A Room of One's Own

It's a tricky question, how the experiences of women differ from those of men. The idea of specific masculine and feminine reactions to pain or work or sex has been used over and over again to show how women are weaker or stupider or basically inferior to men. For example, for two hundred years, women who write fiction have been saddled with either accepting or trying to deny "the bright, controlled subjectivity of a feminine prose manner"--all the words and criticisms that have relegated the works of both Jane Austen and Jacqueline Susann to the same back boudoir filled with overfrilled chintz.

So it seems almost an acknowledgement of inferiority to speak of a writer as writing with a woman's voice, with a sense of events and people completely different from that expressed by a Fielding, a Dickens or a Hemingway.

The evidence that fiction told from a woman's point of view deserves the same accord as that told from a man's must come from women writers themselves. And, again, it does. The snide comment quoted above on the "feminine prose manner" comes from the inane anonymous introduction to a newly-reprinted collection of short stories by Tess Slesinger. The stories themselves, originally published during the thirties, stand in beautiful repudiation to it.

Tess Slesinger was born in New York City in 1905. Before dying of cancer 39 years later, she wrote a novel, several screenplays, and these stories. In spite of all that's happened since then, all the events, discoveries and changes that have sent social historians scurrying for their notebooks and anyone with any sense running for cover, Slesinger's women express all the sorts and conditions of lives that women lead today. The stories aren't timeless, for social conditions are drastically changing and, hopefully, some of the emptiness Slesinger's characters endure will soon no longer exist. For now, however, it does--in every woman's life. Slesinger's writing brings cries of recognition and nods of understanding from all women--those involved in, and those who abhor the revolution.

All of the stories except the last are told through the mind of a female protagonist. Slesinger hits all parts of a woman's experience. Any woman who has ever loved a man, whether he's her second husband who has taken his first lover or not, has felt.


No nausea. No sharp pain. A mild disgust, and a quick defensive rallying of your forces. Your wits are keyed to concert pitch, nothing can escape you, you are intensely self, conscious. You have utter and absolute control over all your nerves. You go right on lying there in his arms letting what must have gone rigid inside you with his words go rigid away inside your skin, so his arms can't sense the difference, can't feel the animal flinch that maybe after all you couldn't avoid.

Women can't scream with pain even when they do feel it, for the little power they have is so tenuous. Although this is changing--often in confusing ways, women still get a sense of themselves and of their power over other people--especially men--in the same way a 35 year old virgin named Ethel Blake does.

Suddenly, and perhaps for the first time in her life. Ethel Blake grew coy, she dangled something and she withheld something, she felt her power come true and she let a man's eye rest on a thing she held in her hand and then deliberately she stuck her hand behind her back.

The falseness of this is evident. But for so long it's the way many women have been forced to operate in order to get what they want or need. Ethel Blake is an honest woman who knows damn well the game she's playing in order to get herself laid, and who finds the power being coy gives her to manipulate another human being an exhilarating and, ultimately, a liberating experience.

But for women who don't understand their motivations this well, the games they've played with men have been far from liberating. For the protagonist of "Mother to Dinner", the game results in a nightmare. She is a bride of 11 months, married to a man she barely knows. He saw her in a blue dress at a party, she went out with him more than with anyone else, so they got married. And yet, she can't remove herself from the strong influence of her loving domineering mother.

Katherine felt herself to be struggling somewhere in the middle, between two harbors, unable to decide whether to swim backward or forward, tempted almost to close her eyes and quietly drown where she was Shuttle, shuttle, she murmured to herself, miserably, exasperated at her weakness, her helplessness.

Life as Slesinger depicts it, is not much easier for a woman who makes a strong, in dependent decision. Margaret Flinders is a young intellectual socialist. When she becomes pregnant, she and her husband discuss how a child would destroy all their plans. But the final decision to have an abortion is hers alone, but afterwards she says.

That night I did not pass my hands contentedly over my hard breasts; that night I gave no thought to the nipples grown suddenly brown and competent; I packed, instead, my suit-case: I filled it with all the white clothes I own. Why are you taking white clothes to the hospital? Miles said to me. I laughed. Why did I? White, for a bride; white, for a corpse; white, for a woman who refuses to be a woman...

The picture Slesinger paints is a dismal one. If a woman wants power, she achieves it with coyness and manipulation. If she does not opt for power she becomes helpless and miserable. And if she makes honest, well though out decisions that straight-forwardly put the running of her life into her own hands she runs the risk of denying her femininity.

The tensions between how a woman is expected to act and what is the most honest the most self-preserving way to act are very great and no woman has ever been immune to them.

Not even Tess Slesinger. The last story in the book is the most gripping and the most disturbing. It is the story of a writer who goes through hell to churn out a short story but finally hits on a plot where everything works where the words and characters fuse together take off on their own, and make a great story. "Listen, non-writers, this is passion" the writer shouts in hymn to creation.

I am every one of the keys of my typewriter I am the clean white pages and the word sprawled used ones, I am the sunlight on my own walls--rip off your dress, life, tear off your clothes, world, left me come closer listen: I am a sated, tired, happy writer have to make love to the world.

This writer is a man. The only one of all Slesinger's characters, who really finds self-fulfillment and self confidence is male Slesinger, in spite of everything, is a woman who lived and wrote four decades ago. These words must represent the way she felt about her own writing, but she could not make their honest power and sexuality come it from a woman's mouth.

The fulfillment that comes from writing, from grabbing an idea and getting it on paper before it disappears, from tying one action into another and making it all one whole, has been felt by both sexes. It is a great tragedy that Tess Slesinger, with her deep understanding of all that it means to be a woman, was unwilling to have a female character proclaim this joy as eloquently as the rest of her women describe their sorrows.

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