Marilyn French: Inspiring feminist author November 21 1929 - May 2 2009 Print E-mail
London ~~ Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Marilyn French: Feminist writer whose novel 'The Women's Room' proved profoundly influential

By Deborah Orr

Marilyn French: Despite her claims to being 'an angry person', she was too practical for emotional pyrotechnics [REX FEATURES]

In the flesh Marilyn French was all calm and kindliness, an extraordinarily meditative presence.

Interviewing her on the occasion of the publication of her 1992 exploration of female subjugation around the world, The War Against Women, I found her almost inscrutable, because her own tranquillity was at such odds with the storm of frustration and anger her writing provoked in so many of those who read it.

No one can read The War Against Women, or any other work that attempts simply to document the facts about the uniform appearance of an overwhelming majority of women in all cultures at the bottom of the economic and political heap, without understanding that life's adversities invariably impact on females more profoundly than they impact on males. French felt angry on behalf of all those women. But despite her claims to being "an angry person", she was too practical to indulge in emotional pyrotechnics when there was work to be done.

Yet French had good reason to be angry on her own account. She might even have courted the frustrated, directionless self-immolation that sometimes comes of being angry with oneself. At 21, in 1950, in the final year of an English Literature degree at Hofstra College, Long Island, she had delivered herself up to a husband, Robert French, and had abandoned her own nascent career to work as an office clerk, just as her own mother had done, to support her man as he continued with law school. Later, his own academic ambitions achieved with this great assistance from his wife, Robert French did not return the favour. Instead, he attempted to control and discourage his partner at every turn, as she attempted to continue with her studies and to write creatively, as she had done since she was 10 years old. She was trapped.

Many women who found themselves in French's situation did and do become angry, their anger taking its main toll on themselves, in the form of depression. Yet at a time when women did not have the words to talk together about their feelings of isolation, French read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, published in France in 1949 and shortly afterwards in the US. French maintained throughout her life an allegiance to de Beauvoir's analysis of how men's tendency to view women as the mysterious other, a group of outsiders whose little ways could not be understood, led inexorably to the formation of patriarchy.

But in her own personal situation French also recognised de Beauvoir's description of women who describe themselves as writers, but never publish anything. She resolved not to be that way, and by the time Betty Friedan's more immediate analysis of lives like French's own life as a wife and mother of two, The Feminine Mystique, was published in 1963, French was more than ready to identify the truth in Friedan's arguments. She divorced her husband in 1967, completed her PhD at Harvard in 1972, and published her most celebrated book, The Women's Room, in 1977.

The Woman's Room was a large, intense slab of semi-autobiographical fiction, focusing on the life and experiences of Mira Ward, who had married young, divorced her controlling husband after starting a family, and found in academia a different life, shaped by the support of feminist friends. Its huge success followed similar bestseller status for Erica Jong's novel, Fear of Flying, which been published in 1973 to similarly voracious demand. Theory had found a popular form, and this allowed all sorts of women to take part in "consciousness raising" within daily conversation. I remember being a student at 18, and talking with a friend about how easy it was to tell if a women had read The Women's Room or not. The novel changed people's outlook that profoundly, that obviously and that immediately.

Crucially, the teenage daughter of the most radical character in the novel had been gang-raped. This too was a semi-autobiographical strand, because French's own daughter, Jamie, had also been raped in 1971, when she was 18. That character, Val, declared at one point in The Women's Room that: "All men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, their codes." That first bleak phrase has become notorious, an uncompromising example of how feminism can make men the mysterious other as well, the mysterious, frightening, marauding, pitiless other that cannot be reasoned with. Unfortunately, the media's great obsession with such extreme sound-bites helped to make feminists a mysterious other themselves.

None of French's many other books had the impact of The Women's Room. Neither her fiction nor her non-fiction passed into the vernacular in the way that The Women's Room, and that particular phrase, did. Yet, French was not a divisive figure. She did not hate men, or think they were "all rapists". She was pleased by the progress she had witnessed in her lifetime, in understanding and support between the sexes, and especially in the greater role that she saw many men assuming in the upbringing of their children. Even her husband, she suggested with hindsight, would now be recognised as a man who had a mental problem, rather than one who was responding in the way that a man should when confronted with an unbiddable wife.

French had the wisdom to understand that "men" were not "the problem", but that instead there was a more subtle and complex difficulty with the way in which men and women related to each other in general. Rightly, she argued that feminism had created a backlash, which in some respects and in some cases, had made the plight of vulnerable women very much worse. Sadly, those more profound and sad observations were not as readily communicable as the anger.

Marilyn Edwards, author: born Brooklyn, New York 21 November 1929; married 1950 Robert French (one son, one daughter); died New York 2 May 2009.
 May 4, 2009, page B11

Marilyn French, Novelist and Champion of Feminism, Dies at 79


Marilyn French, a writer and feminist activist whose debut novel, “The Women’s Room,” propelled her into a leading role in the modern feminist movement, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 79 and lived in Manhattan.

Marilyn French in 1985 (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

The cause was heart failure, said her son, Robert.

With steely views about the treatment of woman and a gift for expressing them on the printed page, Ms. French transformed herself from an academic who quietly bristled at the expectations of married women in the post-World War II era to a leading, if controversial, opinionmaker on gender issues who decried the patriarchal society she saw around her. “My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world,” she once declared.

Her first and best-known novel, “The Women’s Room,” released in 1977, traces a submissive housewife’s journey of self-discovery following her divorce in the 1950s, describing the lives of Mira Ward and her friends in graduate school at Harvard as they grow into independent women. The book was partly informed by her own experience of leaving an unhappy marriage and helping her daughter deal with the aftermath of being raped. Women all over the world seized on the book, which sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages.

Gloria Steinem, a close friend, compared the impact of the book on the discussion surrounding women’s rights to the one that Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” had had on racial equality 25 years earlier.

“It was about the lives of women who were supposed to live the lives of their husbands, supposed to marry an identity rather than become one themselves, to live secondary lives,” Ms. Steinem said in an interview Sunday. “It expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know that they were not alone and not crazy.”

Ms. French continued publishing novels as well as books of essays and literary criticism with the common theme of male subjugation of women, whether the arena was Shakespeare or modern history. “Men’s need to dominate women may be based in their own sense of marginality or emptiness; we do not know its root, and men are making no effort to discover it,” she wrote in “The War Against Women” (1992).

Critics accused her work of being anti-male, frequently citing a female character in “The Women’s Room” who declares, after her daughter has been raped: “All men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes.”

In 1992 Ms. French, a longtime smoker, was given a diagnosis of esophageal cancer and told she had just months to live. She chronicled her winning battle against the disease, which included a 10-day coma, in “Season in Hell: A Memoir” (1998).

“I cannot say I am happy I was sick,” she wrote. “But I am happy that sickness, if it had to happen, brought me to where I am now. It is a better place than I have been before.”

Nevertheless, the disease and its treatment took such a sharp physical toll that, friends said, for a while afterward she questioned whether she should have survived. “She was in pain for 15 years but she was extremely brave,” said Carol Jenkins, a friend who runs the Women’s Media Center, an advocacy group in New York. “She fought through it, she wrote through it and carried on her life. The printed word was a source of life for her.”

In the years since her supposed death sentence, Ms. French continued to publish prolifically; she has a novel scheduled for release this fall and was working on a memoir at the time of her death. Her most significant work since her illness was the four-volume “From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women,” published by Feminist Press and built around the premise that prevailing histories had denied women their past, present and future.

Despite carefully chronicling a long history of oppression, the last volume ends on an optimistic note, said Florence Howe, who recently retired as director of the publishing house. “For the first time women have history,” she said of Ms. French’s work. “The world changed and she helped change it.”

In recent years Ms. French struggled to get published, partly because of the gains in women’s rights she had helped bring about. “It was a source of embitterment to her and outrage to me,” said Robin Morgan, a writer, feminist activist and close friend.

Marilyn French was born on Nov. 21, 1929, in Brooklyn, the daughter of E. Charles Edwards, an engineer, and Isabel Hazz Edwards, a department-store clerk. She studied philosophy and English literature at Hofstra College in Hempstead, on Long Island, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s in 1964. She was an English instructor at Hofstra from 1964 to 1968, then earned a doctorate from Harvard. She was an assistant professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., from 1972 to 1976.

She married Robert M. French Jr., a lawyer, in 1950. They divorced in 1967.

Ms. French is survived by her son, Robert, of East Brunswick, N.J., and a daughter, Jamie French, of Cambridge, Mass.

While Ms. French was pleased by significant gains made by women in the three decades since her landmark novel, she was also just as quick to point out lingering deficiencies in gender equality, friends recalled.

“She had,” Ms. Steinem said, “higher standards and higher hopes.”
 London ~~ Monday 4 May 2009

Feminist and novelist Marilyn French dies, aged 79

A new novel by the author of The Women's Room and the memoir A Season in Hell will be published posthumously

Richard Lea

Marilyn French believed 'a feminist is simply any woman who thinks women matter as much as men do' (Martin Godwin)

The novelist and academic Marilyn French, who captured the frustration and rage of a generation of desperate housewives in her explosive 1977 debut, The Women's Room, died of heart failure on Saturday, the New York Times reports. She was 79.

The story of Mira Ward, a submissive, suburban housewife who discovers female friendship and feminism while studying at Harvard after a divorce, The Women's Room inspired a generation, selling over 20m copies worldwide and being translated into 20 languages. French was attacked as a man-hater, an accusation she never rejected, arguing that men are "to blame for women's position".

Born in New York in 1929, she put herself through university, studying English literature at Hofstra College, before working as a teacher. After her own divorce she went to Harvard to study for a PhD, publishing a thesis on James Joyce's Ulysses in 1976.

She always considered herself to be a feminist, suggesting that "a feminist is simply any woman who thinks women matter as much as men do". An unhappy marriage, her encounter with Kate Millet's Sexual Politics and the rape in 1971 of her daughter Jamie (then 18) gave her thinking its radical power.

French went on to create a further seven novels, as well as academic writing, political polemic and a moving memoir of her struggle with oesophageal cancer, A Season in Hell. A new novel, The Love Children, is scheduled for publication in September.

She had little patience with those who argue that there is no longer any need for a feminist movement, believing that "the more [women] advance, the more the backlash will increase. They will try to take it all away."