Off-page with...Marilyn French

Read any good 1,000-page histories of women lately?

Marilyn French's seminal-ovinal?-consciousness-raising novel The Women's Room (1977) exemplified feminism's second wave and sold 21 million copies. From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World is the four-volume tome that Mira, The Women's Room's feminine-mystique-housewife-turned-divorced-postrevolution-Ph.D.-earning-heroine, might have written, once she recovered from the '70s. The history reads like an essay, complete with thesis: "Patriarchy was the result of a revolution, the world's first. It occurred after men had realized they had a part in procreation, knowledge that triggered their discontent...It appears their main objective was to obtain more power over women."

Such statements may not hew to the strictest academic standards, but Marilyn French is not a typical scholar. At 77, the New Yorker is still a polemicist, and still knows how to keep the pages turning. From Eve to Dawn's wealth and breadth of little-known detail-Bronze Age Cretan women wore sheepskin skirts; the warrior queen Nzinga (her territory comprised part of what is now Angola) successfully fought off Portuguese colonization for 40 years, dressed as a man and kept a harem of young male "wives"; it was easy to divorce in Puritan New England-will enthrall even skeptical readers, including those of the "other" gender.

When she started writing, French had "very limited information," she tells TONY, but she quickly found a theme. "Everywhere I looked, the women did the work, the men were waited on," she says. "That has to do with power, not nature." Hired to produce a series on women's history for British television in the '80s, French commissioned bibliographies and essays from the foremost feminist scholars in fields including anthropology, archaeology, sociology, religion, primatology and, of course, history.

For budgetary reasons, the TV show never made it to production. But French continued writing, obsessed with getting "to the point where I understood where it all began." Ten thousand pages later, the world had changed, and even her status as feminism's best-selling author didn't attract an American publisher. After cutting 80 percent of the book's content (tragically, a computer snafu permanently destroyed the "extra" material), French finally saw it in print-in Dutch. Then, almost a generation after the project's genesis, the novelist Margaret Atwood took up its cause, successfully shepherding the work to publication in Canada in 2002. Now CUNY's Feminist Press is putting it out for the first time in the U.S., fronted by Atwood's introduction. "From Eve to Dawn is to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex as wolf is to poodle," Atwood writes, dryly imagining a reaction to French's litany of male oppressions: "Are all men twisted? Are all women doomed?"

When asked why standard history textbooks still tend to relegate ladies to a sidebar, French responds, " don't think you can put women's and men's history in the same book. They're too different." She adds: "The feminist movement is not the kind men have always had-by force." Then her voice brightens. "The revolution we're having is in villages, with women going and talking to women in Africa, in India," she says. "t will work, but it will take a long time." Not enough time to fill another four volumes, we hope.

From Eve to Dawn volumes 1 and 2 (Feminist Press, $19.95 paperback each) are out now.