Page last updated at 20:04 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 21:04 UK

Feminist icon French dies at 79

Marilyn French, photographed at home in New York in 1987

Marilyn French, author of The Women's Room and regarded as one of the great feminist writers, has died of heart failure aged 79 in New York.

The native New Yorker died on Saturday in a Manhattan hospital, said Carol Jenkins, a friend and president of the city's Women's Media Center.

Her 1977 novel about a housewife's rebellion against male domination sold 20m copies and was widely translated.

French's final novel is due to be published this autumn.

She was also working on a memoir.

French is survived by her son, Robert French, and her daughter Jamie French.

'Not a man-hater'

In a 2004 poll of listeners to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, The Women's Room was voted one of the five books that have most changed the way women see themselves.

Set in 1950s America, the novel follows the fortunes of Mira, a conventional and submissive young woman who ends up in a traditional marriage.

When it ends in divorce, Mira seeks a new life at Harvard as a graduate student.

Plunged into a world far removed from her own experience, she nonetheless encounters the same problems with male-female power politics as she did in her marriage.

French was dubbed anti-male for having a character in the novel say: "All men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes."

Carol Jenkins rejected the allegation about the late author's work.

"Those words came from a character, and she was not a man-hater, and never said that in her personal life," she told The Associated Press.

"But she wanted men to accept their part in the domination of women."

The novel, Ms Jenkins added, "connected with millions of women who had no way before of claiming their anger and discontent".

Cancer survivor

The theme of male subjugation of women runs through French's novels, essays, literary criticism and her four-volume, non-fiction From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women.

Born in Brooklyn, she graduated from Long Island's Hofstra University with a master's degree, studying philosophy and English literature. She taught there in the 1960s.

After her divorce, she earned a doctorate from Harvard and was an English professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

A smoker, she survived a battle with oesophageal cancer in 1992 which included a 10-day coma she described in Season in Hell: A Memoir.

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