RIP Marilyn French

// 4 May 2009

Feminist novelist Marilyn French died this weekend, aged 79.

The New York Times’obituary says she died of a heart attack:

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.

One of her most recent works was From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, which she was working on for two decades along with a team of researchers.

I’ve got to admit I’ve not actually read any of French’s work, so I can’t really say much more about it myself, but Cath Elliot has posted a book review of The Women’s Room, from when she read the novel for the first time aged 15.

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 4 May 2009 at 10:36 pm

I remember reading The Women’s Room when I was about 16 or so – it had a huge impact on me.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 5 May 2009 at 12:01 am

I have read Marilyn French’s book The War on Women and also Beyond Morals both of which were very well written and influenced me immensely. The War On Women documented for me, the various ways women over the centuries have been constantly dismissed, devalued and ignored by men simply because women are female.

I have also read From Eve To Dawn – yes all four volumes and whilst some criticism was levied at Ms. French the subject matter was an overview not one of detailed analysis relating to women’s lives globally. Where Ms. French did succeed in her 4 volume of From Eve To Dawn was in providing a documentation of how differing cultures and countries all engaged in subordinating and controlling women. The methods used were/are different but the end result is still the same – namely men are supposedly superior and women’s place was/is to serve men’s interests and needs.

It is not surprising therefore that Ms. French was called a ‘man-hater.’ Ms. French’s work has assisted me to gain a better understanding of how patriarchy operates and for that I thank her.

Mark // Posted 5 May 2009 at 12:43 pm

I read “A Woman’s Room” many years ago. Well, actually, I didn’t finish it. To be honest, though I could empathise with the ‘heroine’ initially, I eventually grew tired of the constant horrors that were heaped on her. I realise that they were a technique by which the novelist introduces a plot device. However, perhaps shamefully, I wanted to shake Mira to stop her making yet another mistake.

That said, perhaps I was reading it a decade too late (the 80s) and women were (one hoped) less likely to allow themselves to be put-upon than in the 70s. Maybe “A Woman’s Room” had something to do with that change of attitude so, for that reason alone, it is an important and influential book. Though my overriding memory is one of irritation, I’m sure it did sensitise me to some of the inequalities that did exist (and some which still do) between the sexes.

Madeleine // Posted 5 May 2009 at 12:49 pm

I first read The Women’s Room and The War on Women when I was in my late teens, and both made a huge impression on me. On the back cover of The Women’s Room it said “this novel changes lives” and that was true. It did. Marilyn French never shrank from telling the unflinching, uncompromising truth as she saw it. She never sold out in the way people like Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing and Fay Weldon have. She never disappointed me and I always felt I could trust her and her writing.

Yes, Marilyn, rest in peace. You deserve to. Your writings will live on and continue to influence future generations. That is a great legacy.

NorthernJess // Posted 5 May 2009 at 1:51 pm

I was handed a copy of The Woman’s Room by my mother when I was 16 with the instructions to ‘just read it’. French’s writing made me a feminist because until I read ‘The Woman’s Room’ I had never been so angry about how women were, and still are, treated. I hope that her passing can make more women pick up a copy of this book, which I have been trying to get my female friends to read for years. RIP, you were amazing.

sianmarie // Posted 5 May 2009 at 2:36 pm

the women’s room was a brave and daring book, i read it when i was 17 and it has stayed with me. she shall be missed.

Denise // Posted 5 May 2009 at 2:40 pm

Jess McCabe! Editor of The F-Word and you haven’t read ‘The Women’s Room’ or ‘The War Against Women’? Shock horror.Take some time out of your busy life and remedy that immediately!

Marilyn French was also great because she constantly remarked on how it wasn’t true that younger women weren’t interested in feminism, and that lots of them were doing great work in many countries, practical work which was desperately needed. She said that she believed in feminism and that every human being was equal, no one had the right to authority over anyone else, and that the principle of patriarchy, power, had to be replaced with the principle of pleasure.

She started submitting stuff to publishers after reading a chapter in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ about women who called themselves writers but never wrote anything!

Jess McCabe // Posted 5 May 2009 at 2:55 pm

@Denise I know (although I can’t have read everything ;-) ! I will read it now, though.

Or, well, add it to my ever-increasing book pile.

Cockney Hitcher // Posted 5 May 2009 at 7:37 pm

‘The Women’s Room’ made me feel so ANGRY on behalf of all the women who had been treated even half as badly as the women in the story. It had a powerful effect on me.

Katie // Posted 5 May 2009 at 8:57 pm

The Woman’s Room influenced me more than any book ever has done. RIP Marilyn, I only hope you carry on influencing young girls the way you did me!

Liz Denham // Posted 6 May 2009 at 12:41 am

A colleague recommended ‘Women’s Room’ to me in 80s. However I was TOO busy. Then on a camping trip, I picked up a copy of ‘Bleeding Heart’ from a little country newsagent. I began reading it before going to the camp site and I can tell you, I couldn’t wait to leave to leave and get back to the book. I read it all night, absolutely couldn’t put it down and talk about an epiphany!!!! It was like my brain had been taken out and shaken. How could I have been so stupid and so blind. Thank you MF for the ‘awakening’.

mary // Posted 8 May 2009 at 10:15 am

Can we also acknowledge that The Women’s Room has lots of icky race issues, though? Pretty much all the Black men in the story exist so that the white women can test their liberal principles. I can’t even remember whether there are any Black women.

Reading that book was a real eye-opener for me in terms of understanding why so many African-American women were really, really pissed of with mainstream white American feminism.

Sabre // Posted 8 May 2009 at 2:42 pm

I’m really pleased that Mary put up that comment. The Women’s Room was very good and an eye-opener but I was put off by the racism. There were no black women characters that I can remember (although it has been a while since I read it) and the black men were treated, as Mary points out, like liberal novelties. When the girl is raped by a black male stranger, the girl’s black male friend says that it’s how black men get revenge against white people for racism – raping white women. He’s then alienated from the group. So what’s the message, white men are sexist and black men are sexist AND racist? So doubly bad? Lock up your white daughters, the bad black man’s coming to get them!

Other flippant comments throughout the book also highlight more casual racism. One particular line stands out in my memory:

‘Niggers, like chinks, look very much alike’

– because it was simultaneously racist to two groups of people. There are plenty of others.

It’s worth remembering that this book did good for feminism but did nothing for stopping racism. It was books like these that made coloured women feel alienated from the feminist movement, and unfortunately many non-white women still feel that way about feminism today, in the US and UK.

If we heap praise on The Women’s Room and brush under the carpet the racist aspects because it’s a niggling inconvenience that we’d rather forget then that’s not great for feminism and dealing with racial privileges.

NorthernJess // Posted 8 May 2009 at 3:21 pm

Having just re-read it this week then yes the racism is appauling! It shocked me that I had never actually picked up on it before. Wonder why that was?

Sabre // Posted 8 May 2009 at 4:43 pm

@ NorthernJess

I don’t know about you, but when I read the book I had to work not to give up in some places. I pretty much ignored the racism as best I could. I think people do that a lot when they really want to enjoy or get through something. Also with books and films etc of a certain era it’s easy to tell ourselves ‘oh well that’s what it was like in the 50’s (or whenever)’. I have to do the same trick when I watch Gone With the Wind!

While I’ve got my rant-hat on; it is also very middle-class focused. I think most working class women never usually had time to be a bored housewife, divorce their husbands for a fat payout and then go to Harvard to live the dream.

I don’t believe every book should reflect the entire population but I think some perspective helps; it’s a must-read book but it has its downsides in reflecting a very white, middle-class view of the world.

Chiara // Posted 9 May 2009 at 1:15 pm

I so knew this would happen! Who criticises “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for not being feminist enough?

RIP indeed, Marilyn, you white, middle-class racist!

Jess McCabe // Posted 9 May 2009 at 1:29 pm

@Chiara I haven’t read any of Marilyn French’s books – but I think we can both recognise the memory of a writer who has clearly been pivotal for many, many women, but still be critical and realistic about her work.

(I’ve not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I’m sure that a discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legacy would very likely include some gender critique. For example, on Wikipedia it says the book helped to introduce the ‘Mammy’ stereotype.)

Personally, I think it’s important not to shy away from these things…

Sylvie // Posted 9 May 2009 at 2:55 pm

Good on you F word commenters! Marilyn French the great feminist just turned into Marilyn French the great white racist. And her main character in The Women’s Room, Mira, suddenly turns into a spoilt middle class bitch who lived a dream life at Harvard!

Who knows, Marilyn was probably homophobic and transphobic too. See what else you can call her out on. It’s okay – she’s dead now and can’t defend herself!


Jess McCabe // Posted 9 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

Sylvie, I don’t think anyone has portrayed French as “the great white racist”. People have simply been giving their own reflections on one of her books.

I’m sure this is not a new criticism of The Women’s Room, and no-one has been waiting until she died to stick the boot in.

Fran // Posted 9 May 2009 at 10:02 pm

@Sylvie — Like Jess said, it’s possible to appreciate a feminist work without being completely uncritical of its more problematic elements. I don’t understand the defensiveness — no-one’s said that French’s work was irredeemable and that no-one should ever read it. Like it or not, feminism has huge problems with race and class bias, and if we shy away from them it’s never going to represent all women.

Cockney Hitcher // Posted 9 May 2009 at 10:28 pm

Agreed with Jess and Fran.

‘The Women’s Room’ had a profound effect on me and I would definitely recommend it to others – but to treat it as beyond criticism is bizarre IMO. There are loads of books that I love and think are great, but which contain aspects of which I am critical.

terese // Posted 9 May 2009 at 11:17 pm

Sylvie, what is contemptible is that commenters outlined how the racism of the book is problematic, made them feel uncomfortable and alienated non-white feminists, you basically told them they should shut up.

This is not a new critique of the book, so it’s hardly a case of ‘lets attack her now that she’s not here to defend herself’. It is an acknowledgement that while French’s work was influential and groundbreaking in some respects it was also problematic for others and one of the reasons, as Sabre points out, women of colour feel alienated from white dominated feminist movements. To not acknowledge this aspect is to perpetuate this exact problem.

Jane // Posted 10 May 2009 at 3:12 pm

“I think most working class women never usually had time to be a bored housewife, divorce their husbands for a fat payout and then go to Harvard to live the dream.”

The characters in the book are not generic bored housewives. All the women in Mira’s circle are trapped by marriage and motherhood, not ‘bored’. There’s Theresa who has eight children, an an unemployed husband – she has terrible PND and drowns her child in a moment of madness, ending up in the state mental asylum. There’s another character who pretends she wants to find a job for fun, but only because she’s trying to protect her husband who has lost his. He walks out, leaving her with piles of debts. She survives and gets through. Adele thinks her husband is having an affair but she has five children, and can’t afford to leave. Yes Mira gets a payout but to lump all the characters into the ‘bored white middle class women’ bracket is an affront to Marilyn French’s writing talent.

I read the book when I was fifteen and what came across most strongly was that before the first wave of feminism, once a woman was married, regardless of her husband’s income – her life just stopped. Ground to a halt. And that regardless of how ‘well’ your husband is doing, as one character points out: ‘If they flub up you’re finished’ because you had no means of earning a living on your own.

Jess McCabe // Posted 10 May 2009 at 11:34 pm

@Jane Thanks for providing some more info on the book.

Jane // Posted 11 May 2009 at 10:28 am

Jess, you’re very welcome.

My American mother in law who graduated with a first from Harvard, in the early 60s, was told that her degree means that she would now ‘get a better class of husband’. And she got married and lived in the suburbs and just as Gloria Steinham later identified, started thinking: ‘Is this it?’ My mil once told me that The Women’s Room was completely and utterly true for women of her generation.

There’s a moment in the book that stayed with me forever. Adele with the five children and another on the way, is rowing with her small daughter about what’s for dinner. She won’t eat spaghetti. Husband comes home and playing with daughter announces he hates spaghetti too. Adele upset shouts that she’s trying to keep to a budget and ‘thanks for undermining me’. Husband looks at her and says that she’s looking a bit flushed and she’s obviously been ‘boozing it up with her girlfriends’ and walks upstairs to change to go out, leaving her with the mess and five unfed kids. ‘Her throat was full of tears. Injustice . . injustice’.

It’s a brilliant read – truly.

Sabre // Posted 11 May 2009 at 2:06 pm

@ Jane

Thanks for your comments. You’re right, I was generalising unfairly and being a bit bitchy. They weren’t just bored housewives.

Like you, I find that certain parts of the book will probably always stay with me. For me, the most memorable part came early on. It’s before Mira gets married and goes to a party where she is saved by a male friend from a group of men who (I think) wanted to rape her because she came to the party single and danced with them. She realises this is how her life is; that if she doesn’t have a husband she will always be seen as fair game for men, even is she isn’t interested in them. She will never just be seen as herself. That was the most poignant part for me as, with hindsight, it summed up the whole tone of the book – a woman was like nothing unless she was married or somehow endorsed by a man.

@ terese

Thanks for the support! I wanted to fairly criticise the book for the racism without totally undermining it or Marilyn French. I really liked The Womens Room, and although racism detracts from it, it is still a powerful book well worth reading.

@ Jess McCabe

You should read it! Lol

NorthernJess // Posted 12 May 2009 at 3:25 pm

Completly true we only see what we want to see first time round! Have to say my favourite bit (which got to me, as I have spent the night before doing just the same) was when Mira moves to Belle Reve (sp) and is cleaning one of the twenty bathrooms or whatever, cleaning up the wee that the boys have sprayed everywhere and remembers how she married Norm so she wouldn’t HAVE to do that! I now flatly refuse to clean my toilet floor, it isn’t my piss on it and I don’t get him to wipe out my mooncups.

Gary Frost // Posted 22 November 2009 at 9:06 pm

oi right…just bin reading your writings on MARILYN FRENCH.Im now over half way through BEYOND POWER…..ITS JUST BRILLIANT. I wanted to know more about her,so I turned on the computer.SHE DIED IN APRIL !Wot ever any one sez about her,and she should be looked at from all points of view,NO ONE IS ALLWAYS RIGHT,there aint no right or wrong any way….you know wot I mean.I just wanted to speak about how her books have made me feel.When I first read THE WOMANS ROOM,wot seems like a life time ago,IT TOTALY WOKE ME UP.Reading BEYOND POWER now, its like…WAYKIE WAYKIE,GETUPOFF YER ARSE ! Its inspiring,eye opening,educational,ANGRYand in parts FUNNY ! TAKE NO HEROS ONLY some one once sung.

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