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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923

The Women’s Room follows Mira through her repressive childhood and marriage, through her devastating divorce, and finally through her years as an English graduate student as she, for the first time, acquires control over her own life. As a child, Mira is restricted by her parents’ attempts to mold her...

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The Women’s Room follows Mira through her repressive childhood and marriage, through her devastating divorce, and finally through her years as an English graduate student as she, for the first time, acquires control over her own life. As a child, Mira is restricted by her parents’ attempts to mold her into a young lady. Her mother declares that legs should be crossed only at the ankles and that girls do not engage in rough play. Even though Mira is young, she imagines that the edicts are “strangling her, stifling her.”

As a college student, Mira’s fear of pregnancy and of the consequent loss of freedom develops into a fear of sex. Thus she avoids intimate relationships. Her open-mindedness and her independence, however, are taken by her male colleagues as signs of sexual permissiveness. After a night of drinking and dancing, she is almost raped by a group of her friends. The experience confirms that a woman can never be as free as a man but must always be on guard. Angry that she needs protection and angry that men think they have a right to her body, she withdraws into herself.

When she meets Norm through family friends, she is impressed with his acceptance of her attitude toward sex. Sensing that as long as she is single she will be a target for aggressive male behavior, she accepts his offer of marriage for the protection it will provide. At her wedding, however, she weeps over the loss of her freedom, and indeed her married life becomes more restricted. She forgoes her college education to support Norm while he attends medical school. She accepts a low-paying, unchallenging job because he will not allow her to commute to New York City, where the better jobs and corresponding higher wages are. She is reliant upon her friends to take her grocery shopping because he will not teach her how to drive. Finally, when she becomes pregnant, she is truly tied to the house.

Married life for Mira is a constant round of finishing household chores and of caring for her two sons. Norm is absent frequently, his time spent at the hospital or at his mother’s house, where he is undisturbed by the noise of his children. If not for the other neighborhood women, young mothers like Mira, her life would be unbearable. These women frequently get together in the afternoon while their children play in the backyard or are at school. They give “support and affection and legitimacy to each other.” They joke about their lives, which are often filled with undefined rage and frustration, but they never challenge “the men’s right to demand and control.”

When Mira married, she unintentionally exchanged her parents for a husband. Without protest, she now accepts her husband’s dictates on child rearing, on the selection of their friends, and on where they live. Always, Norm makes her feel inferior, that her work does not matter, that she in fact does not matter.

As Norm’s practice becomes established, they move to an elegant house. Mira continues to devote her life to polishing and cleaning, organizing her activities on index cards so that nothing is missed. She tries to fit the image of wife and mother portrayed on television and in magazines, but she is not satisfied, believing that her husband and her sons have rewarding lives while she functions as their maid.

When Norm, after fifteen years of marriage, announces that he wants a divorce, Mira crumbles. Again she relies on the support of other women, who listen to her and even bandage her wrists after her suicide attempt. Following the advice of one of her female friends, she returns to college and completes her undergraduate degree. When she is accepted as a graduate student at Harvard University, she moves to Cambridge and, at the age of thirty-eight, begins anew.

Alone and an outsider, Mira is at first miserable, until she meets a group of sympathetic and caring women. Like Mira, these women (Isolde, Kyla, Clarissa, and Val) have had to fight against male domination to acquire an identity. With their help, Mira creates a new life out of the ruins of her marriage. In the process, her relationship with her sons becomes freer, more honest, and closer. In time, when Mira is ready to enter into another relationship with a man, she meets Ben, and the two become lovers.

They respect each other’s careers: Ben seems to realize the importance of her studies, and she encourages him in writing a book based on his African experiences. They have a satisfying sexual relationship, and for a time Mira is completely happy. Yet the idyllic existence cannot last. Ben is offered an important position in Africa, and without consulting her he assumes that she will accompany him. He expects her to give up her dream of teaching, move to Africa, and have his child. Mira realizes that he has discounted her, her goals, and her ideas in much the same way that Norm, years earlier, had discounted her. She refuses to leave Cambridge, thereby ending their relationship.

The novel concludes with Mira living alone and teaching at a junior college, because the job market is such that there are no positions at a university available for a forty-year-old woman, even with a degree from Harvard. To occupy a long, dull summer, she embarks on a project of writing about the women that she has known; the novel The Women’s Room is the result.

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