This weekend Marge Piercy was the Scholar in Residence at the Jewish Community of Amherst. I attended the event and it was a great experience. She is the author of many novels, books of poetry, a memoir and liturgical writing. Piercy read some of her poetry, discussed various aspects of writing and read some of her liturgical writings as well.
In preparation for the weekend I read Small Changes, a novel Piercy wrote in 1973. The book is strongly feminist and almost reads like a primary source because she so evocatively describes the early feminist and counter culture environment in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The two main characters, Beth and Miriam, interact with men within a pronounced patriarchal society. None of the men in the book can really see or treat woman as human beings. Rather they exist as sex object, mother, housekeeper, and caregiver but not as fully autonomous beings.
The women, particularly Miriam, are unable to completely escape the narrow definitions that the men impose upon them. Miriam is a very smart and well-educated person who so desperately seeks love and validation that she is unable to assert herself at critical moments and maintain an independent identity.
Miriam, who is not overtly political and does not have a feminist perspective, is determined, in the beginning, to not be like her mother who spent her life trying to please a husband who was indifferent to her. Despite this determination and the fact that she obtains a Ph.D. in the new field, at the time, of computer science, she ultimately marries a fellow computer scientist, has two children, and cooks gourmet dinners. Her husband, Neil, does not seem to have married her for her brains or personality but rather to have a decorative object who will provide children and be a help in his career.
Beth comes from a working class family who discourage her from going to college. Instead she marries her high school sweetheart who essentially views her as a cook and house cleaner. She sours on this life fairly quickly; her husband, sensing her dissatisfaction, decides to force her to have a baby. Facing this prospect, Beth flees and winds up in Cambridge.
The part of the book which deals with Beth is an exploration of her development and growth into an independent person with a strong feminist and political consciousness. She becomes involved with another woman, Wanda. Eventually they have to go into hiding because of Wanda’s past associations with radicals who are wanted by the government.
The book does not end on a happy or particularly hopeful note. Although Miriam is trying to dig herself out of the domestic hole she is in, it is not clear whether her marriage will survive. Beth is living under an assumed identity and is far from the community and connections she had developed. Neither Beth nor Miriam are able to be an independent autonomous being and live fully in mainstream American society.
It was interesting to read Small Changes forty years after it was written. What struck me was how much still needs to change for women to be full participants in American life and society.