As a rabid feminist, one of my favourite things to do is discover authors writing about the experience of women that show how sexism and misogyny did happen, does happen, and should be challenged.
The Group, written by Mary McCarthy in 1963 but republished three years ago by Virago, was donated to the Travelling Suitcase Library by the lovely Claudine’s Cakes, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was instantly going on the top of my pile. Five women in vintage dress against skyline of New York with quotes from Hilary Mantel AND Marian Keyes on the cover? Oh go then, if you must.
An incredibly bitter and angry book, it tells the interwoven stories of eight women, friends for the most part, who all graduate Vasser, the New York liberal arts college, in 1933. Following their lives over the next six years the book is for the most part a damning indictment on the treatment of women by those in positions of power-for the most part men, especially those working in medicine. From the humiliating descriptions of women getting contraception and their forcibly limited knowledge of sexual health, to the doctors ordering a woman to put on lipstick half way through labour in order to keep up standards, there was not one part of this book that didn’t make me boil with rage.
McCarthy herself wasn’t a feminist, she describes us as ‘a cocktail of self-pity, shrillness and greed’, which is one step up from man hating, I suppose (and at this point I have to link to Laura’s incredibly post on thefword, which confronts the attitude that young women aren’t going to sign up to a movement that involves hating men with the entirely logical argument that this is because as women we are brought up to please men, and be validated by them in order to be human. Boom.) Unlike The Woman’s Room, which I couldn’t help comparing this book to, the women in The Group have no salvation from the endless oppression they receive. None of them aims to liberate herself, or her friends. There is no relief from the misery; every chapter brings a new horror, from marriage to work to childbearing to death the women are repressed, beaten, abused and belittled. Even the friendship certain members of the group maintain cannot save them-this isn’t The Sisterhood in the way I understand it, these are grasping friendships born from association with an elite, rather than a supportive network of education, understanding and fun.
Just like The Woman’s Room, whose descriptions of domestication in the 50s are as awful as those in the 30s, but in a suburban rather than city setting, this book is about posh rich white women. There are several instances of racism within the book, which made me wince, and the women’s privilege is apparent throughout. Unlike The Woman’s Room, though, there is not one redeemable male character in the book. Every single man is either an abuser or an enabler. The fact that actually prescribed gender roles and sexism is just as bad for men as it is for women is never made, and therefore this isn’t a ‘proper’ feminist book, but as AS Byatt said ‘a novel about a group of women from which feminists can learn things’.
The women themselves are wonderful, trying their very hardest, but the message is clear; in a world where men have all the power, education is wasted on the women.
What upset me the most about reading this book was how much it made me question my recent love affair with 1930s New York, brought about by reading Amor Towles’ excellent historical novel Rules of Civility, starring my new favourite heroine Katey Kontent. Once again, a fictional world made real through excellent writing has made me question myself and my reliance on books for information. This is The Fountainhead all over again.
The Group was a hard, but worthwhile slog and I’m glad I’ve read it. I’d never heard of it before, even though five people who saw it instantly told me it was a classic. This is the sort of book my mum should have been here to introduce me to, like she did with The Woman’s Room and other books that made me who I am.
I would recommend this book, but also reading it with caution; parts could be incredibly triggering and I’d have something happy on the side. However, if you are looking for a book that tells it like it is, that demonstrates why we shouldn’t romanticise the past or long for a simple time of domesticity where women could relax knowing their men would look after them, this is perfect. It is also a very very well written book and I’ll be looking out for more of her work in the future.