Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Marilyn French, RIP

Marilyn French died on Saturday at the age of 79. The Washington Post obituary calls her a controversial feminist author:

Marilyn French, 79, a feminist whose 1977 debut novel "The Women's Room" sold more than 20 million copies and who became a prominent thinker on women's history, died of a heart ailment May 2 at a New York City hospital.

Ms. French, an erudite and angry writer, blamed men for the condition of women throughout the centuries, a stance that brought her sharply divided critical attention. Although many feminists lauded her for writing one of the most influential novels of the emerging feminist movement, others outside the movement charged that her books were belligerent and artless.

"In a way, 'The Women's Room' was, to a particular part of the women's movement, what Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' was to the civil rights community," feminist Gloria Steinem said yesterday. "She was always so far ahead because she wasn't writing about reforms around the edges. Her theories were big and exciting, and they definitely appeal to younger women who hear about them."

The novel centered on a repressed young woman described by one critic as "expectant in the 40s, submissive in the 50s, enraged in the 60s . . . in the 70s independent but somehow unstrung, not yet fully composed after all" she'd been through. Partly autobiographical, the book was acclaimed by women eager to see their lives in print, and it was translated into 20 languages.

Some critics claimed that in the book Ms. French was overtly anti-male and provided as evidence one of her characters who asserts: "All men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes." Ms. French shrugged off the critics.

"They said I was a man hater, and I never defended myself against that, because I do believe that men are to blame for the condition of women," Ms. French told London's Guardian newspaper in 2006. "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. I don't hate men . . . but men are responsible for the situation of women."

That piece of evidence is an odd one, because it's a fictional character saying something. If all authors were held responsible for every utterance by their fictional characters we'd have loads and loads of controversial authors.

Or to turn it around, what about all those hard-boiled detective novels where the characters hate all women as evil temptresses? You rarely see that give the authors a controversial label (though I think it should).

In any case, I have a future post stewing on the whole question of who the enemies of feminism are and what the position of men might be in all that. It's a topic that requires much sharper and clearer handling than I'm up to right now.

French's most famous book is The Women's Room. The title refers to the bathroom or the toilet, and it is deeply symbolic of the book, on many different levels. The book is still well worth reading.