Remembering Marilyn French

The late feminist author reminded women that "they were not alone and not crazy."

Published May 6, 2009 6:00PM (EDT)

On May 2, feminist writer and theorist Marilyn French died at the age of 79. Not someone to shy away from a challenge, French once declared, "My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world."

French, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., first gained notoriety with her 1977 debut novel, "The Women's Room," which follows the character Mira Ward, an American housewife in the 1950s, on her path to feminist awakening. Although a single line -- falsely attributed to French -- has lingered longest, "All men are rapists, and that's all they are," spoken by a character whose daughter has been gang-raped, the Guardian describes the book's deeper impact: "The novel spoke not just to French's contemporaries but also their daughters, who passed it hand to hand with the same enthusiasm they had shown four years earlier for Erica Jong's upbeat feminist novel, 'Fear of Flying.'"

Gloria Steinem spoke to the New York Times on Sunday and said of the book, "It was about the lives of women who were supposed to live the lives of their husbands, supposed to marry an identity rather than become one themselves, to live secondary lives ... It expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know that they were not alone and not crazy.”

Even as women made strides toward equality, French continued her campaign against patriarchy. The Telegraph describes her 1992 book, "The War Against Women," as "an attempt to debunk the idea that feminism had managed to free her sisters from their traditional yoke, addressing the subjugation of women by fundamentalist religions and patriarchal systems; sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace; and domestic violence, rape and incest."

Carol Jenkins, French's longtime friend and president of the Women's Media Center, wrote about first meeting French at a late 1970s women's event in Long Island, N.Y. She describes French as "breathtakingly brilliant, vibrant and sharp -- and outspoken in a way that was unusual in those days. Then, there were still many women who muted their opinions, smiled often, and perfected the skills of 'getting along.' I may have been one of them. Marilyn, on the other hand, was among first women I’d met who were 'having none of it.' The 'it' being a reflexively submissive attitude. Marilyn definitely left an impression."

By Katie Rolnick

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