I was 15 when I first read Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, and to say it had a profound impact on me would be an understatement.

It was 1981, I was already politically active and already (kind of) identifying as a feminist: but I hadn’t read any theory, I hadn’t met any other young women who felt as strongly about the injustices women faced as I did (so yes, I was going through that typical teenage alienation stage, where I felt I was the odd one out and no one else understood me) and apart from Spare Rib I hadn’t really come across any feminist writing yet.

Reading the Women’s Room changed all that. Suddenly here was a book that spoke to me, and a feminist author writing about things in a way I could identify with. This book truly blew me away, and without wanting to sound too clichéd, it also made me think more than any other book I’ve read either before or since.

So anyway, after I read the book, I sat down and wrote an eight page review of it for my English teacher. The review wasn’t homework, it wasn’t a piece of work I was expected to do, but I felt so passionately that this was a book everyone should read, I just had to get my feelings about it down on paper.

It’s one of the few pieces of school work I’ve held on to, and today, after hearing about Marilyn French’s death on Saturday at the age of 79, I’m really really glad that I did. Because I think what I wrote then, at the grand old age of 15, illustrates far better than anything I could come up with now,  just how much of a debt I owe to Marilyn French.

So this is me, way back when, before I knew who I was or what I’d be doing with my life, writing about feminism and women’s issues for the very first time.

I’ll skip the first few pages because they just provide a précis of the story:

“The book is an excellent book, arousing strong feminist feelings in me and I should think, any woman who reads it. I have no idea of how the book will affect a man, although I was told by one “friend” that it made him more aware of the woman’s lot, and he determined not to treat a woman like that.

After reading the book, which once I had picked up I couldn’t put down, I was full of hate, I couldn’t look at a male without finding something sexist or obnoxious in the way he acted. Since then my feelings have simmered down slightly, I realise that the men depicted in the book were not the same as all men, they were characters chosen for their actions, a minority, or maybe a majority of everyday men, but not all.

The book arouses so many different feelings it is difficult to place them all: feelings of love as the relationships are described, happy and carefree, then feelings of hate as the male begins to treat the female as an object, finally fear as the rape is described and the everyday actions of men is shown as being psychological rape. The way certain males are described, watching the females and slowly undressing them in their minds, brings the feeling of fear whenever I walk past a group of males who stare or whistle or say some smart phrase, their egos not allowing for the idea that what they are doing is more likely to turn a female off than attract him to her.

After reading the book I found it necessary to find out the views of some males about women. I was amazed at the response. It seems that the views of the 1950’s are still firmly implanted in the minds of the young male population: many still believe the woman to be inferior, and so believe that it is the woman’s natural job to look after the kids and the house because of course the woman is totally incapable of anything else. Well, even if the woman is incapable of some of the jobs, at least the bored, frustrated housewife can think, and that thinking can lead to hate, the hate that is portrayed in the book, that, in many cases, is inevitably to be the result of many of these peoples’ future marriages, unless they change their way of thinking. Maybe reading the book would save a lot of women from this frustration, perhaps it would also help men to realise the necessity in treating their wives or daughters like rational, normal human beings instead of slaves or sex objects.

The book is so intense in its sensualities, the feelings provoked by the authoress’s great writing skills; the style is very readable and the subject matter is very important and relevant in today’s society. Women need to be heard, listened to, instead of being fobbed off as mad feminist freaks, insane because they are not willing to accept their place. Well, the men who have these opinions have a lot to learn, and indeed the women with these opinions; women are learning their places, but unfortunately for the males it is not where they would like to see them.

I believe it is essential that many people read this book, and I am convinced that one day it will be hailed as a classic – reading The Women’s Room is more than just reading a book, it is an experience.”

There’s a note from the teacher at the end, saying “An interesting review and discussion. The characters seem to belong to the bored middle classes. Is the writer voicing the frustrations of all women?” So then there’s another 4 pages of me answering that question. My conclusion:

“Even though the book is bitter and pessimistic it does seem to voice the feelings of many women, the majority of women, and that is why it is such a necessary book, because these voices must be heard and something must be done.”

Indeed it must young Cath.

I know for a lot of women reading The Women’s Room was a life changing experience, indeed, I think it was this book more than anything else that inspired my own mum to do an Open University degree a few years later. I suppose I was too young when I read it for it to have actually changed my life, but what it did do was open my eyes to a whole new world of outspoken, unapologetically feminist women, and helped set me on the path to where I am today.

So RIP Marilyn French. And thank you.

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