July 2009

Brittany Shoot

features

A (Failed) Interview with Marilyn French

Among young White feminists, I am not an anomaly for having loved Marilyn French since I picked up The Women's Room in my early teenage years. I read it twice during high school, unable to make sense of its shifting scenes and complicated characters on first read. I carried it with me to college and loaned it to anyone who acted remotely interested. If I saw it in a used bookstore, I'd buy it to give away -- not because I had anyone in mind, but because I, number one fan girl, couldn't bear to see it there, discarded, alone.

As I got older, I poured over French's non-fiction, including The War Against Women (1992), and I plowed through In The Name of Friendship (2006) in two days after its release. Among her other publications are Her Mother's Daughter (1987), My Summer With George (1996), and A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998). After this year's re-release of her four-volume tome, From Eve To Dawn, by The Feminist Press, I contacted her publicist for an interview. I couldn't believe my good fortune when French wrote to me, "I would be happy to answer your questions." The interview was conducted via email in January.

I unapologetically loved French for most of my young adult life. From the book jacket photos of her casually smoking to her angry statements about all men as potential rapists, she spoke and lived an important - if uncomfortable - truth. While many critics like to brush off her most inflammatory statements - how extreme of her, they chastise - I believe her words are a truth that spans generations. She has explained away her "all men are rapists" comment by saying she was an angry writer. Instead, I think how fortunate it would be to be counted among women as righteously irate as French. If only more of us could channel our own rage into such beautiful prose.

Roughly a week after sending them off, I received her pithy answers to my interview questions and went into a bit of shock. A number of my writer friends have had similar experiences; so far, I'd avoided them. Occasionally, you have the misfortune to catch a subject on a bad day, an off week, or maybe you are to blame. Do your questions seem trite without the framework in which they will be placed, without knowledge of the audience that will digest the answers? Did I manage to offend in some way, or is this person simply an uncooperative interviewee?

In my own pain and confusion, I arguably did the worst thing a writer can do. I put the answers aside, blew off my editor, and sulked. The sadness that surrounded the news of French's death is complicated, like any loss. For those of us so far removed from her immediate influence, do we really have a claim to grief? How can we act as though her passing is profound in our relative terms? Yet I know more than a few friends and colleagues who mourn her passing with genuine reflective reverence.

Left feeling betrayed by my literary idol not long before she passed, my own reaction was strained confusion. I felt not only dismissed; I now felt destabilized, unable to fix whatever damage had been done. Maybe taking off my rose-colored glasses was unavoidable. How long can someone be your hero(ine)? At what point do you outgrow them? It isn't necessary that you do, but maybe it happens anyway. The relationship doesn't become less valid or important. You just get older and find new words to cherish. Growth is inevitable, necessary.

In the aftermath of her death, I read that French's longtime friend Robin Morgan had been a sympathetic ear during French's late life difficulties. As a pioneer for women's rights, French had found it increasingly difficult to find representation or a publisher as she got older. Due in part to her own trailblazing and the ways the world had opened more doors for women, "It was a source of embitterment to her and outrage to me," Morgan told The New York Times.

This begs the question: what happens when you get what you want? In French's case, she sought a more equitable existence for women everywhere. In gaining ground in the struggle for equality among the sexes, she lost some of her own power and influence. Why does this have to be a source of embitterment, and what does it mean when a feminist icon resents the women she pulled up with her? Of course, some of her difficulties of the past decade can be blamed on the cultural climate of the Bush presidency. Perhaps all of this aggravation explains her sometimes rude and laughably inappropriate responses to my questions.

How do you think being a Westerner has influenced your research, if at all?

I think my being what I am -- a Western white woman of my age -- utterly determined what I found and what I wrote. But locked within that as I am, I cannot get outside it to look at it critically.

[BS: In fact, I believe French was often able to climb outside her own experience. I also believe her ability to analyze her own humanity in relation to others was what made her work so poignant. Did I ask the question incorrectly? Either way, she didn't appear to be interested in giving it a thoughtful response.]

The four volume series, From Eve To Dawn, was originally a much longer work. Can you say more about the scope of your research and the selection process for condensing the material into these four books?

I had to cut all long accounts -- for example, I had described the schedule of Florence Nightingale's nurses-in-training, which was incredibly back-breaking; and the schedules of women in the first women's colleges at Cambridge (England). I had to cut interesting details throughout. I had to cut several thousand pages, so an enormous amount of material went.

You had originally made some predictions -- for example, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia -- that ended up happening while you were in the process of finishing the series. What were some of the world events that altered your course while you were still writing? How did that impact your work?

I did not predict the collapse of Yugoslavia; I predicted that Serbia's militaristic fanaticism would increase and spill over its borders. Several African nations won their independence after I had finished the book, but before it was published. The Berlin Wall - and the Soviet Union - fell after I had finished the book but before it was published. Such events required considerable re-writing. But the Beijing UN Conference also occurred, allowing me to end the book on a high note, instead of the low one I had originally struck. This was wonderful.

Many feminist scholars and historians have seen certain holes in the narrative of our collective history, but you essentially broke down every major historical period, the multitude of problems in each, and the way women were affected, both in that time and how it has culminated into gender disparities we see today. How were you able to investigate so many gaps over such large periods of history?

This is due to the work of the scholars who helped me, writing about their periods and sending me bibliographies. They pointed out the problems, past and future, that women in their area faced. Also, there is much continuity from place to place - men treat women the same way, no matter where they are. In all times, they try to constrict women's freedom of movement, possession of money, and rights over their own bodies. Men want that control for themselves. It is universal.

You've said that you set out to answer the question of how men ended up with so much power, particularly over women. Do you feel like you've found the answer?

Yes, of course. If you read the book, you should see that. I offer a clear explanation for the beginning of male domination and point out, over and over again, examples of men extending their power over women whenever they can.

[BS: This is why interviews are tricky, and this is one reason I feel that I feel failed. Of course, I know French's answer. I read the book, of which she seems insultingly unsure. In my feeble attempt to get her to draw out her reasoning and findings for interview readers - an attempt to make more people interested in her work - I instead managed to either offend or annoy her.]

Capitalism has long been a tool of male domination over women, with unequal pay and sexual harassment as some of the most noticeable methods of maintaining control. You also explain how over time, religions of the West came to demand a male supreme being and their religious texts have changed to remove women from positions of power. Can you say more about the relationship between modern capitalism and religious fundamentalism in the Western world?

I say somewhere that religion is the primary vehicle for propagating male superiority. That is the primary task of all present world religions. While there are numerous motivations for the resurgence of "fundamentalism" (opposition to industrialization and westernization, opposition to colonialism), the single major cause is men's desire to halt women's movement to independence. Keeping women subordinate is (some men think), essential to their wellbeing. Ergo, a return to old forms of subjection that had been discarded, in places like Afghanistan and Iran.

Until World War I, it seemed like the United States had a chance at adopting some socialist tenets. So many of the countries that struggled in comparison to the U.S. before WWI - Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden, as you named Infernos and Paradises - have since become radically socialist compared to other parts of the world. Why do you think the U.S. remains unwilling to adopt principles that have led other nations to a more comfortable, equitable existence?

I would hardly call the political arrangements in the Scandinavian countries "radically socialist." They are very slightly socialist. And they are not powerhouse countries - vis--vis the world. America, the prime powerhouse, has the most, richest, and most powerful men, who collaborate to oppose anything that even approaches justice for lower classes. They have wiped out unions, which were powerful not so long ago; they want to wipe out social security; and Medicare; and other leveling institutions. They are a great threat to the wellbeing of the majority.

Do you look at anarchism today as a practical response to capitalism? Does any one political system seem to have more or better answers than the others?

I am an anarchist but anarchy is not a political system, at least, not yet. Someone - some woman? - will have to come up with a form it can take to be regarded as one. Or another form of socialism than the Marxism tried in Russia. The British, in the 1830s and 1840s experimented with various forms of socialism. None succeeded, but reading about them is interesting and informative. To develop a decent, humane form of socialism seems to me the important task facing women today - developing a politics that works from the bottom up rather than the top down. Both Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxembourg told Lenin that he was working top down and would not succeed; he pooh-poohed them, imagining he was succeeding. But look how easily, in the end, socialism was defeated - from the bottom up.

Community, alliances, and friendship have always been a central theme of both your fiction and nonfiction. In Infernos and Paradises, you state that in order to build communities of resistance, allied people must first have the consciousness to identify themselves both as oppressed and as members of the same oppressed groups. How has capitalism further subjugated people's ability to name their own suppression?

This is a question you have an answer to, so I will let you give it.

Do you think there will be a fifth From Eve To Dawn volume?

There will not.

In Revolutions and the Struggles for Justice in the 20th Century, you end by saying that feminism is a revolution at which one can dance. Do you dance? And to what music?

I do not dance anymore. I can barely walk. But I used to dance. To any music at all, but above all I loved dancing to the Rag and the waltz.

***

In the end, French is still my idol - but one of many. She's a woman like me - one who got many of things she wanted in life and still wasn't satisfied. Maybe that's the point. Maybe none of us should be.

 

Feminist Press will publish French's final novel, The Love Children, posthumously in September.