Feminist Bookshelf: Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’

Susie Chilver reviews the 1960s feminist (?!) classic ‘The Group’. CW: rape.

Fittingly, I acquired The Group third-hand from my Mum, who passed me down her already-second-hand 1966 edition. Over the course of the fifteen chapters, friends would ask what I was reading, and I struggled to sum it up in a concise nutshell. My first instinct was to label it a “feminist novel”, but I was aware that author Mary McCarthy staunchly did not regard it as such. Whether her intention or not, The Group undoubtedly is a feminist novel; but it is first and foremost a nuanced, sharp, brisk, and starkly honest recount of what it means to be a certain kind of woman. Following the first few years of post-university life for eight best friends and graduates of the elite, East Coast, Vassar college, the novel brilliantly and brashly depicts many of the so often glamourised or ignored aspects of women’s lives: sex, contraception, “romance”, motherhood, career, and, with few holds barred, gives a voice and depth to the often overlooked. 

Although set in the 1930s, The Group was published in the 1960s, at the cusp of the second feminist revolution. Skirts were getting shorter, sex freer and women more restless. The Group fits in perfectly, tying into Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ to complement the growing gender-political unrest. Despite this blossoming women’s movement, The Group was publicly well received but critically clawed at: by conservatives, for being too open about the everyday plight of women (absolute shock at the mention of a diaphragm, or the speedy ‘deflowering’ of one of the main characters in chapter two), and by liberal elites, for being a cheap “women’s novel”. Again, I believe it is up for debate whether or not it is a “feminist book” – it is about women and by a woman, but if something is just an honest commentary, does it inherently serve a political purpose? What if this is unintended by the author (but not denied either)? And, ultimately, whether or not it is a “feminist” or a “women’s” novel, this is a label that should be worn with pride. The Group bore no shame in highlighting the worst parts of being a woman, with wit and boldness that welcome the reader into the core of each of the eight protagonists – a protagonist for everyone, as I saw it. I related deeply to Kay, in her transformation and growth throughout university, and thus felt the pain she suffered at the hands of her manipulative and abusive husband. I longed for Lakey’s self-assuredness, felt protective of poor Priss, doted on Dottie. I could see each of my friends in each of the characters, and revelled in the drawn out, thoughtful descriptions of each character’s relationship with their mothers and the women around them. The novel is not a happy-go-lucky lovefest for feminists the world over: the women betray each other; they gossip; many are profoundly unhappy at various times throughout the seven-year course of the story. I audibly sighed in despair reading about the attempted rape of one character, and then the maltreatment and disregard of another in the maternity ward in the following chapter. But this is precisely why McCarthy’s literary skill was so welcome and necessary: women of the 1960s could, for once, see themselves and feel seen; Its publication was indicative of the social change to come, the discourse that was (finally) beginning.

I haven’t yet watched it, but a film version of The Group was released in 1966, a few years after the book’s publication. I am so glad that this would have ensured the story reached a wider audience (even wider reaching than the readership that had ensured its maintenance on the New York Times bestsellers list for almost two years). My only qualm is that it was directed by a man and adapted for the screen – complete with dialogue editing to make it less provocative – by a man. From the trailer, it does not compete with the no-frills attitude of the novel, but the formidable cast of women do seem to give their all in bringing it to life. I don’t believe an adaptation today could do it justice either, but I can at least hope that it would at least have some women involved in the production process. 

For those of us that aren’t upper-class, white women with a university education, the novel covers some problems and many conversations that will be fairly unrelatable. The incredibly narrow makeup of the group in question does detract slightly from the archetypal qualities of the book, but it is very much still a valuable piece of feminist literature. I suppose that that once more begs the question as to whether every feminist book – which I believe The Group is – has to represent every feminist issue? Perhaps that is all too easy for me, in my position, to accept. Published today, The Group would be in dire need of some diversity and perhaps a look at the bigger picture of problems faced by contemporary women. But considering The Group was not intended to turn out as a feminist novel, it does a pretty good job of letting women just be women; hilarity, distress, solidarity and camaraderie abound in this cutting but necessary post-Depression, pre-Female Eunuch-frankness account of what it means to be a mother, daughter, graduate and friend.

Artwork by Amelia Elson.

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