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.