Making Room for the Women: the subversive power of reading
In 1978, I lent my friend Judy the novel The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, and because of this, her husband Nigel accused me of breaking up their marriage. Judy loved this powerful book, which has been considered a key lightning-rod text of the women’s movement. Soon she was questioning the whole basis of her marriage. She subsequently packed up and left with their young daughter.
I suffered a form of collateral damage when Nigel’s rage rained down on my head. He shouted that I had deliberately initiated their irreparable marriage breakdown. That was not my intention. Maybe this incendiary book-lending event was a subversive trigger, and maybe not.
At the time, this novel certainly was one of many controversial books circulating in the West – for instance, those written by authors such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir. In many forums, including women’s consciousness-raising groups, their prominent symbolic presence, as well as their landmark books, inspired a critical explosion of conversations and actions focusing on the misogynistic chains of patriarchy. Definitely, women were on the move, marching on the streets, challenging gender and sexualities stereotypes. Many of us also demanded access to further education.
Seductive education: sweeping aside superficiality
A Mature Age Entry scheme facilitated free entry for older, less qualified people into the University of Queensland. I was a researcher on a project examining the impact of this phenomenon of Mature Age Entry, charting the narratives of older women returning to study. Excited by this open tertiary study opportunity, Judy enrolled the following year in a Bachelor of Arts, specializing in Women’s Studies and Sociology. This gave her dangerous access, according to Nigel, to even more taboo, transformative ideas.
I guess her burning desire for the illuminating offerings of Higher Education was also my fault, in Nigel’s mind at least. When Judy and Nigel met, she worked as a glamorous air hostess. Their eyes locked romantically across a crowded domestic flight. From his perspective, Nigel, an average kind of guy, had definitely gained a valuable asset, a prestigious, beautiful prize attached to his arm, a desirable handbag for both social and business events. This glittering object also perfectly performed her fabulous domestic goddess role, delivering smart dinners at home, impressing his work associates with her divine table settings and her delicately stuffed mushrooms.
Yet she hankered after more enlightened stimulation in this claustrophobic, private space, where he paraded his ego as well as his public achievements. To her, motherhood was indeed a very fulfilling part of this package. On the downside, as both wife and mother, she was even more trapped in a stifling financial and emotional dependency vortex, from which there seemed no escape.
At no stage did Nigel engage in critical self-reflection and face the reality of their marriage breakdown situation. He could not and would not recognize that the fault might have lain, in so many ways, with his deep-seated, masculinist assumptions and attitudes. Their relationship bargain was entwined inexorably in the whole fossilized notion of traditional marriage, based largely on a cultural web of outdated romantic myths and lies.
Monogamous marriage as an institution was then about gendered and sexualised power, privileging a masculinist, heteronormative view of the world. Such an ideology positioned a woman as an inferior, docile person within society, to be largely seen and not heard. The women’s movement of the 70’s, aka Second Wave Feminism, fundamentally challenged these deeply ingrained values, beliefs and attitudes.
Changing patterns: beyond entrapment
At least women’s voices are being heard today in Western democracies, and great advances have been made. We might even see a few more conservative women appointed to the front bench in the Australian Parliament, now that our regressive, sexist Prime Minister/Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, has been removed from office. However, all such seeming advances are often muted trappings both here and globally, a form of ‘one step forward and two steps back’, even for educated, middle class, cisgendered women in the privileged West. Also conservative women often reinforce the dominant ideologies and vehemently deny being feminists, further blocking progress for women’s equality.
The hegemony of the heterosexual couple also still prevails, often bringing a false sense of power for the woman within such a seductively comfortable relationship framework. Single people, particularly women, who do not conform to this normative, exclusive structure can often be isolated and treated as inferior, or even as a threat. Single men don’t seem to suffer the same negative experience in couple-land. As comedian Judith Lucy says, they are socially acceptable as long as they still have their own teeth – not much to live up to.
Regrettably, New Millennium versions of Nigel’s patriarchal view of the world still tend to hold firm. As for people from the Australian LGBTIQ community, basic equal human rights are still, on many levels, a long way off, including within the domain of marriage equality as well.
Explosive 70’s stories
In my early research on mature women returning to study, I encountered many variations on the Judy story. After their return to study, quite a few women were suffering abuse on the domestic front and immediate financial hardship, but gaining in knowledge and power in the arduous long term. Often these were women from conservative backgrounds, experiencing an extraordinary knowledge ferment and a radicalising metamorphosis.
One extreme case that I encountered in my study was that of a northern European migrant woman. Her tradesman husband forbade her from achieving her ambitions. Over many years, she had to go underground and study part-time externally, hiding her books, and any evidence of her notes or her communication with the University. This was doubly hard, given that he had total control over the money she could spend every day. She had to account for every last cent, and therefore posting assignments back to the University, as well as any bus fares and so on, had to have receipts.
From this repressive environment, she managed to attain a degree in Education. She finally plucked up courage and broke the news, inviting him to come to her graduation. His fury knew no bounds, as, to him, his male authority had been challenged on so many levels. Things did not work out well for her. Her heroism still astounds me.
Fear of feminism
I gave a paper at a conference on Higher Education in Sydney about the women I had interviewed in this study. Of course, the daily papers and radio show hosts latched on to one section in particular in my presentation. Unsurprisingly, the media players sensationalized my argument. They claimed erroneously that the phenomenon of mature women returning to study directly related to the steep increase in divorces within Australia. Women who were intellectually on the move therefore ’caused’ untold familial and societal havoc and wreckage. ‘Down with feminism’ was the blatant subtext of the right-wing media coverage.
This fear of feminist power still prevails in many quarters. Perhaps there was a direct cause-effect link to a long ago innocent, yet explosive, lending transaction regarding a timely book, The Women’s Room. A little forbidden knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.
Thanks to Laurie Penny for her Masterclass at the 2015 Brisbane Writers’ Festival. She thought the Women’s Room story was worth pursuing.