Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Marilyn French 1929-2009

Marilyn French has died at age 79. Her novel, The Women's Room (1977) was a major bestselling sensation. We all read it, even my grandmother. It was like the radical feminist Peyton Place, finally assigning the blame where it belongs.

The first part of the amazing novel mirrors accounts by male writers such as John Updike and John Cheever. They wrote about suburban New England life from the affluent white male perspective. French's protagonist Mira, it seemed, could be one of their wives, writing about what the women were doing while the men were away in their offices, on the golf courses, with their mistresses, in the city. This was the other half of the story, the one we didn't get. The women's version. (And in the telling, we suddenly realized: there has always been a women's version that we have not heard, a mute reflection throughout history.)

The second part of the novel concerns Mira's feminist awakening, which is electrifying. She returns to college (Harvard, where French obtained her Ph.D.) and sees that female students have scratched out "Ladies Room" on the restroom door, and have written instead THE WOMEN'S ROOM. Mira stares at the sign, considering the changed meaning, and knows that everything will now be very different for her. As it was for all of us.

In the late 70s, it was not uncommon to see the word "Ladies" scratched out on various bathroom doors, from New York to Berkeley, and the word WOMEN'S in its place. (Who you callin a lady? The hell with that shit.) It was a special welcome, extended to feminists: other feminists have been here before you.

I remember how happy I was, whenever I saw the words.

The Women's Room was made into a bad TV movie in 1980, starring Lee Remick as Mira. There was undue emphasis on Mira's love affair with the younger man, regarded as pretty hot stuff back then. But even so, feminism was present and centered. I can still remember that I was living in a small duplex on a crowded street, in which I could hear the conservative born-again neighbors sneeze on the porch next door, and I could hear that they were watching the movie, too. What would be the reaction, I wondered. Even as a bad movie, it was powerful for its time.

After the scene in which Mira gives birth to her baby, I heard the women and men arguing on the porch next door: A man couldn't handle that, he'd be complaining to high heaven at the very first labor pain! I heard the men defending themselves, and I was surprised at how forceful the argument became. I was impressed: even at a remove, even the soapy-Hollywood version of The Women's Room, had the power to make women speak. I remember sitting inside, listening to them argue, feeling such pride in Marilyn French, and in feminism.

Who else among us had such ability, such storytelling power?

Resquiat in pace, dear Marilyn French, who prompted women to scrawl on bathroom doors, and argue with Baptist husbands. We love you.


CrackerLilo said...

The first time I read it, I was a high school student in 1991. I cheered and cried and laughed and cried some more at the end. (Nobody was happy!) It was good, I saw that, but I didn't have the context. It took me a while to get context, by listening to older women and learning more about feminist history, and so I would go back to The Women's Room a couple more times. It helped quite a bit.

I didn't know Marilyn French had died. Thank you for that.

You're a pretty good storyteller yourself!

sheila said...

Wonderful tribute as always.

timberwraith said...

This was a really interesting article, Daisy. I really liked the article you wrote on Kent State a year ago, too. I love reading about the events of the 60s and 70s that concern leftist organizing during that era.

I'm too young to remember much, as I was born in 1968, but even in the elementary school in the conservative community I grew up in, feminism made its presence felt. It's amazing to remember other six year olds talking about "women's lib."

More articles like this! Please?

ZenDenizen said...

Appreciate this since I'm looking for ways to use my Amazon gift certificate!

(Btw I still call it the Ladies Room but it was interesting to learn the origin of Women's Room)