When Anna and Molly describe themselves as “free women,” they are being consciously ironic—they do not feel “free,” they are not “free” from social pressures and attitudes that constrain their potential and define them in terms of their relations to men, and because they are unmarried, men see them as sexual objects, “free” for the taking. Yet Lessing’s early readers were right to see these characters’ ability to recognize and reject oppressive gender roles as an important, progressive, if not entirely revolutionary step in the second wave of Western feminism. Anna and Molly recognize that, in the traditional marriages that predominate among their peers, men’s economic labor is valued while women’s emotional and domestic labor is made invisible—and those women who have begun to enter the workforce in limited ways also find their economic labor ignored. Under this system, women end up isolated, miserable, and unappreciated, living a sort of life Molly and Anna firmly believe they should not be forced to live; while they claim their “freedom” by refusing to do so, their true innovation is not merely their decision to live as single mothers, but their deeper recognition that this “freedom” is also limited and inadequate without a broader transformation in gender relations.
This book shows how men’s labor is construed as valuable, even though it is invisibly supported everywhere by women’s, which is not. Molly’s pompous, arrogant, dominating ex-husband Richard denigrates Molly and Anna for ostensibly not working hard enough, but never acknowledges his wife Marion for taking care of the kids and spends his days at the office surrounded by secretaries and assistants who do most of the day-to-day work for which he takes credit. Anna, too, supports the men she dates not only materially, by cooking and cleaning for them, but also emotionally, by protecting their egos. In the blue notebook, she chronicles one day of frantically switching from one task to another, caring for her daughter Janet and lover Michael in the morning, working at the Communist Party without pay all day (further showing how her labor is undervalued), and making Janet and Michael a special dinner all night—but Michael never shows up and she ends up alone, in a dress she chose just for him, throwing out the veal she obsessed over making perfectly to please him.
This unequal division of labor transforms marriage into an emotional and economic cage: women have no choice but to do domestic work yet are compensated neither formally or informally, and in fact they lose their husbands’ romantic interest precisely for doing what society demands of them. Marion’s relationship with Richard speaks to this: he has completely ignored her for years yet blames her for her alcohol abuse, which leaves her incoherent for much of the first half of the book. She is miserable and tells Anna and Molly how much she wishes she could be “free” like them. However, when she finally grows close to Tommy, the first person to ever offer her serious attention and affection, she stops drinking, finds a passion for politics, and declares herself “free,” to Richard’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Anna’s fictional alter ego Ella works at Women at Home magazine, the extraordinarily limited scope and style of which depresses her—her job is to write letters to neurotic housewives, who are driven mad by their confinement but not mad enough to be deemed properly “medical” by the womanizing Dr West, who (absurdly enough) runs the women’s advice column. The magazine’s self-help angle is designed to help women accept their subordinate role rather than challenge it. When Ella visits her lover Paul Tanner’s house, she finds that his wife—with whom he has scarcely spent a night in years—is an avid reader of the magazine. Paul is proud that his wife so openly embraces the role of a traditional housewife, but both he and Ella recognize that she is clearly miserable because he has essentially abandoned her. So, even when Anna and Ella’s affairs with men fail, they do not seek out marriage for their own sake, because they know that their relative “freedom” saves them from the suffering of women like Marion and Paul’s wife.
Ultimately, while Anna and Molly recognize that they are in no way “free” from patriarchy, by choosing divorce over unhappy marriages, they still avoid being held “prisoner.” They also offer an important example for women like Marion, who decides to follow their path and finds herself perhaps the book’s happiest character by its end. And, of course, Anna’s relationship with Molly also serves a function similar to marriage (she even describes Ella and Julia, fictionalized versions of herself and Molly, as “Lesbian, psychologically if not physically”). The last time Anna describes a psychoanalysis session with Mrs Marks, she decides to refuse others’ expectations and “walk off, by myself, Anna Freeman.” Crucially, in this moment she uses her maiden name “Freeman,” both literally referencing her previous freedom from marriage and playing on the title Free Women, which she soon reveals is actually her second novel, proof of her eventual ability to create and freedom from emotional paralysis. While Mrs Marks insists that women have always been able to, and will always be able to, live freely, Anna points out that claiming this freedom usually requires women to live like men—to become “Freeman” rather than Free Women—which does nothing to resolve the broader problem of women’s subordination to men. This explains Anna’s ultimate decision to become a marriage counselor at the end of Free Women, suggesting that solidarity among women can offer them the chance to live their own, fulfilling lives, with or without men.
While many (mostly anxious male) critics complained that Lessing’s characters hated, rejected, and dominated men, switching the gender hierarchy to put themselves on top, in fact Lessing deliberately chose to show the opposite: Anna and Molly’s freedom from marriage does not free them from patriarchy. Men continue to treat them as disposable and subordinate, and they remain stuck in unpaid domestic labor (Anna continues to organize her life around caring for her daughter Janet and serve as a metaphorical “welfare worker” for those around her, like Tommy). Lessing’s feminism, while in many ways archaic and essentialist by today’s standards, is most radical in her recognition that women cannot simply achieve “freedom” by turning away from men, but must rather work to change the entire set of social relations that render their work, love, and humanity invisible to the men with power over them.
Gender, Labor, and Power ThemeTracker
Gender, Labor, and Power Quotes in The Golden Notebook
George said: “No, it’s the responsibility. It’s the gap between what I believe in and what I do.”
Five lonely women going mad quietly by themselves, in spite of husband and children or rather because of them. The quality they all had: self-doubt. A guilt because they were not happy. The phrase they all used: “There must be something wrong with me.” Back in the campaign HQ I mentioned these women to the woman in charge for the afternoon. She said: “Yes, wherever I go canvassing, I get the heeby-jeebies. This country’s full of women going mad all by themselves.” A pause, then she added, with a slight aggressiveness, the other side of the self-doubt, the guilt shown by the women I’d talked to:
“Well, I used to be the same until I joined the Party and got myself a purpose in life.” I’ve been thinking about this — the truth is, these women interest me much more than the election campaign.
What is terrible is that after every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don’t live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly … I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out. I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come, or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons — but I won’t do it, I can’t be like that …
From this point of the novel “the third,” previously Paul’s wife; then Ella’s younger alter ego formed from fantasies about Paul’s wife; then the memory of Paul; becomes Ella herself. As Ella cracks and disintegrates, she holds fast to the idea of Ella whole, healthy and happy. The link between the various “thirds” must be made very clear: the link is normality, but more than that — conventionality, attitudes or emotions proper to the “respectable” life which in fact Ella refuses to have anything to do with.