Even men who are not actively keeping women down, but are profiting from women’s position, or who don’t mind things being the way they are – they are responsible too.  – Marilyn French

Marilyn French was an American author and feminist scholar whose most prominent work was the classic feminist novel The Women’s Room. Marilyn was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929 as Marilyn Edwards. Marilyn recalled that her mother was the dominant parent in her childhood; she saw this as an early lesson in not bowing to male authority.

But her marriage to Robert French in 1950 was reportedly an unhappy one. Throughout their marriage, Marilyn set about educating herself, sometimes despite disapproval from her husband. She attended Hofstra College in 1951 to study literature and philosophy, and then after the birth of her two children, she returned to Hofstra to complete her Masters. When the couple divorced after seventeen years of marriage, Marilyn attended Harvard University to study for her Ph.D.

As an academic, Marilyn’s work concentrated on the construction of the patriarchy and women’s history. Additionally, her thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses was published to acclaim in 1976. During her early years as an academic, Marilyn attributed her growing awareness of feminism to her disappointment in her marriage, the rape of her then 18 year old daughter in 1971 and reading Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics.

In 1977, Marilyn published her most famous work The Women’s Room which contained the oft quoted remark ‘all men are rapists’ which is spoken by the novel’s protagonist. Influenced by Marilyn’s personal experiences, the novel follows Mira Ward who lives as submissive housewife in the 1950s before separating from her husband and going to study at Harvard. Whilst at University, Mira discovers the security and support of female friendship and feminism against the backdrop of sweeping social change.

The Women’s Room was hugely successful and influential, it has sold nearly 20 million copies and has been translated into over 10 languages. It is still praised today for its unflinching portrayal of physical and psychological violence which occurs in women’s day to day lives.

Following The Women’s Room, Marilyn went on to write six more novels which included The Bleeding Heart, Her Mother’s Daughter, Our Father, In the Name of Friendship, and her final novel, The Love Children, was published after her death. In addition to her fiction, Marilyn wrote many nonfiction pieces focusing on women’s history which include Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals and The War Against Women. However, what is often thought of as her most significant nonfiction work, From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, is a staggering four volume project and documented women’s lives from the earliest evidence of bones, flints and shards through to the twenty first century.

In her later years, French was hopeful about the development of feminism. She believed that she had seen social change and attitudes to women change during her lifetime but still stressed the need for continuing this progress. Marilyn French died at age 79 in Manhattan, New York in 2009.  

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Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara works in theatre and lives in London. She spends the majority of her time thinking about celebrity culture and the wives of 19th century politicians.

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June Hughes