Her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s pivotal works of fiction. And for many feminists coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, it felt as if Lessing was speaking for them.
But is Doris Lessing a feminist?
One Woman, Many Facets
She’s a woman who dislikes labels and revels in not being easily categorized. Although second wave feminists would like to claim her as one of their own, a similar claim could be made by communists, Sufis, and science fiction fans; Lessing has dabbled in those areas and explored many more, both personally and through her writing.
Wulf in Feminist Clothing
However, Lessing’s fame rests heavily on The Golden Notebook, a book that broke ground in expressing women’s dissatisfaction with the gender roles of the time.
Its heroine, a writer named Anna Wulf, maintains different colored notebooks to record different aspects of her life and work. The notebooks represent the compartmentalization Wulf feels in her roles as writer, mother, political activist, and sexual being. She is unable to integrate the separate elements until a nervous breakdown leads her to write in just one – the title notebook.
Mother in the MachineThe book was hailed by feminists for its candid language regarding female sexuality and the dissociation Anna experiences; in one scene, Lessing likens Anna's emotional response during playtime with her daughter to that of a machine.
The Golden Notebook struck a chord with women re-evaluating their own personal journeys during two tumultuous decades, and has influenced other icons of the women’s movement from Gloria Steinem to Erica Jong.
”Did Not Give a Damn”
Yet Lessing resists taking credit for such an accomplishment, not because she’s modest (although she is) but because she has never cared to identify herself as such. John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, writing for the Guardian Unlimited says, “She may have been part of the feminist movement, but she did not give a damn whether her views were feminist or not.”
Guilty By Gender
Unlike many women writers who preceded her, those views did not sentimentalize the interactions between men and women. In her work, Lessing does not shy away from harsh evaluations of her characters’ physical and emotional relationships. The Golden Notebook made many men feel guilty about their gender at the same time it seemed to advocate for women. Yet in Lessing’s world, women are often to blame for their circumstances.
Although reluctant to be categorized as a feminist, Lessing revisited the idea of the repressed/emancipated woman in many of her novels, among them the five-book Children of Violence series (1952-1969), The Summer Before the Dark (1973) and The Fifth Child (1988).
Lessing became the 11th woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature out of 104 recipients since 1901.