Marilyn French: Feminist writer whose novel 'The Women's Room' proved profoundly influential

Deborah Orr
Wednesday 06 May 2009 00:00 BST

In the flesh Marilyn French was all calm and kindliness, an extraordinarily meditative presence.

Interviewing her on the occasion of the publication of her 1992 exploration of female subjugation around the world, The War Against Women, I found her almost inscrutable, because her own tranquillity was at such odds with the storm of frustration and anger her writing provoked in so many of those who read it.

No one can read The War Against Women, or any other work that attempts simply to document the facts about the uniform appearance of an overwhelming majority of women in all cultures at the bottom of the economic and political heap, without understanding that life's adversities invariably impact on females more profoundly than they impact on males. French felt angry on behalf of all those women. But despite her claims to being "an angry person", she was too practical to indulge in emotional pyrotechnics when there was work to be done.

Yet French had good reason to be angry on her own account. She might even have courted the frustrated, directionless self-immolation that sometimes comes of being angry with oneself. At 21, in 1950, in the final year of an English Literature degree at Hofstra College, Long Island, she had delivered herself up to a husband, Robert French, and had abandoned her own nascent career to work as an office clerk, just as her own mother had done, to support her man as he continued with law school. Later, his own academic ambitions achieved with this great assistance from his wife, Robert French did not return the favour. Instead, he attempted to control and discourage his partner at every turn, as she attempted to continue with her studies and to write creatively, as she had done since she was 10 years old. She was trapped.

Many women who found themselves in French's situation did and do become angry, their anger taking its main toll on themselves, in the form of depression. Yet at a time when women did not have the words to talk together about their feelings of isolation, French read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, published in France in 1949 and shortly afterwards in the US. French maintained throughout her life an allegiance to de Beauvoir's analysis of how men's tendency to view women as the mysterious other, a group of outsiders whose little ways could not be understood, led inexorably to the formation of patriarchy.

But in her own personal situation French also recognised de Beauvoir's description of women who describe themselves as writers, but never publish anything. She resolved not to be that way, and by the time Betty Friedan's more immediate analysis of lives like French's own life as a wife and mother of two, The Feminine Mystique, was published in 1963, French was more than ready to identify the truth in Friedan's arguments. She divorced her husband in 1967, completed her PhD at Harvard in 1972, and published her most celebrated book, The Women's Room, in 1977.

The Woman's Room was a large, intense slab of semi-autobiographical fiction, focusing on the life and experiences of Mira Ward, who had married young, divorced her controlling husband after starting a family, and found in academia a different life, shaped by the support of feminist friends. Its huge success followed similar bestseller status for Erica Jong's novel, Fear of Flying, which been published in 1973 to similarly voracious demand. Theory had found a popular form, and this allowed all sorts of women to take part in "consciousness raising" within daily conversation. I remember being a student at 18, and talking with a friend about how easy it was to tell if a women had read The Women's Room or not. The novel changed people's outlook that profoundly, that obviously and that immediately.

Crucially, the teenage daughter of the most radical character in the novel had been gang-raped. This too was a semi-autobiographical strand, because French's own daughter, Jamie, had also been raped in 1971, when she was 18. That character, Val, declared at one point in The Women's Room that: "All men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, their codes." That first bleak phrase has become notorious, an uncompromising example of how feminism can make men the mysterious other as well, the mysterious, frightening, marauding, pitiless other that cannot be reasoned with. Unfortunately, the media's great obsession with such extreme sound-bites helped to make feminists a mysterious other themselves.

None of French's many other books had the impact of The Women's Room. Neither her fiction nor her non-fiction passed into the vernacular in the way that The Women's Room, and that particular phrase, did. Yet, French was not a divisive figure. She did not hate men, or think they were "all rapists". She was pleased by the progress she had witnessed in her lifetime, in understanding and support between the sexes, and especially in the greater role that she saw many men assuming in the upbringing of their children. Even her husband, she suggested with hindsight, would now be recognised as a man who had a mental problem, rather than one who was responding in the way that a man should when confronted with an unbiddable wife.

French had the wisdom to understand that "men" were not "the problem", but that instead there was a more subtle and complex difficulty with the way in which men and women related to each other in general. Rightly, she argued that feminism had created a backlash, which in some respects and in some cases, had made the plight of vulnerable women very much worse. Sadly, those more profound and sad observations were not as readily communicable as the anger.

Marilyn Edwards, author: born Brooklyn, New York 21 November 1929; married 1950 Robert French (one son, one daughter); died New York 2 May 2009.

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