by Carol Jenkins
A brilliant feminist theorist, her 1977 novel, The Women’s Room, connected with millions of women who had no way before of claiming their anger and discontent. And, as Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins tells us, Marilyn French was a tender and caring friend.
May 4, 2009
My friend Marilyn French was a rare blend of genius and grace. A Queens, New York, girl of modest beginnings, she became one of our leading feminist theorists, her work read worldwide. Both as a scholar and novelist, she brandished a razor sharp writing instrument on the patriarchy, but privately she was gentle and funny. And, oh my, was she smart.
The first time I saw Marilyn French—in the late 70s—we shared the stage at a women’s event on Long Island, both of us invited to deliver remarks. She was a bona fide international celebrity—famed for her novel The Women’s Room, which perfectly captured the quest of the modern feminist movement. I was a local news anchor, still new in my career, a new mother. She was 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.
It was some years between my first introduction to Marilyn French on that Long Island stage—and becoming her friend. That happened in the late 80s when our mutual friend Gloria Steinem invited Marilyn, Esther Broner, the writer and ritualist, and me to dinner. We sat down at seven—and when at four in the morning we realized we didn’t want the conversation to end, formed what we soon named “The Coven.” For the next 20 years we met at least four times a year—on the days of the solstice and equinox—to tell each other about the state of our lives and have it reflected back to us. We created some rituals of our own: waving magic wands and tribal feathers. It was fun, but it was also serious work.
Marilyn was always the clear-eyed one. Not so sentimental as the rest of us—nor patient with the holes we dug for ourselves around our children, parents and spouses. Marilyn could be counted on to ask, “And what about you?” She was frustrated that the publishing world had turned away from her kind of serious work, but she always had a new book. She adored her daughter Jamie and son Rob—she had raised two of the sweetest human beings alive. We will always keep a place in our coven for Marilyn, with a magic wand at the ready, should she be tempted to join in.
And we will guarantee that Marilyn’s work lives on. She was dedicated to making sure women understood their compromised position, and that men could see their part in the domination—historically and currently. She denied that made her a man-hater, and never altered her position.
Her first novel, The Women’s Room, articulating the feminist revolution of the 50s and 60s, became a classic, with more than 20 million copies in print around the world. It will be re-issued this year. She told The Guardian in 2006, when asked if feminism was dying: “What is going on now is a huge, unstoppable feminist movement. But it’s going on in little villages in Africa, in South America and India, and it’s ordinary, illiterate women sitting up and saying, ‘I’m a human being, and I have a life.’” There are seven other novels. My favorite is Her Mother’s Daughter, a semi-autobiographical exploration of several generations of women in one family. Her last novel, The Love Children, will be published posthumously in September. With her Harvard PhD, she took on no less than Shakespeare and James Joyce in her non-fiction work. She was intent that women’s history be documented.
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals reinterpreted world history through a feminist perspective. For 15 years she worked on what became the four-volume From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women, published in this country by The Feminist Press. It’s an extraordinary 2,000-page (edited down from the 10,000 pages submitted) exploration of the condition of being a woman in the world—from the beginning of time. It belongs in every woman’s library.
So does her A Season in Hell, the story of her fight with esophageal cancer that began in 1992. She held the disease in checkmate for 15 years of incapacitating pain and increasing fragility, writing and reading voraciously through it. The early days of treatment were bad: I remember an entry on the calendar near her hospital bed—Marilyn had been in a coma, but now she was coming around. The first sign of real hope was that she had written: “Today I saw my own mind for the first time.”
A true writer’s writer, she wrote prodigiously, every day. Her memory was almost photographic. We marveled that she had written hundreds of pages of her memoir—and hadn’t gotten past her teenage years. We were all in deep respect of the quantity and quality of the work. She got a laugh out of my sitting surreptitiously at her desk, touching the papers there, hoping somehow that the rush, the power of her words would be transmitted through my fingers. She read everything, but was in love with mysteries. She swooped through dozens a month and passed them on to her friends by the shopping bag full when she was done.
The last time I saw Marilyn was March 21st—at the shower for my daughter’s baby. She had come to bestow, with Gloria and Esther, my coven-mates, her good wishes for the baby girl we knew we were expecting. She drew a big, appreciative laugh when she offered, in her wise and knowing way, “This child shall be blessed with every known blessing, every known good on earth. What she will do with it, who knows? But we tried.”
Marilyn had witnessed, recorded, interpreted, and predicted the condition of women in the world for most of her life. I can’t say that near the end she was overly optimistic about our progress and our future. But once again, Marilyn left the lasting impression.
And, the Goddess knows, she tried.