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French was born in Brooklyn to E. Charles Edwards, an engineer, and Isabel Hazz Edwards, a department store clerk. In her youth, she was a journalist, writing a neighborhood newsletter. She played the piano and dreamed of becoming a composer. She received a bachelor's degree from Hofstra University (then Hofstra College) in 1951, in philosophy and English literature. Marilyn Edwards married Robert M. French Jr. in 1950 and supported him while he attended law school. The couple had two children. French also received a master's degree in English from Hofstra, in 1964. She divorced Robert French in 1967 and then pursued a doctorate at Harvard University, where she earned a Ph.D in 1972.
French's first serious publication, The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses, was her Harvard thesis.
In her work, French asserted that women's oppression is an intrinsic part of the male-dominated global culture. For instance, one of her first non-fiction works, Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals (1985), is a historical examination of the effects of patriarchy on the world. French took issue with the expectations of married women in the post-World War II era and became a leading, if controversial, opinion maker on gender issues who decried the patriarchal society she saw around her. "My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world," she once declared.
French's first and best-known novel, The Women's Room (1977), follows the lives of Mira and her friends in 1950s and 1960s America, including Val, a militant radical feminist. The novel portrays the details of the lives of women at this time and the feminist movement of this era in the United States. At one point in the book the character Val says, "all men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes."The Women's Room sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages.Gloria Steinem, a close friend, compared the impact of the book on the discussion surrounding women's rights to the one that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) had had on racial equality 25 years earlier.
Her most significant work in later life was From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. It was published in a Dutch translation in 1995 (in one volume of 1312 pages), but did not appear in English until 2002 and 2003 (published in three volumes by Mcarthur & Company), and then again in English in four volumes (published by The Feminist Press) in 2008. It is built around the premise that exclusion from the prevailing intellectual histories denied women their past, present and future. Despite carefully chronicling a long history of oppression, the last volume ends on an optimistic note, said Florence Howe, who recently retired as director of the publishing house. "For the first time women have history," she said of Ms. French's work. "The world changed and she helped change it."
While French was pleased by significant gains made by women in the three decades since her landmark novel, The Women's Room, she was also just as quick to point out lingering deficiencies in gender equality.
Personal life, health, and death
She married Robert M. French Jr., in 1950. They had two children. The couple divorced in 1967.
French was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1992. This experience was the basis for her book A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998). She survived cancer and later died from heart failure at age 79, on May 2, 2009, in Manhattan.
The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses. Harvard University Press. May 1976. ISBN978-0674078536.
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World (2008) in four volumes:
From Eve to Dawn, A History of the Women in the World, Volume I: Origins: From Prehistory to the First Millennium. Foreword by Margaret Atwood. The Feminist Press at CUNY. April 1, 2008. ISBN978-1558615656.
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume III: Infernos and Paradises, The Triumph of Capitalism in the 19th Century. Foreword by Margaret Atwood. April 1, 2008. ISBN978-1558615830.
From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Volume IV: Revolutions and Struggles for Justice in the 20th Century. Foreword by Margaret Atwood. The Feminist Press at CUNY. April 1, 2008. ISBN978-1558615847.
The Love Children (Classic Feminist Writers). The Feminist Press at CUNY. September 1, 2009. ASINB00305CYI8. (published posthumously)
In popular culture
Marilyn French is mentioned in ABBA's song "The Day Before You Came" (1982), in the lyric: "I must have read a while, the latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style".
^ abcdFrench, Marilyn (2005). In the Name of Friendship. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. p. 383. ISBN978-1-55861-520-5.
^French, Marilyn (1977). The Women's Room. Book 5. Chapter 19. ISBN0-345-35361-7. -- [...] Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes.
^French, Marilyn & Franken, Viviane e.a. (Translator) (1995). Een vrouwelijk geschiedenis van de wereld (in Dutch). Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)