Marilyn French, 79, a writer and feminist scholar whose provocative 1977 novel,
The Women's Room
, captured the frustration of a generation of women fed up with society's traditional conceptions of their roles, died Saturday at a New York hospital. The cause was heart failure.
Although The Women's Room received mixed reviews, it became a feminist classic, selling more than 20 million copies in two dozen languages with a story that spoke to women seeking liberation from societal norms.
It traced the evolution of Mira, a repressed suburban housewife in the 1950s who divorces her brutish husband in the 1960s, goes to Harvard and finds solace in friendship with like-minded women who seek to redefine their lives amid sweeping social change.
"It came at the right moment," said Feminist Press founder Florence Howe, who knew Ms. French for 30 years. "It said to women you just have to stop being oppressed; you have to stand up and fight for yourself. Women heard that."
The novel's most-quoted line - "All men are rapists, and that's all they are," spoken by the protagonist after the near-rape of her daughter - was often attributed to Ms. French herself, giving critics what they thought was proof of the author's man-hating rage.
But the author said she did not hate men. "What I am opposed to," she told the London Times a few years ago, "is the notion that men are superior to me." Although the novel was not autobiographical, there was, she said, "nothing in [it] I've not felt."
A native New Yorker, she put herself through Hofstra College (now Hofstra University), graduating with a bachelor's degree in English literature a year after marrying Robert French in 1950. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1967, and she went on to Harvard to earn a doctorate in literature. She taught English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
She became radicalized, she said, by reading Kate Millett's feminist treatise Sexual Politics and by the rape of a close family member in 1971.