In the mid-twentieth century in the west, women’s liberation was predicated upon the seizure of greater autonomy from the home and family, husbands and housework, from what Betty Friedan famously called the ‘problem that has no name’. Freedom had spatial and economic qualities that were symbolised in the move from the (suburban) home into the university and workplace. Fifty years on from that revolutionary moment, in the much altered circumstances of the 2010s, how do women continue to experience a version of that emancipatory model whilst resisting new pressures upon it?
In order to answer this question Feigel turns to the literature and life of Doris Lessing, which she tests out as a guide in her personal search for freedom. This results in an unusual book that is part historical research and part memoir. It is an ambitious study that attempts to ground the philosophical search for freedom in the quotidian and sometimes uncomfortable facts of Lessing’s—and the author’s—own lives and relationships. Despite the book’s title, its primary subject is unmistakeably Feigel and her ‘strange, selfish but nonetheless urgent quest’ to negotiate the terms of a free life.
I approached Feigel’s book with great anticipation. Her confusion, sparked by a series of bourgeois summer weddings and their perpetuation of a sexual paradigm that appeared oddly old-fashioned, chimed with my own. The author’s effort to disentangle her desire and trepidation, as a thirty-something-year-old woman, to have and therefore bind herself to children is a conversation topic I have rehearsed urgently with many friends. That these familial responsibilities are still, in 2018, experienced unevenly across genders explains why Lessing’s often perplexing life and writings remain so relevant. Her courageous writing about women’s experiences, particularly in her weighty 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, explored the complexities of politics, love and maternal ambivalence in ways that were prescient of later feminist discussion. But Lessing’s lived relationships with her husbands and children are also mined by Feigel, who is attempting to come to terms with a recent miscarriage and writes quite openly about challenges in her marriage.
Feigel sets out various frameworks for thinking through Lessing’s approach to freedom. These valuably contextualise her thought, and often behaviour, in relation to fascinating trends or experiments of the mid-century: Sufism, anti-apartheid politics, communism, free love, RD Laing and madness. Lessing is shown to be very much engaged with and eager to explore the intellectual, political and social tendencies of her time – all, Feigel contends, in support of her quest for freedom. These endeavours yield limited success, and there is a turning point in the novel at which Feigel concludes that Lessing’s search for freedom ‘had very little to do with the political freedom of the 1960s’ […] ‘Instead it remained Thoreau’s “absolute freedom and wildness”: an existential state of mind.’ Descriptions of rural landscapes consequently recur throughout Free Woman, conjuring the Rhodesian bush, the Suffolk seaside, and Devon’s moorland. Early on in the book Feigel acknowledges the feminist critique of Romantic ideology, yet as her personal narrative progresses she seems increasingly bound to this vision of freedom. In order to write she must escape London and isolate herself from family and social commitments. Thus one of the central conflicts of the book is the purchase of a second home by the seaside. While it may be true that remoteness and natural landscape can provide writerly inspiration, it is hard to disentangle this desire from the privileged freedom of certain modern subjects.
At some point Feigel’s own quest starts to dominate the study, and Lessing is relegated to a secondary voice, a blueprint for the author’s own increasingly discontented marriage which is now firmly centred upon efforts to conceive a second child. Feigel is not an entirely sympathetic narrator and she is aware of this, describing her authorial drive to expose ‘the side of me that was dislikeable… to expose the ambivalent wife and mother, ungrateful in the face of middle-class privilege.’ The admission of the granular discontents of her life can make for bracing, authentic reading; too often, however, it veers uncomfortably towards miserable dissatisfaction. The freedom that Feigel chases is one predicated on isolation, snatching moments of seclusion from her husband, child, and even the metropolitan life that sustains her university career. These seized moments are only ever temporary and have to be purchased: a holiday home in Suffolk, additional childcare, research trips, hotels and overseas travel. A materialist feminist analysis might conclude that the unreasonable demands on her time are a result of the privatised nuclear family unit and therefore cannot be solved by shoring up that edifice, by furiously working to mend and keep it intact.
Feigel alludes to wider socio-economic conditions but these are only throwaway comments (she notes, for instance, that they are fortunate to afford a house in London), and she does not connect her struggle for freedom to any meaningful political vision. Envying Lessing’s political dedication to communism, she reveals that the height of her political action is ‘circulating the numerous desperate petitions that sprang up’ in the wake of the Brexit vote. Feigel is entitled to feel constrained and to push at the limitations of her life, but an imaginative leap is necessary to raise the enquiry for freedom beyond one women’s personal quest, to an analysis of middle-life’s organisation more broadly.
To return to my opening paragraph: why don’t women necessarily feel freer today than in the pre-liberation past? bell hooks responded to Betty Friedan’s description of middle-class housewives’ liberation by asking, ‘who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labour and given equal access with white men to the professions … She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.’ It is difficult to ignore these words when accompanying Feigel on her quest, to wonder how free the other silent women in this story feel. The author, for instance, carves out writing time by displacing some of her social reproduction labour onto (most likely female) nursery workers. While it cannot be expected that Feigel magically resolves the social division of labour, an acknowledgement—if not analysis—of this broader political landscape seems crucial, particularly in a study inspired by Doris Lessing.
Although Feigel is unflinching in her attempts to understand the impasse in her personal life, she fails to connect her predicament to wider conditions of our period, to look outwards to think about why this claustrophobia may be familiar to supposedly free women elsewhere. By searching for only individual answers to her problems the book never transcends the personal to become truly political in the collective, liberatory sense of the feminist rallying cry.
Victoria Horne is Lecturer in Art and Design History at Northumbria University in Newcastle