Marilyn French (1929 – 2009)

Servitude or Freedom?

by Pauline Woodbridge

My chosen Foremother is Marilyn French. My reason is because two of her books have had a role in guiding my feminist learning. However, the two books are very different from each other. One, The Women’s Room, a work of fiction and the other, Beyond Power: On Women and Men & Morals, a very scholarly work calling on research using a number of disciplines – anthropology, history, political theory, theology, medicine, law and education – to demonstrate that patriarchy is neither natural nor inevitable. She argues that unless we embrace alternative human and humane values – values historically considered feminine – we are headed towards a totalitarian world.

The Women’s Room, published in 1978, a time when the women’s movement began to have an impact, awakened women to an understanding of the unfair advantages enjoyed by men in relationships. Gloria Steinman states that The Women’s Room expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know they were not alone and not crazy.

I read this book at the end of the 1970s and it had a huge effect on me. I remember I cried a lot for the issues the women characters endured, and it did resonate with aspects of my life that had seemed so off for such a long time. For many years of my early life as a mother, I had no family support and lived in isolated places, sometimes with no neighbours or friends of my own. My husband worked, had his routine of Friday drinks and played sport over the weekends. In different places we resided in, and as the kids got older, I would go the soccer or cricket and socialise with the other women who were there watching the men.

In one small coastal village where we lived in the mid-1960s, I did get to attend social events put on occasionally by my husbands work. It was normal for all the women and children to gather together inside and the men to separate and stand talking in groups around the pig on a spit, or the bar.

It was on these occasions that I felt my most invisible. At that time, I wasn’t interested in the baby talk that occupied the women, but was very interested in science, the universe, books and the world around us. I had a bit of knowledge about cars as well, as I used to help my Dad when he serviced his car or made repairs. I have clear memories of standing slightly attached to the group of men, not included but there, and when there was a hesitation in the conversation about an auto problem, I would make a suggestion which would not ripple the men’s talk in anyway. Then minutes later a man would say the same thing and it would be accepted as right. I remember touching myself and looking around wondering if indeed I was actually there or was invisible again. Looking back, I felt invisible for a very long time. So, the content of The Women’s Room, although written for a different culture – American middle class, and a slightly earlier time, 1950s and 1960s – it still reflected much about the status of women in this country.

I was lucky to be awakened and supported to analyse the social system around me through women’s eyes, to hear the phrase “the personal is political”, to understand the power and immorality of the institution of patriarchy, along with the price we all pay by its continued presence. I started to read bits of the great body of work done by feminists of the more distant past as well as recent decades. They are our foundation, a rebellion against patriarchal ideas that restrict the lives of women and children.   The more than 600 pages of Beyond Power: On Women and Men & Morals cover chapters on long past cultures and practices, vestiges of the past, and records what French calls The Beginning of the End, “patriarchal cultures control women, exclude women and attempts to control all that women produce – from children to manufactures” (p. 55). Her book has 3 chapters covering Women under Patriarchy, and one on men under patriarchy, along with a statement “that history as we know it is not the history of the human race, but the history of patriarchy, of power…history has concentrated on creating and maintaining an image of man as the controlling agent of his own transcendent destiny” (p. 274) .

On page 527, she writes: “what sustains feminists in their struggle, which is often lonely, is other women”.

In her introduction, she states: “There are realistic grounds for our sense that we are living through a period of severe disruption, that, indeed, we may be shuddering our way to the end of the world. …we are utterly bankrupt of vision….No matter where we turn our minds, we find no realistic ground for confidence in any vision, any alternative except atomic war, a planet made sterile by pollution, or world totalitarianism” (pp. xiii-xiv). She says “The intention for this book as a whole is to offer perspective on where we have been, and where we are, and to suggest where we want to go… We must as a race, slowly approach a way of thinking that allows us to live, not die; and to encompass felicity” (p. xxiii).

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