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'Big Girls Don’t Cry' by Fay Weldon

At the starting gate of feminism

Sunday, November 08, 1998

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Big Girls Don’t Cry

By Fay Weldon

Atlantic Monthly Press
$24.00

   
 

Well, we’re sorry. Every generation must apologize to the future, and the greater the change that was brought about, the profounder the apology needs to be. … The brighter the idea the worse the consequences. Let feminists apologize for the death of love, lost children, and the diminishing of man. But what was a girl to do? Someone has to reform the world. You can’t see what you see and do nothing.”

What was a girl to do, indeed? Especially in a male-dominated world where her looks were overvalued, her work undervalued and her brains not accorded any currency at all?

British writer Fay Weldon (“Praxis,” “Down Among the Women,” “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil”) gives the feminist movement a harsh yet insightful dressing-down in her latest novel, “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Her comic satire bites to the bone.

Weldon’s “you are there” nostalgia tour of the British feminist movement pulls you into step immediately with her bevy of twentysomething women who in 1971 decided it was time to do something about their role as second-class citizens.

Layla, Stephanie, Zoe, Daffy and Alice meet in Stephie’s home to discuss their first step. During the course of the evening, they collectively give birth to a feminist publishing house (christened Medusa), but more life-altering events transpire: Daffy sneaks off to bed with Stephie’s husband, Hamish; Alice launches into her usual scholarly diatribe while the wine-fueled Layla and Stephie cavort naked in celebration of their new empowerment; Zoe’s feminist-hating husband turns up and drags her home; and Stephie, confronted with Hamish’s infidelity, storms out of the house without a stitch of clothing or a single possession, renouncing her marriage and abandoning her two young sons.

Not the most auspicious beginning for a movement that claimed sisterhood was beautiful and powerful.

But Medusa survives its furious birth and becomes a successful and respected literary entity, thanks largely to the organizational skills and devotion of super-secretary Nancy, a meek New Zealander whose own catharsis occurred in a London hostel when she shucked her unfeeling fiance (telling her to wash his socks was the final straw).

Weldon’s male characters are, as to be expected, brutish louts or clueless clods. The only men allowed to voice any reasonable sentiments are gay.

And the women, ah, yes, the women. What happens to them in the decades that follow mirrors the many conflicted faces of feminism.

Sexy Layla, the money behind Medusa, routinely sleeps with the male enemy, even using a lover’s money to bankroll Medusa. Stephie, lamenting her abandonment of her sons, embarks on her own experimental path to love and fulfillment. Nancy, unspoiled enough to grasp the meaning of the movement, still longs for the traditional love life. Daffy clings to the traditional role of helpmate, raising Stephie’s sons and enduring Hamish’s continuing infidelities. Alice goes off the deep end into New Age mumbo-jumbo.

Ironically, it is Zoe — who keeps her distance from the movement for fear of her husband’s wrath — who strikes the most enduring blow for feminism. An educated woman trapped in a stifling, homebound marriage, she writes an articulate treatise that opens minds and touches hearts. But she pays an awful price. Her daughter Saffron, a tiny presence in her baby stroller at the founding of Medusa, exacts a wonderful revenge.

“Big Girls Don’t Cry” liberates lots of laughs, sprinkled with a lot of bitchy humor. Sure, the feminist movement takes a lot of heat for the decline of Western civilization. But a society that stayed its chauvinistic course was doomed to melt down anyway.

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