Marilyn Yalom, a prolific feminist author and cultural historian whose subjects included the history of women as partners in marriage as well as the history of the female breast, died Nov. 20 at her home in Palo Alto, California. She was 87.
Her son Reid Yalom said the cause was multiple myeloma.
Yalom was a professor of French language and literature in the mid-1970s, as the women’s movement was gaining steam, when she segued into feminist scholarship at what is now Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
While she had already written a number of academic works, she did not start writing her more notable books until her late 50s. One of the first was “Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness” (1985), which suggests a link between madness and motherhood in some women writers, including Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.
Her best-known works include “Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory” (1993), “A History of the Breast” (1997), “A History of the Wife” (2001), “Birth of the Chess Queen: A History” (2004) and “How the French Invented Love” (2012).
Yalom also organized and hosted a Bay Area women writers’ salon, where women found support and encouragement for their writing projects as well as practical advice about publishing.
“She admired the 18th-century French salon culture where women played a leading role in organizing events of intellectual discourse,” The Stanford News wrote in a tribute after her death. “She excelled in reinventing this dynamic for her fellow women scholars on campus and beyond, as well as in her Palo Alto home.”
Throughout her career, Yalom was fascinated by the cultural forces that shaped women over time and led to feminist thinking.
In “A History of the Wife,” she examined how marriage, considered a religious duty in medieval Europe, evolved into a sense of personal fulfillment in modern America.
In the process, she unearthed some disconcerting facts: In Rome, fathers negotiated the marriage of daughters as young as six; in the Middle Ages, a husband had the legal right to beat his wife; and between the 1920s and the 1960s, housewives in the United States spent between 51 and 56 hours per week doing chores.
“No startling new insights here,” Kirkus Review said in its review, “but a useful and refreshingly cheerful overview of women’s changing roles in marriage and society.”
In “A History of the Breast,” Yalom looked at breasts through many different lenses and traced how the perception of them had changed, from objects of infant nurture to objects of erotic desire.
“Though breasts still carry an overload of cultural and sexual expectations,” she wrote, “many women hope to see the day when their chests do not have to bear such a burden.”
Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Natalie Angier called it “a fascinating cultural, political and artistic history of our most symbolically freighted body part.”
In “The Birth of the Chess Queen: A History,” Yalom traced the evolution of the queen in chess. When the game began in the sixth century in India and Persia, the queen did not exist. At her introduction in the 15th century, she had no power at all, and was able to move only one square at a time on the diagonal. Eventually, she became the most powerful piece on the chessboard — a development that Yalom correlated with the rise of actual powerful queens in Europe.
“While there were few women rulers before the 15th century whose names can be definitely linked to the game,” she wrote, “the reality of female rule was undoubtedly entwined with the emergence and evolution of the chess queen.”
Alas, she wrote, the queen’s power on the board has not inspired women to take up the game, noting that only 5% of the world’s chess players were women.
Marilyn Koenick was born on March 10, 1932, in Chicago, the daughter of Samuel Koenick, a businessman, and Celia (Katz) Koenick. She grew up in Washington.
She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in French in 1954 and went on to earn a master of arts in teaching in French and German from Harvard in 1956 and a doctorate in comparative literature from Johns Hopkins University in 1963.
She met Irvin D. Yalom when the two were young teenagers in Washington. They married in 1954, and he went on to become a well-known psychiatrist and author whose notable books include “Love’s Executioner: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy” (1989).
In addition to him and her son Reid, she is survived by two other sons, Victor and Ben; a daughter, Dr. Eve Yalom; eight grandchildren; and a sister, Lucille Joseph.