A controversial feminist drama that defeats its own purpose

If Bella Abzug had produced, written, and directed a television show 10 years ago, "The Women's room" (ABC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings) might have been it.

She didn't. And, to a great extent, the women's movement has since liberated itself from the shrill, antagonistic extremism of its early days when calling attention to the wrongs perpetrated against women was almost an end in itself.

Now here comes a controversial, boycottthreatened program called "The Women's Room" to remind us of a period known by some as "Early women's Liberation." It substitutes spiked iron gloves for the traditional white kid gloves as it mauls men, marriage, fidelity, child-bearing, child-rearing, children.

"The women's room" makes the same mistakes it accuses its easiest target -- "male chauvinist pigs" -- of making and in the process becomes a "female chauvinist pig" movie in its own right.

Written by Carol Sobieski, based on the best-selling Marilyn French novel of the same name (which itself was dated before it was ever published several years ago), this three- hour attack against "middle-class values" stars Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst, Patty Duke Astin, Kathryn Harrold (you know, of "Soap").

Directed by a man -- Glenn Jordan -- "The Women's Room" ironically (or perhaps trickily) does justice only to the argument by some "old fashioned" men that "women's place is in the home." It seems intent on proving to the world, by indirection, that "liberation" is but an unrealistic dream, based upon fantasy and obsession, that women cannot handle the realities of life, that women would replace current social values with even more immoral ones if given the choice.

The three-hour show depicts life among a "downtrodden" tribe of atypical women, bored with charming but bothersome family, pretty little suburban home, tight two-car garage, last year's garbage disposal unit.

Millions of housewives, longing for some of the above items, may wonder what all the shouting is about. In this spectacle, women always "retreat" or "escape" into marriage. Childbirth is treated like a terminal illness and children become evil clones of their mostly evil fathers. "I was no longer a woman," narrator Mira drones on, "I was a pregnancy."

"The Women's room" is the story of a generic character named Mira, played with charming hatefulness by Lee Remick. She "progresses" from mere anger in the 1940s because those awful men don't respect a lone woman in a bar to full-fledged, single-minded, completely fulfilled feminism in the 1970s. (By the way, in the book version, Mira cannot make it in the profession -- teaching -- which she has chosen, but in the TV version she becomes a successful teacher, lecturing her students to great applause on the merits of liberation.)

Her mentor is slogan-spouting Colleen Dewhurst who believes in taking things -- especially affairs with adolescent boys -- where she finds them. Miss Dewhurst no only believes in abortion, divorce, infidelity, contraception, desertion of uncaring husband and children, and who knows what else indiscriminately, but she also becomes the only spokesperson for husbands and the responsibilties and the pressures they must assume in their head-of-household roles.

For one brief moment toward the end of the drama, she seems to understand the plight of males caught in the same web of societal dilemma in which women sometimes find themselves. But that is the only moment in three hours in which any glimmer of understanding for the male side is perceived. And I have the feeling that Miss Dewhurst herself might have insisted upon that bit of a postcript.

Except for the unignorable fact that the program denigrates and, in its own peculiarly annoying way, demeans the generally accepted traditions of American family life as we have known it for 200 years. "The Women's Room" is beautifully mounted, impressively acted tract propagandizing for what it believes to be "freedom." Most of its arguments have some thread in truth in human needs, but in pointing them out it exaggerates female subjugation and repression to the point where manu men watching will want to throw a brick through the TV screen.

The title "The Women's room evolves from a sign on a door which read "Ladies Room" and which was corrected, supposedly by a feminist, to read "Women's Room." What authors French and Sobieski refuse to recognize is that, instead of crossing out the word "Ladies," what should have been done was make certain that the sign next door read "Gentlemen."

There has been a public campaign to boycott or bar "The Women's Room" from the television screens because, according to the executive director of a Mississippi-base "decency" group, it is "a vicious attack on marriage and the family." It is not so much a vicious attack as it is a silly, futile, simple- minded attack, doomed to failure because reasonable women will undoubtedly be able to recognize only a tiny portion of themselves in these caricatures, in these walking case histories.

Reasonable men, unfortunately, may recognize no more than the strident extremism of many of the attitudes expressed so bluntly. One hopes it will not prevent them from working with today's responsible women's groups to see that discrimination and injustices aimed at women -- or for that matter any group in our society -- are corrected rapidly so that the traditional American values can continue . . . improved, but still valid.

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