Modern Language Association
Viewing convention Program information from 2011

Session Details

Saturday, 08 January

538. Marilyn French as Writer of an Iconic Novel

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 411, LA Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Carol Jenkins, New York, NY

1. “The Mirrors of Her Life,” Esther Broner, New York, NY

2. “The Novel as Emblematic of the Culture,” Gloria Steinem, New York, NY

3. “Can a Novel Be Iconic for Thirty Years?” Florence Howe, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

Respondent: Carol Jenkins

This session has been moved from Diamond Salon 3, J. W. Marriott, to 411, LA Convention Center.

Author Comment
Subject: Still iconic after all these years
Unfortunately Esther Broner was ill for this session, but she sent some notes which were read by Carol Jenkins. And Florence Howe and Gloria Steinem both shared prepared comments on the legacy of Marilyn French's The Women's Room and other of French's writings. Florence Howe compared the emergence of The Women's Room to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of both novels having "focused the inchoate angers" of their respective centuries, both novels having been written by mature women who were mothers, both novels having made their authors seemingly famous overnight, and both novels being page turners with particularly long-lasting power to move readers to anger as well as tears. Howe posited that despite critical claims for both novels as being dated, and in the case of Stowe's novel, rife with stereotypes, she concluded that both novels are on path to remain important because they remain as any iconic novel should "revelatory over time." Steinem commented that originally she felt no urging to read The Women's Room because though she identified with feminist issues, she hadn't chosen to marry, become a mother, or become part of an academic environment as Marilyn French had. Nonetheless after urging by readers of Ms. Magazine and others, Steinem read the novel and became convicted of its importance. Steinem explained her initial resistance as what she viewed in hindsight as trying to "avoid a female fate" which she came to realize was hers whether she had chosen the same social commitments as French or not. Especially interesting was a comment Steinem shared about a paper of Marilyn French's that she was asked to read once when French was ill, in which French made the comment that we may think gender equality has moved far along, but that men were making some of the same arguments at the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings as they were at the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Steinem added that we should take sustenance in French's work and also continue to advance the aims of gender equality, because they are not yet fully absorbed in the culture. Also of note is that all panel members for this session knew Marilyn French personally and had a supportive community in New York which nourished all their writings. This is a good example for women and men as well of the value of creative community.

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