What Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow gets wrong.

Reading between the lines.
May 25 2010 9:58 AM

What Was Feminism Really Like in 1970?

You won't find out from Martin Amis' version.

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The removal of social constraints, in other words, places women at risk—they are more vulnerable to men's heedless drives and less able to control their own. Amis attaches these not very original thoughts to the tragic story of Keith's promiscuous, alcoholic, and possibly developmentally damaged sister Violet. In interviews, Amis has said Violet is closely modeled on his own sister Sally, who, he's claimed, might have been saved from an early death had she converted to … Islam. No drinking or "dating football teams" for the daughters of the Prophet—problem solved.

Perhaps this is Amis' way of apologizing for his earlier anti-Muslim outbursts, but it struck me as bumptious and ignorant as well as exploitative. It's one thing to make fiction of his sister's unbearably sad life; quite another to use it to make more "shocking" publicity for himself. In any case, the Islam theme certainly doesn't suggest a whole lot of comfort with female sexual freedom. When last seen, Scheherazade is a born-again Christian; and Gloria, the woman who boasted she was "a cock," is wearing a hijab. Need I add that none of the many male libertines who float through these pages is punished by the author for having lots of sex?

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What bothered me most about The Pregnant Widow, though, is that it just doesn't ring true to feminism as experienced by women in 1970. I'm exactly the same age as Martin Amis, and, granted, our lives were very different. (Where was my magical Italian castle?) Still, I found myself frequently wondering: Did people do that then? Did young women shave their pubic hair? (No.) Un-self-consciously use the word fuck to mean "have sex"? Use sexist (and racist) slurs for other women, like "Junglebum" or "The Dog"? Would Lily, who thought she was a feminist, tell Keith that Scheherazade masturbated in the shower? Wouldn't Scheherazade have anguished at least a bit about whether to betray her best friend Lily?

What happened to consciousness-raising, sisterhood, political lesbianism, left-wing politics, the war and the bomb, not shaving your legs or underarms, the women's health movement, the myth of the vaginal orgasm? To say nothing of the Rolling Stones, granny dresses, mescaline, and pot. I remember 1970 as the year an astonishing number of my female classmates suddenly decided to go to medical school. Lily and Scheherazade are studying law and math, unusual majors for women then, but unlike Keith, they seem to have no curiosity about their studies and no thoughts about their future. All they think about are their bodies and their beauty, about which they have the thoughts old-fashioned men think women have but don't. I doubt there's a woman tourist on earth, for example, who is delighted to be followed around Italian towns by groups of catcalling youths, much less any who, like Scheherazade, resents that another woman gets a share of this attention.

The Pregnant Widow has its pleasures—more pleasures than profundities, which may not be what Amis was aiming at. It picks up speed as it goes along. But if you really want to know what the time felt like for women experiencing the confluence of the sexual revolution and feminism, the book to read is Marge Piercy's Cambridge novel, Small Changes (1973). She gets it all, from what it felt like to be part of an immense personal-political social transformation to the fatal attraction of countercultural gurus who said things like, "Are you woman enough to give me everything?" Yes,  way back then, men actually used that line. And, yes, it worked. Poor old Keith should have given it a try.

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Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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