Controversial Feminist Author Known for 'The Women's Room'

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Marilyn French, 79, a feminist whose 1977 debut novel "The Women's Room" sold more than 20 million copies and who became a prominent thinker on women's history, died of a heart ailment May 2 at a New York City hospital.

Ms. French, an erudite and angry writer, blamed men for the condition of women throughout the centuries, a stance that brought her sharply divided critical attention. Although many feminists lauded her for writing one of the most influential novels of the emerging feminist movement, others outside the movement charged that her books were belligerent and artless.

"In a way, 'The Women's Room' was, to a particular part of the women's movement, what Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' was to the civil rights community," feminist Gloria Steinem said yesterday. "She was always so far ahead because she wasn't writing about reforms around the edges. Her theories were big and exciting, and they definitely appeal to younger women who hear about them."

The novel centered on a repressed young woman described by one critic as "expectant in the 40s, submissive in the 50s, enraged in the 60s . . . in the 70s independent but somehow unstrung, not yet fully composed after all" she'd been through. Partly autobiographical, the book was acclaimed by women eager to see their lives in print, and it was translated into 20 languages.

Some critics claimed that in the book Ms. French was overtly anti-male and provided as evidence one of her characters who asserts: "All men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes." Ms. French shrugged off the critics.

"They said I was a man hater, and I never defended myself against that, because I do believe that men are to blame for the condition of women," Ms. French told London's Guardian newspaper in 2006. "Even men who are not actively keeping women down, but are profiting from women's position, or who don't mind things being the way they are -- they are responsible too. I don't hate men . . . but men are responsible for the situation of women."

Although Ms. French's best-selling novel brought her to public attention, her later books cemented her role as one of the leading Second Wave feminist writers on the issue of gender inequality. "Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals" (1985) was "nothing less than a history of the world (from the cavewomen to the Sandinistas) as seen through the critical prism of contemporary feminism," wrote Stanford University history professor Paul Robinson, in a Washington Post review.

Her other books included "The War Against Women" (1992), which argued that women have become "increasingly disempowered, degraded and subjugated" by patriarchal societies around the world. "Women's History of the World" (2000) and the multi-volume "From Eve to Dawn" (2002) redressed the neglect of women in the history of civilization, uncovering stories from cultures as far-ranging as the Tlingit of Alaska, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert and women in ancient Mesopotamia. Both works are often used in women's history classes.

Yet when she returned to her best-selling debut novel with a companion piece, "In the Name of Friendship" (2006), she found that American publishers were unwilling to print it. The book appeared first in Holland and after it became a bestseller there, the Feminist Press discovered it and put it before U.S. readers.

"I am an angry person," Ms. French told London's Independent newspaper in 2007. "I don't know if anger is a good thing, but it is useful and I don't know how you can avoid it. You look at the world and it's the only possible reaction. . . . I don't think women understand how powerful they are, that they have caused this tremendous fury in men. In some countries they are willing to kill women to keep them submissive, and in the West they use censorship. Any reference to feminism is censored, and we just don't hear about it. It is terrible."

Marilyn Edwards was born Nov. 21, 1929, in New York and graduated from Hofstra College (now University), where she also received a master's degree in English in 1964. She received a doctorate in English from Harvard University in 1972 and taught for four years at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

She became radicalized, she later said, while trapped in an unhappy marriage, reading Kate Millett's comprehensive critique of patriarchy, "Sexual Politics," and discovering that a close family member had been raped. When she divorced Robert M. French Jr. in 1967, she couldn't even get a telephone in her own name.

She survived a difficult bout with esophageal cancer in 1992, which resulted in "A Season in Hell," a memoir of that experience.

Survivors include two children, Robert French of East Brunswick, N.J., and Jamie French of Cambridge, Mass.

"Marilyn was always the clear-eyed one," Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center, wrote in an essay on its Web site. "Not so sentimental as the rest of us -- nor patient with the holes we dug for ourselves around our children, parents and spouses. Marilyn could be counted on to ask, 'And what about you?' "

A new novel by Ms. French, "The Love Children," is scheduled to be published in the fall, and she was at work on a memoir when she died.

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