The Free Women 1

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‘You’ll have settled down in a week or two.’

‘I don’t want to settle down. I can feel resignation creeping up already. And this house. It ought to be painted again. I simply don’t want to start — painting and putting up curtains. Why is everything such hard work here? It isn’t in Europe. One sleeps a couple of hours a night and is happy. Here, one sleeps and makes an effort …’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Anna laughing. ‘Well, I’m sure we’ll be making the same speech to each other for years, every time we come back from somewhere.’

The house shook as a train went past, close, underground. ‘And you ought to do something about that ceiling,’ added Anna, looking up at it. The house, laid open by a bomb towards the end of the war, had stood empty for two years, receiving wind and rain through all its rooms. It had been patched up again. When the trains passed, grains of substance could be heard trickling behind clean surfaces of paint. The ceiling had a crack across it.

‘Oh hell,’ said Molly. ‘I can’t face it. But I suppose I shall. Why is it, it’s only in this country everybody one knows seems to put a good face on things, everyone is bravely carrying a burden.’ Tears were smudging her eyes, and she blinked them away and turned back to her oven.

‘Because this is the country we know. The other countries are the places we don’t think in.’

‘That’s not altogether true and you know it. Well. You’d better be quick with the news. I’m going to serve lunch in a minute.’ It was now Molly’s turn to exude an atmosphere of being alone, of not having been met. Her hands, pathetic and stoical, reproached Anna. As for Anna she was thinking: If I join in now, in a what’s-wrong-with-men session, then I won’t go home, I’ll stay for lunch and all afternoon, and Molly and I will feel warm and friendly, all barriers gone. And when we part, there’ll be a sudden resentment, a rancour — because after all, our real loyalties are always to men, and not to women … Anna nearly sat down, ready to submerge herself. But she did not. She thought: I want to be done with it all, finished with the men vs women business, all the complaints and the reproaches and the betrayals. Besides, it’s dishonest. We’ve chosen to live a certain way, knowing the penalties, or if we didn’t we know now, so why whine and complain … and besides, if I’m not careful, Molly and I will descend into a kind of twin old-maidhood, where we sit around saying to each other, Do you remember how that man, what-was-his-name said that insensitive thing, it must have been in 1947…

The Free Women 1

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  1. Philippa Levine November 9th, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Just when you might be starting to feel warm and fuzzy about feminist loyalties, Lessing whips out a critique: “our real loyalties are always to men, and not to women.” Ouch. But she nailed a dilemma that many women did face (and still face forty-plus years on).

    1. Naomi Alderman November 9th, 2008 at 11:11 pm

      Yes, interesting. I certainly know women who seem to feel this way, but I’m surprised that as one of the “free women” Anna feels this way too. The women I’ve met who really would put their men before everything else (including themselves, often) have tended to be the ones who got married and stayed married, because there’s a sort of bargain in it, isn’t there? To put it at its crudest: he’ll bring in the money, and she’ll always put him first.

      But can’t one be loyal to two camps? Or, most of all, loyal to oneself?

    2. Lenelle Moïse November 10th, 2008 at 2:09 am

      It’s funny, I would have expected Anna to say something like, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but she offers the opposite as what is honest and “real” for (heterosexual?) women. How sad that Anna believes the fastest way to establish warmth and intimacy with Molly is to pontificate about men!

      I must admit that, these days, when I gather with a group of women friends (most of them feminist), we don’t really discuss our problems with men. Granted, a number of my women friends are lesbians but still…We might talk sourly about institutions and administrations and individual jerks who are taking obvious advantage of the patriarchal paradigm, but a “what’s-wrong-with-men session” would bore me to the core. Maybe this is because I don’t depend on men for romance or financial stability? In any case, for what it’s worth, feminism taught me to be loyal to the idea that we should all, regardless of our gender, feel equal and free.

      1. Naomi Alderman November 10th, 2008 at 4:49 pm

        This reminds me of the Bechdel Test. [ ]

        A character in this comic strip says that she’ll only watch a movie if:

        1) It has at least two women in it,
        2) And they talk to each other,
        3) About something besides a man

        It’s depressing to think of how few movies fulfill those criteria. Even really good movies, movies I love.

      2. Lenelle Moïse November 10th, 2008 at 8:16 pm

        I *love* Alison Bechdel’s work.