NEW YORK — Marilyn French, the writer and feminist whose novel The Women’s Room sold more than 20 million copies and transformed her into a leading figure in the women’s movement, has died at 79.
French died of heart failure Saturday at a Manhattan hospital, said Carol Jenkins, a friend and president of New York’s Women’s Media Center.
Her 1977 first novel, The Women’s Room transformed the college teacher into a feminist leader, whose aim was “to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world,” she once said.
The landmark novel, which was translated into 20 languages, details the journey to independence of a 1950s housewife who gets divorced and goes to graduate school.
The book mirrored aspects of French’s own life experiences, including the rape of her daughter.
She was called anti-male after a character in the novel says: “All men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes.”
“Those words came from a character, and she was not a man-hater, and never said that in her personal life,” Jenkins said. “But she wanted men to accept their part in the domination of women.”
Still, the novel “connected with millions of women who had no way before of claiming their anger and discontent,” Jenkins said.
The male subjugation of women is the main theme of French’s novels, essays, literary criticism and her four-volume, nonfictional From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women.
A Brooklyn native, French graduated from Long Island’s Hofstra University with a master’s degree, studying philosophy and English literature. She taught there in the 1960s.
After her divorce, she earned a doctorate from Harvard and was an English professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
A smoker, she survived a battle with esophageal cancer in 1992 that included a 10-day coma she described in Season in Hell: A Memoir.
Her last novel is to be published this fall and she was also working on a memoir.