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by Bamber Gascoigne

Marilyn French (1929-2009)


American author and feminist scholar, who argued in her study The War Against Women (1992), that women's suppression is an intrinsic part of the male-dominated global culture. Marilyn French first gained fame with her debut novel The Women's Room (1977), a landmark of feminist literature.  French's readers have said that her works have left them "with things to think about far into the future," and helped them to understand "why the feminist movement came to be" and "refuse to mindlessly accept any long-standing institution for the sake of tradition."

"Most films and television shows are produced by men for men. Their main purposes are to show white males triumphant, to teach gender roles, and to cater to men's delight in male predation and victimization of women, especially young, pretty, near-naked women with highly developed breasts and buttocks (parts that are usually the focus of attack). . . . Pornography is a systematic abuse of women because the establishment colludes in this male sadism toward women, which fits its purposes.'' (from The War Against Women, Summit Books, p. 175)

Marilyn French was born in New York into a poor family of Polish descent. Her father, E. Charles Edwards, was an engineer, and mother, Isabel Hazz Edwards, a department-store clerk. In the family, she was the dominant parent. "My mother was the confidante of several neighborhood women. She refused to gossip but needed to talk – so she talked to me. . . . I knew the man two doors down was a drug addict – and I also knew what my mother did not, that he had tried to rape my sister." ('French, Marilyn,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 253)

As a child, French was a voracious reader. She also wrote from a very early age. At school, she was shy and introberted. Outside school she listened to her parents records over and over: Bizet's Carmen, Gounod's Faust, and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. Around fourteen, she began to read  Thomas Paine, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. Though she was interested in philosophy, she studied literature at Hofstra College (now University) in Long Island, taking her a B.A. in 1951. The previous year she had married Robert M. French Jr., a lawyer, whom she supported through law school by working in a series of menial jobs. 

French began to write seriously in 1957, but had only few stories and articles published in nearly twenty years. In 1960 she returned to school. French earned her M.A. in 1964 from Hofstra College, where worked between the years 1964 and 1968 as an instructor. At that time French lived in Rockville Centre.

After raising two children and divorce, French continued her studies at Harvad University, taught English at Hofstra, and received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976. She was an artist in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study and then taught at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, until 1976.

French's first book was her thesis on James Joyce (1976), which was well-received by critics. A year later it was followed by The Women's Room, based in part on her experiences living and working on Long Island in her early adult years. When the book came out she was dubbed "The writer with an AK-47". ('I do still believe that men are to blame ...' by Sharon Krum, The Guardian, 16 Jun 2006)

Despite negative reviews, French's biting social commentary became a cultural phenomenon. It remained on bestseller lists for over two years, was translated into some twenty languages, and was made into a television movie in 1980, starring Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst, Patty Duke Astin, Jenny O'Hara. "Curious, soapish, feminist tract which at this length can't survive even with good production and acting." (Halliwell's Television Companion by Leslie Jalliwell with Philip Purser, 1985, p. 694)

The international success of her first novel enabled French to write and publish without being financially burdened. The Berkley Publishing Group chose the book in 1982 as one of its top five paperback bestsellers for all time. French's close friend Gloria Steinem compared the the impact of the book to the talk generated about racial equality by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

Being virtually unknown in feminist circles, The Women's Room aroused the suspicion of some feminist activists, who called it a "masochistic fantasy." Especially reviewers protested the portrayal of men, "a prolonged. . . yell of fury at the perversity of the male sex," as Libby Purves said in London Times. (Fictional Feminism: How American Bestsellers Affect the Movement for Women’s Equality by Kim A. Loudermilk, 2004, p. 41) Sara Sanborn in Ms. Magazine criticized the novel for its soap-opera style. (Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-raising Novel and the Women's Liberation Movement by Lisa Maria Hogeland, 1998, p. 91) As a sign of change in the attitude towards French in Ms., she was invited by the magazine in the mid-90s to a panel discussion on pornography. Always outspoken, French challenged the panel to stop "tiptoeing around" the issue of feminist censorship. (Performance and Cultural Politics by Elin Diamond, 2015, p. 59)

Mira Ward, the central character of the book, is a housewife, whose trials and tribulations form the core of the story. Mira builds her life after divorce and finds that there is no balance between the sexes. "The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women weree simply not permitted to go. It was odd. Why? she wondered. Women were so unimportant anyway, why would anyone bother to keep them out?" (Ibid., p. 2) Additional views offer other voices, whom Mira encounters on her voyage of self-discovery. 

The battle between sexes was again the main subject in French's second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980). This time the story focused on a middle-aged woman, who has a love affair with a married American man on her sabbatical leave in England. The relationship of a submissive woman and a dominant man is doomed. In her non-fiction scholarly book Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981) French examined the polarity between the masculine and feminine principles. She argued that Shakespeare"never abandoned belief in male legitimacy or horror of female sexuality, and these continued to color all his thinking. He did not, it seems, think abstractly about morality; certainly he did not think about moral terms of gender division." (Ibid., p. 17) Geoffrey H. Hartman said in his review: "It is easier to appreciate the intellectual passion of this book than its bias. Much is left out, especially at the level of language. Miss French fails to follow her own remarks on ''flexibility'' or ''revocability.'' Shakespeare's language has a drift of its own that expresses itself despite the identity of the speaker." (Shakespeare gendrified,' The New York Times, March 22, 1981) 

Her Mother's Daughter (1987) was a story about four generations of women, and the bond between mothers and daughters. The narrator, Anastasia, is determined to avoid the oppression of her forbears and the self-denial of her mother, Bella, but she is haunted by that collective past. "I don't know any successful woman with love in her life. Men can manage it, but not women. Disproportion in numbers, and besides, men are too threatened by independent women. They can always find one who will built up their ego. And I, we, independent women, can't find a man who doesn't need continual bolstering. Enough already. I've had enough." (Ibid., p. 17)

The characters of Bella and Frances were based on French's own mother and grandmother. Rhoda Koening said in her review, that "To read her novel, you would think she had never been exposed to anything but the last 50m years of Good Housekeeping and a few copies of Ms." ('Through the Wringer' by Rhoda Koening, in New York, October 12, 1987, p. 88)  Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals (1986) was a series of essays on the history of the treatment of women by men in the past 2500 years. The book was criticized for romanticizing matriarchal cultures.

The War Against Women (1992) was a study of oppression and violence of different institutions and individuals in patriarchal world. According to French, the violence has become more threatening as an answer to Feminist movement. "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. But men's long-standing war against women is now, in reaction to women's movements across the world, taking on a new ferocity, new urgency, and new veneers.'' (Ibid., p. 19) French argued that physical, economic, and political attack on women is an intrinsic part of today's male-dominated global society and that rape is part of male socialization. French's own daughter had been raped in 1971, when she was 18. ('Marilyn French: Feminist writer whose novel 'The Women's Room' proved profoundly influential' by Deborah Orr, Independent, 06 May, 2006) When French promoted the book in Ireland, she met President Mary Robinson. Their meeting horrified conservative groups.

In Our Father (1995) the presidential advisor Stephen Upton has suffered a stroke, and his daughters gather in his mansion to await his death or recovery. Gradually they learn one another's secrets; all the four daughters have been raped by their father when they were girls. My Summer with George (1996) was a story of a summer love affair. The protagonist is Hermione Beldame, a women's romance writer who meets George Johnson, a s outhern newspaper editor, and starts to fantasize about her future with George. A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998) was French's personal account of her journey through cancer treatment - she had been smoking since she was fifteen.

At the age of 61 she was told she had metastasized esophageal cancer, and she was offered no hope. Determined to "remain a human being, a thinker and a writer who was temporarily ill", French won her battle and a series of other medical crises and negative treatment from doctors. On one level, her illness became part of her struggle against male insensitivity: "One would think that anyone over thirty must know pain, but in fact, men in our society are encouraged to deny pain and suffering, and medical schools tend to encourage such denial. As a result, many doctors, women as well as men, become brittle and closed off. Of course, they suffer - that is inevitable - but they don't let themselves feel their suffering, so derive no knowledge from it and cannot use it. And what we deny ourselves, we deny others." (Ibid., p. 21)

From Eve to Dawn (2002) was four-volume, nearly two-thousand pages long global history the oppression of women. Can a species survive, French once asked, when half its members systematically assault the other? When The New York Times (September 3, 2006) stated on French's sixth novel, In the Name of Friendship (2006), that "this book feels like a journey back in time," the author replied, "it appears that the new position of the editors of the Book Review is that feminism is an illegitimate subject for literature." (The New York Times, September 17, 2006)

The novel first came out in Holland, and then in the U.S., published by the Feminist Press. French died of heart failure in 2009, at the age of 79, in her Manhattan home. She was working on a memoir. "I believe feminist art can make us better, just as I think a feminist world would make us better." ('Afterword: The Writer as Thinker' by Stephanie Genty, in In the Name of Friendship by Marilyn French, 2006, p. 386)

For further reading: On the Female Search for Identity: A Feminist Reading of The Women’s Room by Marilyn French by Manel Mouaissia, thesis (July 2019); American Literature in Transition, 1970-1980, edited by Kirk Curnutt (2018); 'Marilyn French vägrar använda damrummet,' in Bland hondjävlar & bitterfittor: kvinnokamp i litteraturen by Maria Ehrenberg (2014); 'French, Marilyn (1929- )' by Candis Steenbergen, in Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics, edited by Lynne E. Ford (2010); 'Afterword: The Writer as Thinker' by Stephanie Genty, in In the Name of Friendship by Marilyn French (2006); Fictional Feminism: How American Bestsellers Affect the Movement for Women’s Equality by Kim A. Loudermilk (2004); Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth by Anna Wilson (2001); Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-raising Novel and the Women's Liberation Movement by Lisa Maria Hogeland (1998); 'French, Marilyn,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby (1985) - Central themes in French's books: feminism, the battle of sexes, subjugation of women, sexual exploitation; see also Simone de Beauvoir

Selected bibliography:

  • The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses, 1976
  • The Women's Room, 1977
    - Naisten huone (translated into Finnish by Kyllikki Villa, 1979)
    - TV film 1980, prod. Warner Bros. Television, teleplay Carol Sobieski, dir. Glenn Jordan, starring Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst, Patty Duke, Kathryn Harrold, Tovah Feldshuh
  • The Bleeding Heart: A Novel, 1980
    - Vertavuotava sydän (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1980)
  • Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1981
  • Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, 1985
    - Vallan tuolla puolen (suom. Anja Haglund, Maija Sarvala, Kyllikki Villa, 1986)
  • Her Mother's Daughter: A Novel, 1987
  • The War Against Women, 1992
    - Sota naisia vastaan (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1993)
  • Our Father: A Novel, 1993
  • My Summer with George, 1996
    - Kesämies (suom. Paula Karlsson), 1998
  • A Season in Hell: A Memoir, 1998
    - Kausi helvetissä (suom. Eila Salminen, 1999)
  • Almost Touching the Skies, 2000 (introduction)
  • Women's History of the World, 2000
  • From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, 2002-2003 (v. 1. Origins; v. 2. The masculine mystique; v. 3. Infernos and paradises)
  • In the Name of Friendship, 2006 (afterword Stephanie Genty)
  • From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, 2008 (4 v.; foreword by Margaret Atwood)
  • The Love Children, 2009

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