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Feminist Writer Marilyn French Has Died.


Marilyn French, novelist, feminist historian, and champion of women’s rights died yesterday of heart failure. She had struggled for years with esophogheal cancer. Her feminist novel, The Women’s Room, provided a much-needed wake-up call for young women like me in 1970s. In those days, it wasn’t easy to find fiction that reflected my own experiences as a young woman growing into adulthood in a rapidly changing society.

From the New York Times:

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.”

Rest in peace, Marilyn French.

Violet has a series of quotes from French at Reclusive Leftist.

Thanks to Purplefinn for posting these links in comments.

27 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, bb.

    The Women’s Room ment a lot to me too. Taught me not only about women, but about American women. Loved the book!

    And one of the quotes from Violet Socks is curiously relevant right now:

    “When they kept you out it was because you were black; when they let you in, it is because you are black. That’s progress?”

  2. Thanks for this, bostonboomer.
    To Marilyn French:
    Sweet journey, sister. You raised an awful lot of consciousness and a considerable amount of hell!

  3. I remember that book — my mother had it. It was a huge bestseller. I was reading Alix Kates Shulman. But my mom had Simone de Beavior, Greere, all of those on the shelf. Our gen absorbed those through osmosis?

    here are three feminist writers/texts!
    live and learn…….it would be totally cool to put a syllabus together…




  4. Reading “The Women’s Room” left an indelible mark on me. Powerful writer. Thanks for honoring her, bb.

    • Thank you for posting the links. I might not have heard about her death otherwise, because I’m so busy with the end of semester rush.

  5. I was surprised to see that The Women’s Room is out of print. Maybe French’s death will lead to a new edition being published. I might be tempted to reread it.

    • I remember living in N.Y. when I read it, and introduced it to a friend of mine. Even though I never considered myself a redstocking, feminist or womens lib or advocated for others to be, her husband was furious at me for – as he saw it – trying to turn his wife into one. LOL!

      • That’s hilarious!

      • You’re also describing me here, pips. I’ve always supported other women in a quiet way. But “The Women’s Room” and “Fear Of Flying” both packed a real wallop when I read them. I grew up in the conformist Eisenhower Fifties, then embarked on the very turbulent Sixties. Talk about a perturbing time – one foot in Mayberry, the other in the Vietnam riots. What was a girl to do? Erica Jong and Marilyn French shone their lights on territory that was personally familiar but publicly shunned, so naturally their work was unsettling for many. I can’t say I personally found many answers along the way, but as good writers do, these two women achieved the author’s fundamental message: “You’re not alone.”

        • Kat5,

          Same here. The realization that I was “not alone” was a huge part of my coming of age. I grew up in a small, conservative midwestern town, and always felt different. When I discovered Betty Friedan as a junior in hs, I my life opened up. I read all the feminist authors voraciously.

          I found that same feeling of “there are other people out there like me” when I discovered Bob Dylan, The Doors, and Jack Kerouac. What a relief to find out that the staid, boring town I grew up in was not all there was.

        • Another novel that had a great impact on me, was Mary McCarthy’s The Group – and the movie based on the book! It’s really strange, that it was American literature that “spoke” to me like that, more than my native Danish.

          But maybe it has to do with the gift you, American women, have to bond. That’s what I felt in those books (and in many, many others I have read since then), and thats what I feel here on The Confluence too. It seems to attract me. 😕

      • Even though I never considered myself a redstocking, feminist or womens lib or advocated for others to be, her husband was furious at me for – as he saw it – trying to turn his wife into one. LOL!

        You should tell him they (Feminists) are offering rewards for turning wives into feminists. 😆

  6. “My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world.”

    Good for her that she lived long enough to see her dreams realized due to massive Muslim immigration into the West.

    Good riddance to her. I’m sorry she didn’t die by burkha strangulation.

  7. The Women’s Room was the first feminist book that I ever read. French put into words the feelings of frustration and resentment that I felt toward the patriarchy from the time I was in elementary school and told that girls had to learn the violin rather than the drums which drew me.

    Thank you, Marilyn.

  8. I loved that book, and was just recently thinking I’d like to reread it, after living 30 or so years beyond my first reading.

    I still remember being awed by her ability to describe both the connections we felt with other women at the same time society’s rituals and rules which often caused those connections to be broken.

    She perfectly described our dichotomy.

    • I meant to say,”at the same time we dealt with society’s rituals and rules, which often caused those connections to be broken.”

  9. I knew if I looked long and hard enough, I’d find my 30-year-old copy of “The Women’s Room” among the volumes in my very disorganized book shelves. I’m going to re-read it starting tonight. When I’m done, bb, I’d be happy to lend it to you.

    Rest in peace, Ms. French.

  10. Like many others here, I’ll be dragging out my 30 year old copy of the Women’s Room as well.

    Goodbye Ms. French. Thank you for your life.

  11. Just saw the obituary now in the Globe & Mail here in Vancouver, BC Canada. I’m deeply saddened to learn of Ms. French’s death last week-end. She was a great. Truly one of THE great feminist – and humanist – writers of the past 50 years. I, too, read ‘The Women’s Room’ close to 30 years ago at 18. Most definitely, it changed my budding female consciousness forever. I read every single work of hers thereafter, a devoted fan for the rest of her life. I’m truly saddened to know I will no longer be able to watch for her next work. A great voice is silent now. I hope we can take her fervent wishes for a better, more equitable and peacable world – that truly and finally restores women to their rightful place as true members of, and indeed, creators of such a world.
    RIP Marilyn French. You’ve earned the rest.

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