It speaks to the divisions Marilyn French chronicled that her death, on May 2 at 79, left women of certain vintages bereft but seemed to go largely unnoticed by their male contemporaries. THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE: that was the pledge on the dust jacket of French's 1977 first novel, The Women's Room. It was decried by some critics as militant, man-hating propaganda, but its themes of female solidarity and empowerment didn't seem hugely radical to my blithe circle of undergraduate friends. French would later define feminism as "the belief that women matter as much as men do." My generation took this for granted but found a bittersweet compulsion to the tale of Mira, a 1950s housewife forced to challenge male expectations--and her own.
The narrative mirrored aspects of French's life. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1929, she, like Mira, divorced and pursued an academic career. French's daughter was sexually assaulted; there is a rape in the novel. "All men are rapists and that's all they are"--the outburst by one of her characters became conflated with French's nuanced views.
She penned polemics, literary criticism, a memoir and further novels, but her debut made the biggest impact. "There's probably a huge need for an updated Women's Room, for all those 20-something girls who say they want to be feminists but no longer have the words," says writer Stella Duffy. French's greatest gift was to help women articulate their world.