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Marilyn Yalom, who wrote histories of the wife, the female breast and the chess queen, dies at 87

French and gender studies scholar Marilyn Yalom was instrumental in building Stanford University’s Center for Research on Women into a hub of gender scholarship. (Reid Yalom)

Marilyn Yalom, a wide-ranging French and gender studies scholar who wrote celebrated histories of the female breast, women and marriage, and the most powerful piece on the chess board — the queen — died Nov. 20 at her home in Palo Alto, Calif. She was 87.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said her son Ben Yalom.

In books that were translated into 20 languages, Dr. Yalom explored subjects including the role of women in the French Revolution, the medieval origins of the heart symbol, the evolution of marriage, the beginnings of modern chess and society’s fraught, obsessive, love-hate relationship with women’s chests.

A former French professor at California State University at Hayward, Dr. Yalom switched fields midway through her career, leaving her tenured position to take a job that she later recalled was “at best half-time and uncertain.” Her husband, Irvin D. Yalom, was an influential psychiatry professor at Stanford University, and she joined him there in 1976 as a deputy director at the school’s newly formed Center for Research on Women, known by the cheeky acronym CROW.

Inspired by the burgeoning women’s movement (and exhausted by the prospect of continuing to teach undergraduates how to conjugate French verbs), she was instrumental in building CROW into a hub of gender scholarship, at a time when the field was scarcely recognized as a serious academic discipline.

Dr. Yalom organized conferences on issues including domestic violence, and directed the center from 1984 to 1985, remaining there as a senior scholar long after it became the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. But her work became increasingly public-facing, as she wrote not for the academy but for a broad audience in books that delved into art, psychology, religion, medicine, politics and literature.

“Her work came out of second-wave feminism,” said the Clayman Institute’s current director, Adrian Daub, “and was dedicated to locating the silences and gaps left by the way academic history had traditionally treated its subjects.” By turning to a popular audience, he added by email, Dr. Yalom seemed to aim at showing “what one can do when feminist insights are brought to bear on the way we establish, frame and disseminate the historical record.”

Fascinated by French culture since college, when she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and lived with a family in the Loire Valley, Dr. Yalom examined Gallic history in books such as “Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory” (1993) and “How the French Invented Love” (2012), which traced the development of romance from the songs of medieval troubadours to the romanticism of Rousseau, the cynicism of Flaubert and the films of François Truffaut.

She also became interested in “the gender dynamic of the chessboard,” her son said, and wrote a playfully titled article, “Sex Change on the Board,” only to find that no one wanted to publish it. “When you can’t publish an article,” she quipped, “you write a book.”

The result was “Birth of the Chess Queen” (2004), in which she chronicled the game’s development in India and Persia, where the king piece stood next to a weak vizier, or adviser. That piece evolved in the West to become the game’s most powerful figure, the queen, in a process that Dr. Yalom linked to the rising status of women such as 15th-century ruler Isabella I of Castile. “The reality of female rule was undoubtedly entwined with the emergence and evolution of the chess queen,” she wrote.

Among her most popular books was “A History of the Breast” (1997), which New York Times reviewer Natalie Angier called “a fascinating cultural, political and artistic history of our most symbolically freighted body part.”

Inspired by her research into the political importance of breast-feeding during the French Revolution, Dr. Yalom showed how the female breast was viewed as both a nurturing organ and a wicked source of temptation, featured in centuries of artistic works and “reappropriated” by women, as she put it, through political statements such as bra burning.

“Though breasts still carry an overload of cultural and sexual expectations,” she wrote, “many women hope to see the day when their chests do not have to bear such a burden.”

Marilyn Koenick was born in Chicago on March 10, 1932, and raised in Washington. Her mother, a homemaker, was born in England to a family from Poland; her Russian-born father ran a shop as part of the District Grocery Stores cooperative.

Dr. Yalom was a middle schooler when, according to family lore, she met Irvin Yalom at a party at her home. “There was a long line, so my father and his friends crept in through the bathroom window,” Ben Yalom recalled. “My father soon saw my mother and bet his best friend that he was going to marry her. He collected $30 at the wedding.”

They married in 1954, the year Dr. Yalom received a bachelor’s degree in French from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She later received a master’s in French and German from Harvard University in 1956, followed by a doctorate in comparative literature from Johns Hopkins University in 1963.

Dr. Yalom wrote her thesis while raising children, and for six decades maintained a close intellectual partnership with her husband. “My wife matches me book for book,” he told the Atlantic in 2017.

In addition to her husband, of Palo Alto, survivors include four children, Eve Yalom of Berkeley, Calif., Reid Yalom of San Rafael, Calif., Victor Yalom of Mill Valley, Calif., and Ben Yalom of Encinitas, Calif.; a sister; and eight grandchildren.

Dr. Yalom taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and at what is now Cal State East Bay before moving to Stanford, where she was a lecturer in the Modern Thought and Literature program and presided over intellectual salons for female scholars.

“Those were the years in which feminist scholarship was taking root in the public imagination, but in universities it happened much more slowly,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “When [poet and CROW director Diane Middlebrook] and I would sit down at the faculty club in the late ’70s, it wasn’t unusual for some male professor to come over and say, ‘What are you two girls plotting now?’ ”

Dr. Yalom’s other books included “Maternity, Mortality and the Literature of Madness” (1985), which focused on writers Margaret Atwood, Marie Cardinal and Sylvia Plath; “A History of the Wife” (2001); “The American Resting Place” (2008), a survey of graveyards and burial practices that included photos by her son Reid; “The Social Sex” (2015), a history of female friendship with co-author Theresa Donovan Brown; and “The Amorous Heart” (2018), a history of the heart as a symbol and metaphor.

Even after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma last year, she completed another book, “Innocent Witnesses: World War II Viewed by Children,” and started a personal account of mortality, co-written with her husband.

In 1992, Dr. Yalom was named an officer in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques, a French order for distinguished academics. She had long treasured her time in the country, her son said, and often returned to conduct archival work at the national library in Paris. “The perfect day for her was to wake up late,” he recalled, “have tea and a pastry, go to the Bibliothèque Nationale to spend six hours in the stacks, and then go out to the symphony.”

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