What I most appreciate in this novel is how it traces the link between creativity and childlessness, contraception and freedom. This is, to me, a document, best read with Friedan’s Feminine Mystique
1. Plath, herself struggling to reconcile writing and motherhood, chillingly captures the societal expectations still alive today:
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
One example in particular shows a woman sacrificing her craft and skills:
Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs. Willard braiding a rug out of strips of wool from Mr. Willard's old suits. She'd spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs. Willard was through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you could buy for under a dollar in the five and ten.
2.Even though Esther has some potential role models in older women represent achievement - i.e. interestingly, almost exclusively literary or quasi-literary (Philomela Guinea, Jay Cee), they are few (and not entirely convincing).
In the first chapter of Feminine Mystique
, Friedan writes:
By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now women went to college to find a husband.
The vast majority of women around Esther would, I assume, be similar to women who stay in ‘Amazon’:
…they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents [...] and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.
Finally, these alternative role models are dismissed towards the end of the novel:
Why did I attract these weird old women: There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady, and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them.
3. Disturbingly, Esther finds herself not only bombarded with signals that her life will change irrevocably once she gets married, but also pushed to have more than one child: The article her mother sends her, affirming traditional gender roles, seems to be similar to the the article mentioned by Friedan in Feminine Mystique
By the end of the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India's. The birth-control movement, renamed Planned Parenthood, was asked to find a method whereby women who had been advised that a third or fourth baby would be born dead or defective might have it anyhow. Statisticians were especially astounded at the fantastic increase in the number of babies among college women. Where once they had two children, now they had four, five, six. Women who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies. So rejoiced Life magazine in a 1956 paean to the movement of American women back to the home.
This trend – is represented in the novel by Dodo Conway – an educated young woman who chose motherhood (you may dismiss this, since Dodo was a Catholic, but please mark the number of children in the “younger, more prosperous” families):
Everybody loved Dodo, although the swelling size of her family was the talk of the neighborhood. The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a seventh. Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.
4. Finally, a diaphragm provides Esther with some semblance of freedom:
"Whether she knew it or not, Philomela Guinea was buying me freedom.
What I hate is the thought of being under a man's thumb," I had told Doctor Nolan. "A man doesn't have a worry in the world, while I've got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line. (...)
I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: "I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex..."
Review based on excerpts and thoughts recorded for 2015: The Year of Reading Women