoate angers of that decade into the Civil War. (Abigail Zuger, a medical doctor, NYT, 4/1/10) Similarly, I cannot think of another novel of our time which has focused all the inchoate angers of the feminist nineteen-sixties into what Marilyn French later called “The War Against Women.” Only after Marilyn French’s death did I learn from one of her oldest friends, Lee Ann Schreiber, about the history of The Women’s Room. In May 1976, Marilyn asked Lee Ann to read the manuscript, which had already been rejected by several publishers. LeeAnn read for 48 hours straight, she said, resting only for three hours, and when she finished, she told Marilyn, “The world is not yet ready for this, and the world will lash back.” She suggested that Marilyn put it aside.

But two people changed history: Charlotte Sheedy, then one of three feminist agents in New York, read it and was ready to find a publisher for it, and Jim Silverman decided in 1976 to leave Random House and start Summit Books that year, and had the courage to begin with The Women’s Room, which he has called a “life-changing book,” for him and for Marilyn, too. It’s commonly known that the book has sold more than 21 million copies in some 20 languages.

I knew Marilyn, and I had had scores of discussions with her about such topics as who reads books and who was really in charge of the world we live in. One of the stories she told me that especially gratified her followed her writing of The War against Women.

She knew that very few powerful men were aware of her feminist political writing, much less affected by it. One exception had pleased her. In 1992, she had “sent Arthur Sulzberger a copy of The War against Women because it had not received a single review. He made sure it was reviewed in the [New York] Times, but he was shocked and horrified [he wrote back] by the book. Ever since then, [Marilyn continues}, two subjects never before found on the front page of the NYT have appeared there with some regularity: female genital mutilation and wife-battering.” [from a 2001 email by MF to FH].

Marilyn was always a realist. And like Harriet Beecher Stowe, she wrote to be read by all readers, not only women. She also insisted on “evidence” for her statements. Though she remained in general optimistic about the future of feminism, she was consistently alert to the political world, and when given a platform would use it courageously. About 18 months before her death, because publishers in Britain and the U.S. were planning a 30th anniversary celebration of The Women’s Room, the editors of the Sunday London Times and the Australian Sunday Life asked her for an essay. Could she describe what had changed for women in the past 30 years? And so she described the positive changes that now shape the lives of middle class women and men. Men, Marilyn wrote, “are more rooted because they participate in the daily running of the household.” They are connected to their children and are not aliens in their own homes, as their fathers may have been. Still, she continued, “That feminism has improved men’s lives makes it even stranger that men as a class remain hostile to feminism.”

But this essay was never published. Marilyn send me a copy, and asked me to help her edit it for publication elsewhere, perhaps in the new edition of The Women’s Room itself. And she explained why the essay had been rejected by the newspapers. In this essay, she had turned to the world of media to mark changes that had affected women. She noted that, during the same 30 years in which American middle class women had gained more privileges, six corporations, headed by six men had come to own almost all the newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, movie studios, production companies, internet companies, and book publishers. In a calm, restrained tone, she outlined some effects of such monolithic control, for example, on the control of book publishing and film making.

The editors wrote to say they could not understand why Marilyn had to have that paragraph. How could a fact about who owned the media possibly be relevant to the status of women in the U.S. and Britain, or in the world, for that matter? Wouldn’t she just cut that bit so that they could publish the essay? Marilyn told me she was not altogether surprised that these newspapers refused to publish the essay she had written. She used it ultimately as the basis for a new introduction to each of the four volumes of From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World, which I am happy to say, the Feminist Press published in 2008, a year before Marilyn’s death, so that she could hold the four volumes in her arms. I believe that these volumes are as important for women’s education as are the Feminist Press’s two volumes of Women Writing in India and four volumes of Women Writing Africa.

I want to tell one more story about The Women’s Room. In 2006, I was once again the publisher/director at the Feminist Press. We decided to publish Marilyn’s In the Name of Friendship and to hold a signing at the American Booksellers Association’s annual meeting. I pushed Marilyn’s wheelchair to a waiting area behind a great hall where the book-signing was going on. We were behind curtains and could not tell whether two people had lined up or two hundred. The rules allowed one hour for each signing, with authors situated along a wall, the public in long rows before them.

When we were told to move to our place, we saw that our row stretched as far as we could see, and so the question became, could all get these book get signed in one hour. Probably, if Marilyn did not lift her head to look at each person. But she could not help it, for many women—and yes, they were mainly women--thrust two books into her hands, the cloth-covered new one, and a battered paperback of The Women’s Room. Often there were tears, and the words, “Your book changed my life.” They were not only women of a certain age. Some were mothers and teen-age daughters. Some were students who had read The Women’s Room as a college assignment. One young woman said she was buying the book for her mother who had told her that reading The Women’s Room had changed her life back in the seventies. Marilyn and I were both astounded, and every now and then through the hour—and we overstayed our time until we were shooed away—we were brought to tears especially by the women who had carried their old copies in for signing.

We talked about this many times afterwards, and Marilyn admitted to being surprised, even shaken by the experience. It wasn’t that she had not experienced women telling her that her book “had changed their lives.” But those experiences had occurred so long ago that she had forgotten them. And of course many of us know that when asked what she wished for in the future, Marilyn usually said that she wished The Women’s Room would become unrecognizable to women, no longer a touchstone, no longer the iconic novel it seems poised to remain.