Marilyn French is the author mentioned and sang in ‘The Day Before You Came’.
The Sydney Morning Herald – Wednesday, 6 May 2009 (Page 16)
All men are rapists: a writer’s immortal words
The writer and academic Marilyn French, a pioneer of the feminist movement, is best known for her debut novel, ‘The Women’s Room’, which captured the mood of the time, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide.
The novel’s best-known lines – “All men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes” – has not been an early legacy for feminism. Spoken in anger by a woman whose daughter has been gang-raped, it entered the popular lexicon and is often cited, wrongly, as one of the tenets of modern feminism.
French’s own daughter had been raped and she admitted to being an angry writer. She thought that women generally lost their identities when they married. “Contempt for women is not an accident,” she once observed, “it is not a by-product of our culture: it is the heart … without it, the culture would fall apart.”
She declared: “My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilisation, to make it a feminist world.” Yet she also insisted: “I’ve always said I like men very much.”
Published in 1977, ‘The Women’s Room’ has other parallels with its author’s life, telling the story of Mira Ward, who marries young in the 1950s and goes to Harvard after her marriage breaks up. French described in fiction the frustrations Betty Friedan identified in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963), and showed how the aspirations of a generation of reluctant housewives were transformed by feminism.
Marilyn French, who has died at 79, was born Marilyn Edwards in New York to Charles Edwards, an engineer, and his wife, Isabel, who worked in a department store. By the age of 10 she was writing poems and short stories.
Her “unloving” mother scrimped to get her daughter an education at Hofstra College, where she studied English and philosophy, graduating in 1951. A year earlier she had married a lawyer, Robert French, whom she put through law school by working at “a series of paralysing office jobs”, and by 1953 she was the mother of two.
Four years later, after reading ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir, she began submitting stories to publishers, but without success.
French took her master’s degree in 1964, taught English at Hofstra for four years and left an unhappy marriage in 1967. She gained her PhD from Harvard in 1972 and published her first book in 1976, a scholarly study of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.
With ‘The Women’s Room’, French suddenly found herself a contemporary US feminism, with Friedan, Erica Jong, author of the novel ‘Fear Of Flying’, and Gloria Steinem, the editor of ‘Ms’ magazine. The fact that she came to public attention as a popular novelist may not have been entirely comfortable for the academic author of works such as ‘Beyond Power: Women, Men & Morals’ (1985), a 600-page analysis of patriarchy.
The War Against Women (1992) sought to debunk the idea that feminism had managed to free her sisters from their traditional yoke, addressing the subjugation of women by fundamentalist religions and patriarchal systems; sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace; and domestic violence, rape and incest.
The four-volume ‘From Eve To Dawn: A History Of Women’ followed in 2002. Throughout her career her primary subject was the subjugation of women.
She could appear harsh, an impression belied by her warmth in interviews. Yet the romanticism that she poured into novels such as ‘The Bleeding Heart’ (1980) seeped into her non-fiction.
A heavy smoker, French was diagnosed in 1992 with oesophageal cancer and not expected to live. She embarked on a gruelling course of treatment and survived against the odds, events she went on to describe without self-pity in ‘Season In Hell: A Memoir (1998). But she was unable to find a US publisher for her last novel. ‘In The Name Of Friendship’, until it was accepted by a Dutch publisher and became a bestseller in the Netherlands.
Towards the end of her life, when asked what feminism had achieved. French expressed admiration for young feminists who were working with women in Africa, India, South America and in ghettoes in the US. She would have liked to see greater improvements in the status of women but was amazed and pleased to have Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate in 2007.
Marilyn French is survived by a son, Robert, and daughter, Jamie.
Articulated the frustration of modern women with provocative novel. By Elaine Woo
21-November-1929 – 2-May-2009
Marilyn French, a writer and feminist scholar whose provocative 1977 novel ‘The Women’s Room’ captured the frustration and fury of a generation of women fed up with society’s traditional conceptions of their roles, has died of heart failure at A New York hospital. She was 79.
‘The Women’s Room’ received mixed reviews but became a feminist classic, selling more than 20 million copies in two dozen languages. The story spoke powerfully to women seeking liberation from societal norms in the last quarter of the 20th century.
It traced the evolution of Mira, a repressed suburban housewife in the 1950s who divorces her brutish husband in the 1960s, goes to Harvard and finds solace in friendship with like-minded women who are seeking to redefine their lives in the midst of sweeping social change.
The novel’s most-quoted line, “All men are rapists, and that’s all they are,” spoken by the protagonist after the near-rape of her daughter, was often attributed to French herself, giving critics what they thought was proof of the author’s man-hating rage. But French said she did not hate men: “What I am opposed to is the notion that men are superior to me.”
Although the novel was not autobiographical, there was, she said, “nothing in (it) I’ve not felt”.
She was one of two daughters born in New York to Isabel and Charles Edwards. Her father, an engineer, “didn’t really exist as a presence in my life”, she said; her mother was the dominant force whose example taught her daughters “never to bow to authority”.
She married Robert French in 1950 while putting herself through college in New York. She graduated a year later with a BA in English literature. He wanted to be a writer, so she worked a series of what she called “paralyzing” office jobs to support him. He later became a lawyer. They had two children, and were divorced in 1967.
French taught at her alma mater, Hofstra University in New York, where she also wrote short stories while earning a masters degree in 1964.
She went to Harvard on a fellowship and in 1972 earned a doctorate in literature with a thesis on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. For the next four years she taught English at a Catholic college in Massachusetts.
Two events at the time helped radicalise her: reading Kate Millett’s feminist treatise ‘Sexual Politics’, and the 1971 gang-rape of her then 18-year old daughter, Jamie.
French championed the prosecution of the rapist, even though the district attorney tried to talk her into dropping the case. The rapist confessed after her daughter testified at the trial. He was sent to prison.
Noting once that contempt for women was “not an accident”, she began to develop her first novel.
Her goal, she said, was “to tell the story of what it is like to be a woman in our country in the middle of the 20th century”.
French went on to write five more novels, including ‘The Bleeding Heart’ (1980), ‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ (1987), ‘Our Father’ (1994) and ‘In The Name of Friendship’ (2006).
Her notification includes ‘Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals’ (1985) and ‘The War Against Women’ (1992). Her last major work, the four volume ‘From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women’, was published last year.