Marilyn French’s Characters Speak to Me

National Domestic Violence Hotline Blog

Marilyn French’s Characters Speak to Me

The following blog originally appeared on

By Kate Murphy

A college senior considers both The Women’s Room and French’s posthumously published novel, The Love Children, from the point of view of her own generation. And the experience clarifies her feminist sensibility.

As I plunged headfirst into The Women’s Room, the most famous novel of the late feminist Marilyn French, I found myself submerged in a foreign world, or so I thought. Beginning in the 1950s, the novel follows Mira Ward through her teenage years, her young marriage, her life as a stay-at-home mother, and her subsequent feminist rebirth during her forties, while a student at Harvard University. Hers was a world where women were second-class citizens; where all that many young women had to look forward to was a life of suburban discontent and servitude. I found it shocking. But at first I just couldn’t relate to it.

Flying through the first few chapters, gripped by the grim reality Mira and her friends faced, my perception changed, the way one’s eyes gradually readjust after the room suddenly goes dark. On the last page of Part I of The Women’s Room I realized I was reading a story that was my own, every woman’s. Isolde, a friend of Mira’s, says to her, “I hate discussions of feminism that end up with who does the dishes.” French ends the chapter with, “So do I. But at the end, there are always the damned dishes.”

I don’t know why, but that struck me. Maybe I couldn’t see myself reflected in the exact life experiences of these women on a surface level, but I couldn’t help thinking of what I would do in their places, how I would feel if I were them. Page after page, I found myself shocked, outraged, and terrified at the depth of unhappiness of the “typical American housewife” of the time. Even after Mira left this life—dumped by her husband and forced to pick up the pieces and start anew, she moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard—I still thought of the women she was leaving behind. Women trapped in loveless marriages, with no means to survive on their own; women doomed from the start.

As I continued reading, I found the women who “made it out,” the women whom Mira met at Harvard, still experienced unhappiness, emptiness, rape, rage, alcoholism, and adultery. But somehow, they fared better. The difference, and it was no small thing, was that these women recognized themselves, and one another, as women at their core, as burgeoning feminists. They formed a community. They shared in each other’s every experience, not on a superficial neighborhood-acquaintance level, as Mira’s friends before had, but on an existential level.

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  1. I have the amazing privilege of working with Marala Scott on promoting her moving & provocative story of a family’s experience with domestic violence. Marala is an incredible woman who has used her horrific childhood to Help Educate & Alter Lives and prevent domestic violence. Marala is sharing her message of the “Indicators of Abuse” at colleges, high schools, and women’s shelters across the country. Now Oprah Winfrey is saluting this amazing woman. Please help us continue to promote this important message by commenting on Oprah’s website. Be sure to mention Marala’s name and the “Indicators Of Abuse.” We appreciate your support!

  2. As a survivor of domestic violence I still can feel the shame, guilt and shattered dreams from my experience. The secrets and the slow chipping away at my self esteem until I was paralyzed to take any action became the bottom to begin living in the meantime. In the meantime I needed rebuild the connection with my spirit through meditation and reiki and developed strength of thought and courage through exercising and creating a stronger body. This gave me the ability to start taking tiny baby steps forward and focusing on the solution. I thank everyone who speaks out against domestic violence and today I too speak out and help others in the way that I have been helped through workshops, seminars and individual coaching. Thank-you for being here.

  3. I also thank you for validating what I’ve long suspected, that I too am a victim of domestic violence. Because mine comes in the verbal form, I wasn’t sure. Just tonight I was haranged by my husband because my choice of words was ‘negative.’ I was saying something jokingly, but because I was dumb enough to start it with the words, “Don’t dare tell,” I was instantly stopped with a glare and angry response “what are you telling me not to dare doing?” I was trying to jokingly say “don’t dare tell John we threw away the dry pork chops, because he loved them so much, he’d have retrieved them from our garbage.” A nasty arguement ensured in which I was told I’m always negative and saying negative things. If I’d been given the chance to say more than 3 words, he’d have found out I was joking. I’m constantly belittled, told how dumb I am (even though many times he’ll say something I did or said was brilliant–go figure). I don’t know if I should say “fortunately” or “unfortunately,” my memory on many things is bad or short–maybe that in itself is self-protection. Is there a forum or chat room on this website where we can tell our story and get feedback from others’ experiences?

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