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Marilyn French (1929-2009)


American author and feminist scholar, who argued in her study The War Against Women (1992), that women's suppression is an intrinsic part of the male-dominated global culture. Marilyn French first gained fame with her debut novel The Women's Room (1977), which became an international bestseller. French's readers have said that her books have left them "with things to think about far into the future," and helped them to understand "why the feminist movement came to be" and "refuse to mindlessly accept any long-standing institution for the sake of tradition."

"Today, women are educated in most industrial countries, and can work in a variety (but not all) areas. But male superiors, reluctant to advance them, rarely place them on a track to higher office. In nonindustrial or developing countries, women hold about 6 percent of government posts; in most European nations, they hold 5 to 11 percent.'' (from The War Against Women)

Marilyn French was born in New York into a poor family of Polish descent. Her father, E. Charles Edwards, was an engineer, and mother, Isabel Hazz Edwards, a department-store clerk. As a child, French was a voracious reader. She also wrote from a very early age. Though she was interested in philosophy, she studied literature at Hofstra College (now University) in Long Island, taking her a B.A. in 1951. The previous year she had married Robert M. French Jr., a lawyer, whom she supported through law school. 

French began to write seriously in 1957, but had only few stories and articles published in nearly twenty years. In 1964 she earned her M.A. and between the years 1964 and 1968 she was an instructor at Hofstra University. After raising two children and divorce, she continued her studies at Harvad University, taught English at Hofstra and received her Ph.D. in 1972. From 1972 to 1976 she was a teacher at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

French's first book was her thesis on James Joyce (1976). A year later it was followed by The Women's Room. The biting social commentary became a cultural phenomenon, was translated into some twenty languages, and made into a television movie in 1980. Its central character is Mira Ward, whose life is traced from her childhood to middle age. Mira builds her life after divorce and finds that there is no balance between the sexes. "The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women weree simply not permitted to go. It was odd. Why? she wondered. Women were so unimportant anyway, why would anyone bother to keep them out?" Additional views offer other voices, whom Mira encounters on her voyage of self-discovery. The success of The Women's Room enabled French to write and publish without doubt and anxiety about money.

The battle between sexes was again the main subject in French's second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980). This time the story focused on a middle-aged woman, who has a love affair with a married American man on her sabbatical leave in England. The relationship of a submissive woman and a dominant man is doomed. In her non-fiction scholarly book Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981) French examined the polarity between the masculine and feminine principles. She argued that Shakespeare "never abandoned belief in male legitimacy or horror of female sexuality."

Her Mother's Daughter (1987) was a story about four generations of women, and the bond between mothers and daughters. The narrator, Anastasia, is determined to avoid the oppression of her forbears and the self-denial of her mother, Bella, but she is haunted by that collective past. "I don't know any successful woman with love in her life. Men can manage it, but not women. Disproportion in numbers, and besides, men are too threatened by independent women. They can always find one who will built up their ego. And I, we, independent women, can't find a man who doesn't need continual bolstering." (from Her Mother's Daughter, 1987) The characters of Bella and Frances were based on French's own mother and grandmother. Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals (1986) was a series of essays on the history of the treatment of women by men in the past 2500 years. The book was criticized for romanticizing matriarchal cultures.

The War Against Women (1992) was a study of oppression and violence of different institutions and individuals in patriarchal world. According to French, the violence has become more threatening as an answer to Feminist movement. "Men's need to dominate women may be based in their own sense of marginality or emptiness; we do not know its root, and men are making no effort to discover it. But men's long-standing war against women is now, in reaction to women's movements across the world, taking on a new ferocity, new urgency, and new veneers.'' French argued that physical, economic, and political attack on women is an intrinsic part of today's male-dominated global society. All men are rapist and that's all they are, was her conclusion. When French promoted the book in Ireland, she met President Mary Robinson. The meeting horrified conservative groups.

In Our Father (1995) the presidential advisor Stephen Upton has suffered a stroke, and his daughters gather in his mansion to await his death or recovery. Gradually they learn one another's secrets; all the four daughters have been raped by their father when they were girls. My Summer with George (1996) was a story of a summer love affair. The protagonist is Hermione Beldame, a women's romance writer who meets George Johnson, a s outhern newspaper editor, and starts to fantasize about her future with George. A Season in Hell (1998) was French's personal account of her journey through cancer treatment - she had been smoking since she was fifteen. At the age of 61 she was told she had metastasized esophageal cancer, and she was offered no hope. Determined to "remain a human being, a thinker and a writer who was temporarily ill", French won her battle and a series of other medical crises and negative treatment from doctors. On one level, her illness became part of her struggle against male insensitivity: "One would think that anyone over thirty must know pain, but in fact, men in our society are encouraged to deny pain and suffering, and medical schools tend to encourage such denial. As a result, many doctors, women as well as men, become brittle and closed off. Of course, they suffer - that is inevitable - but they don't let themselves feel their suffering, so derive no knowledge from it and cannot use it. And what we deny ourselves, we deny others."

From Eve to Dawn (2002) was more than 1,700 pages long global history of women, in which the emphasis was on how men have oppressed women. Can a species survive, French once asked, when half its members systematically assault the other? When The New York Times (September 3, 2006) said on French's sixth novel, In the Name of Friendship (2006), that "this book feels like a journey back in time", the author answered, "it appears that the new position of the editors of the Book Review is that feminism is an illegitimate subject for literature." French died of heart failure in 2009, at the age of 79, in Manhattan. At the time of her death she was working on a memoir.

For further reading: Fictional Feminism: How American Bestsellers Affect the Movement for Women’s Equality by Kim A. Loudermilk (2004); Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth by Anna Wilson (2001); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by Dave Mote (1997); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985) - Central themes in French's books: feminism, the battle of sexes; see also Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedman, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing

Selected bibliography:

  • The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses, 1976
  • The Women's Room, 1977
    - Naisten huone (translated into Finnish by Kyllikki Villa, 1979)
    - TV film 1980, prod. Warner Bros. Television, teleplay Carol Sobieski, dir. Glenn Jordan, starring Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst, Patty Duke, Kathryn Harrold, Tovah Feldshuh
  • The Bleeding Heart, 1980
    - Vertavuotava sydän (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1980)
  • Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1981
  • Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, 1985
    - Vallan tuolla puolen (suom. Anja Haglund, Maija Sarvala, Kyllikki Villa, 1986)
  • Her Mother's Daughter, 1987
  • The War Against Women, 1992
    - Sota naisia vastaan (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1993)
  •  Our Father, 1993
  • My Summer with George, 1996
    - Kesämies (suom. Paula Karlsson), 1998
  • A Season in Hell: A Memoir, 1998
    - Kausi helvetissä (suom. Eila Salminen, 1999)
  • Almost Touching the Skies, 2000 (introduction)
  • Women's History of the World, 2000
  • From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in Three Volumes, 2002-2008 (4 vols., foreword by Margaret Atwood)
  • In the Name of Friendship, 2006 (afterword Stephanie Genty)
  • The Love Children, 2009

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