Judgemental Women

For a short while a couple of years ago I was the member of a book group.  We met monthly to discuss a book selected by one of the members.  One month, we had the misfortune to read I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson.

The remarkable thing about this experience was not the book itself, (which is well towards ‘awful’ on my critical spectrum) but the quality of the debate at the meeting.  It had little to do with the text, other than using it as a starting point for a lively and not always good-natured debate, about the role of women, and the choices and compromises each one must make.

The group was fiercely divided between those who were married or single, those with children or not, those with ‘careers’ and those with ‘jobs’.  Each seemed to believe that her own route through life was the most arduous, that she had to make the most sacrifices.

It seems that there is no more harsh a critic of a woman’s choices than other women who have made different decisions.

I freely admit that I can be as judgemental as the next woman, and this was a phenomenon that I wanted to explore a little in my novel about Rose Fleming.

I was already working on the beginning of the novel when I did my Masters in creative writing.  During workshops on various drafts of the early chapters I was fascinated by the very strong opinions expressed by my classmates over what type of woman they thought Rose was, and their opinions on how she would behave.  I made a note of each hypothesis and tried, as I proceeded with the rest of the novel, to subvert each of those expectations to add a twist to the debate.


Rose is a professional woman, working as an expat in Russia, during the immediate post perestroika period.  It is a time in which the old certainties of the Soviet system has been completely overturned, and the Russian people had to adapt very rapidly; some worked out very quickly how to use the new rampant free economy to their advantage, others tried to hold onto their old ways.

To dramatise this I engineered for Rose to interact with  Irina, a young woman who uses her body and wiles to negotiate her way through the world on the one hand, and with Luda, an older woman, who has seen worse things than perestroika before and will survive it and whatever comes after.

Irina throws herself whole heartedly into the new economy taking whatever she can from the new capitalism, using her natural charms and wit to manipulate those around her.

Luda, in contrast, holds onto what she knows, her friends and neighbours, and the complex, unofficial support structures developed in a society in which there was no expectation that the State would provide anything more than the very basics.

The final contrast is with Isabel, the ‘trailing spouse’ of Ewan Connolly, Rose’s colleague; the determined wife and mother,  convinced of her right to occupy the high moral ground in the newly unregulated environment.

Rose, a single, professional, living on the fruits of her intellect, and disconnected from her own roots, in a foreign country, is a contrast to all three of these women.

She is also more judgemental than most.  I hope that the reader will sometimes sympathise with her and at other times rather dislike her, as she wrangles her relationships with each of them.

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  1. Great post Rowena….. and so true – the way women judge each other, their lack of compassion for the drive behind their choices: to survive, given the materials they have, whether that’s a sharp brain, a beautiful face, or the wisdom of experience. Hopefully, the wisdom of experience comes to us all in the end, and then we can see womens’ choices as the only possible choice they could see at the time that they made it. Your thoughts coincidentally echoed my own on my latest blog post on trophy wives: a choice that I am sure nobody would make with the benefit of hindsight and experience. But I guess that’s just me being too judgemental again….. !

    • Thanks Voula – I saw your Trophy Wife post and was amused that we have been highlighting this theme around the same time. You are more sympathetic to the ‘other choices’ than I am, I think. (and thanks for suggesting to me that I write posts on the novel themes – finally I am getting some use out of the final critical essay I wrote for the MA!)


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