Best known for her first novel, the highly popular The Women's Room (1977), French is an author of controversial works that provoke both enthusiastic and antagonistic responses from critical audiences. A former homemaker whose academic aspirations led her to Harvard University during the politically turbulent 1960s, French draws upon her experiences with motherhood, divorce, academia, and political activism to evoke the concerns of women who rebel against domesticity, sexual submission, and discrimination in the workplace. While some critics denounce French's ideological fiction and nonfiction as polemical, her works are widely read and often examined in women's studies courses.
French was born November 21, 1929, in New York City, to a poor family of Polish descent. She received a bachelor's degree from Hofstra College (now Hofstra University) in Long Island in 1951. French married Robert M. French Jr., with whom she has two children. French returned to Hofstra to earn her master's degree in 1964, while also teaching English at the college from 1964 to 1968. In 1967 French divorced her husband and enrolled in the English graduate program at Harvard University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1972. French used her personal experiences as the basis for the central character of Mira in The Women's Room; Mira also divorced her husband and enrolled at Harvard in the same year.
From 1972 to 1976 French taught English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She also served as the Mellon fellow in English at Harvard from 1976 to 1977 and as artist in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study in 1972. Aside from her novels and nonfiction works, French has contributed essays and articles to such journals as Soundings and Ohio Review, often under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. In 1992 French was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer. She recovered from the illness and the experience later became the basis for A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998).
One year after French published her first work—The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses" (1976), a critical reexamination of Joyce's novel—she published The Women's Room, which is generally considered one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement. The novel follows the evolution of Mira, a repressed and submissive woman, who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Mira eventually divorces her neglectful husband, returns to college, and joins a group of feminist activists. Ranging from the stultifying suburban milieu of the 1950s to the male-dominated counter-culture of the 1960s, The Women's Room depicts sexism in America as a pervasive and pernicious social force that acts to advance the oppression and exploitation of women. Through the various female characters in Mira's group, French illustrates the psychological and physical abuses frequently inflicted on women and recreates the consciousness-raising dialogues of the era that inspired many women to take up political activism. Extending French's discussion of moderate feminism is a more radical orientation represented by Val, an eloquent member of the group who becomes militant after her daughter is sexually assaulted. When the rape trial becomes more of an indictment of the young woman than of the rapist, Val joins a women's separatist colony that advocates the violent overthrow of patriarchal American society.
French continued her commentary on gender relations in her second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980), a chronicle of a love affair between Dolores, a divorced feminist writer seeking an egalitarian relationship, and Victor, a married executive with traditional values. To cultivate a healthy relationship, each confronts past tragedies and failures in their marriages and parenthood, and Dolores persuades Victor to reassess his assumptions about gender roles.
French examines the origins of societal male dominance in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981), a collection of broadly theoretical essays. The work asserts that the woman's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, has left her vulnerable to man's compulsion to exercise power over nature.
French again combines her interest in political doctrine and scholarly pursuits in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (1985), which reinterprets world history through a feminist perspective. Often compared to the metahistorical essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel Foucault, Beyond Power surveys such diverse disciplines as anthropology, medicine, political science, philosophy, astronomy, zoology, and law in its argument against patriarchal domination. According to French, early egalitarian, mother-centered societies were overthrown by a conspiracy of men obsessed with a desire for control over women and nature. With the pursuit of power as its impetus, patriarchal culture enslaved women and devised social structures emphasizing male-centered religion, property rights, and the division of labor. As a result, French argues, women have suffered in every human society from ancient Greece to modern China.
In Her Mother's Daughter (1987), French examines emotional and familial bonds among four generations of American women, beginning in the early 1900s. Frances, a widowed Polish immigrant who is forced by poverty to send three of her four children to orphanages, consigns her bitterness to her only remaining child, Isabelle. In turn, Isabelle's overprotective nurturing prompts her rebellious daughter to achieve success in a competitive male world, while ultimately neglecting her own children. French invests her narrative with myriad domestic details to demonstrate the sobering effects of unwanted pregnancies, abusive husbands, and tedious household responsibilities.
French's The War against Women (1992) surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and the burning of brides in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become disempowered and overwhelmed by patriarchal societies.
French's novel Our Father (1994) depicts a troubled family reunion that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, inspiring a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from her father, the women initially compete and argue among themselves. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support.
My Summer with George (1996) follows Hermione Beldame, a successful, sixty-year-old romance novelist, who meets a handsome newspaper editor named George Johnson one summer at Columbia University. Hermione spends the next few months creating a romanticized vision of her relationship and future with George, only to become disappointed after she realizes that George is not the man she imagined him to be.
A Season in Hell: A Memoir recounts French's personal battle with and eventual triumph over metastasized esophageal cancer. French discusses her various medical treatments and the resulting effects of her aggressive chemotherapy, including brittle bones, kidney problems, and diabetes. The work focuses on the experience of being a patient, with French asserting that many doctors, regardless of gender, are insensitive and aloof to the pain experienced by the people under their care.
In 2002 French released the first volume of the three-volume series From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Bringing together scholarly and academic information, the series offers a careful critical examination of issues pertaining to the history of women throughout the world since the dawn of time. The first volume, Origins (2002), examines the roles of women from the advent of recorded history to the Middle Ages. The second volume, The Masculine Mystique (2002), follows women's history from the feudal era to the French Revolution. The final volume, Paradises and Infernos (2003), covers the nineteenth century to the modern era.
Critical assessment of French's oeuvre has been sharply divided, inspiring numerous debates over the validity of her fiction and nonfiction. Although many feminist critics have praised French as a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of women's studies, other critics have charged that French's works are belligerent, artless, and ideologically clumsy. Detractors of The Women's Room have criticized French for her sympathetic portrayal of the violently militant Val and have argued that the novel is virulently anti-male and grim. However, several scholars have noted that the novel's immense popularity confirms its integrity, and they have continued to regard the novel as one of the most important works in the feminist canon. Many reviewers have praised French's candid illustrations of mid-life anxiety and her examination of sexual stereotypes in The Bleeding Heart, though some have argued that the novel is overly rhetorical and unconvincing. Critical reaction to the essays in Beyond Power has been diverse and emphatic, with a number of commentators faulting French's arguments as fallacious and inane, while others have defended the collection as innovative and erudite. Despite some assertions that her work holds a militant and uncompromising bias, French has remained a major figure in modern feminist studies.