Marilyn Yalom, groundbreaking gender studies scholar, dies at 87

Marilyn Yalom, a world-renowned scholar in gender studies, died Nov. 20 at the age of 87. An inspiring female intellectual, Yalom left an indelible mark on her field as she explored thought-provoking subjects that once went unexamined.

Marilyn Yalom, a pioneering scholar in gender studies and former lecturer in the Modern Thought and Literature Program, passed away in Palo Alto on Nov. 20. She was 87.

Marilyn Yalom (Image credit: Clayman Institute for Gender Research)

Yalom was a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, where she served as director from 1984 to 1985. One of America’s leading cultural historians, Yalom admired the 18th-century French salon culture where women played a leading role in organizing events of intellectual discourse. She excelled in re-inventing this dynamic for her fellow women scholars on campus and beyond, as well as in her Palo Alto home.

Bridging cultures and continents, Yalom studied the history of women as partners in marriage and examined such provocative topics as the history of the female breast and the role women played in the French Revolution and its aftermath.

A gifted writer and innovative thinker, Yalom published books that were translated into 20 languages: Blood Sisters (1993), A History of the Breast (1997), A History of the Wife (2001), Inside the American Couple (2002), Birth of the Chess Queen (2004), The American Resting Place (2008), The Social Sex (2015) and The Amorous Heart (2018). Her book, How the French Invented Love (2012), was short-listed for the Phi Beta Kappa Gauss literary award and for the American Library in Paris book award, in 2013.

She researched and wrote about how marriage, once considered a religious duty in medieval Europe, evolved into a sense of personal fulfillment in contemporary America; the ideas, images and perceptions of the female breast in religion, psychology, politics, society and the arts; a love-obsessed French culture represented in its great works of literature; and how attitudes on friendship – both female and male – changed from the Bible and the Romans to the Enlightenment to the women’s rights movements of the 1960s.

Yalom was a popular speaker on the lecture circuit and thought leader in her field. As director of the Clayman Institute in the 1980s, she helped launch the visiting and affiliated scholars programs when the gender and feminist field was still relatively new.

“At a time when we had few women faculty at Stanford, and few feminist voices,” Yalom recalled in this article, “it was really essential to bring in the visiting and affiliate scholars to contribute. One of the things I feel proudest about is that we helped a lot of people early in their careers and seeded some of the professorships (these women secured) elsewhere.”

Yalom organized annual conferences and the program that eventually became the Jing Lyman Lecture series and developed a strong collaborative publishing resource for scholars.

“The publications took off!” Yalom recounted. “Once people knew about our conferences, and that our discussions would lead to publication, we got a lot of people interested – men as well as women.”

‘Prolific and beloved’

Adrian Daub, the current director of the Clayman Institute, said “Marilyn Yalom was instrumental to what was first CROW (Stanford’s Center for Research on Women) and later the Clayman Institute for virtually the entirety of its existence. She served as the institute’s director from 1984 to 1985 and was also a prolific and beloved institute senior scholar.”

Daub, a professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, added, “Beyond her important institutional work at Stanford, Marilyn’s books have had an immense reach and resonance. I note that two days after her death, Marilyn’s book A History of the Breast was cited extensively in an article in The New York Times – in an article on Instagram, of all things. It’s a sign that Marilyn Yalom’s work continues to resonate and will for decades to come.”

Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a lecturer in French and Comparative Literature, recalled Yalom’s charisma at two welcoming receptions on campus for new scholars.

“I remember most vividly Marilyn’s luminous whimsy and her mischievous sense of humor and how she made conversation glitter,” said Ulloa.

In her work, Yalom was “always developing bold and incisive perspectives on the occupations and representations of women in history, challenging our self-conceptions and managing to appeal to both an academic and a non-specialist audience,” she said.

For Ulloa, an encounter with Yalom 15 years ago on the Stanford campus changed her life forever.

“She bestowed her gift of reading with sharp eyes and of editing creatively on me,” said Ulloa. “She read the English translation of my first book and parts of the second one in French. I highly benefited from her own practice as a writer who chooses her words carefully.”

In 1992, Yalom was decorated by the French government “for services rendered to French culture.”

In her research for her 2004 book, Birth of the Chess Queen, Yalom found that the queen figure, once the weakest piece, was transformed into the most dominant piece in late 15th-century Spain during the strong reign of Isabella of Castile.

In 2009, she was presented with a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Assembly for her extraordinary leadership in the literary arts and continued commitment to promoting reading through her book The American Resting Place.

In April 2018, Yalom gave a TED talk at Stanford on “How the Image of the Heart Became the Symbol of Love,” one of the subjects of her book The Amorous Heart.

From Chicago to Camus

Yalom was born March 10, 1932, in Chicago, and later grew up in Washington D.C. In 1954, she earned a BA in French from Wellesley College and, two years later, a master’s degree in French and German from Harvard University. In 1963, she was awarded her doctorate degree in comparative literature from Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation focused on the “myth of the trial” in the works of Camus and Kafka.

Yalom arrived on the Stanford campus in 1976 after academic appointments at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1961–62, and California State University, Hayward, 1963–76. She told the Stanford News Service, “I was ready for a new career and the (gender studies) center looked as if it had great promise.”

Yalom is survived by her husband, Stanford emeritus professor of psychiatry and author Irvin Yalom, four children (Victor Yalom, Reid Yalom, Eve Yalom and Ben Yalom), eight grandchildren and her sister, Lucille Joseph.

Ben Yalom said, “We were lucky to be loved and mentored by our mother, and to share her with so many wonderful people whom she mentored, and brought into our world. She had a wonderful life, lived without regrets. Dying well, she continued to teach us, just as she has since we were children.”

The funeral for Marilyn Yalom was held Nov. 22. No subsequent services are planned. Donations can be made in her name to the Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellowship Program. The fellowships provide financial support for top gender scholars as they complete their dissertations, while encouraging interdisciplinary connections for their research.

Media Contacts

Kate Chesley, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-3697kchesley@stanford.edu