Carolyn Heilbrun

Start Free Trial

Sara Hudson (review date spring 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hudson, Sara. Review of The Representation of Women in Fiction, edited by Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret T. Higonnet. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1984): 185-88.

[In the following excerpt, Hudson considers the utility and readability of the critical essays collected in The Representation of Women in Fiction.]

The Representation of Women in Fiction is a collection of feminist criticism. In the first of a two-part Introduction, Carolyn Heilbrun celebrates the devotion of the 1981 meeting of the English Institute to a program on women in fiction which, she notes, marks a break in the traditional (marginal) role allotted to women on the past thirty-nine programs of the Institute. Three of the six essays in this collection were presented as Institute papers: “Fictional Consensus and Female Casualties,” by Elizabeth Ermarth; “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield,” by Susan Gubar; and “Writing (from) the Feminine: George Sand and the Novel of Female Pastoral,” by Nancy K. Miller. Of the remaining three essays, one was also presented as a paper, “Liberty, Sorority, Misogyny,” by Jane Marcus; the other two were written for this collection: “Herself Against Herself: The Clarification of Clara Middleton,” by J. Hillis Miller; and “Persuasion and the Promises of Love,” by Mary Poovey. There is one common ground on which the majority of these essays rest, and that is the nineteenth century, which has been thus far—and by far—the best of hunting grounds for feminist criticism, just as Virginia Woolf continues to be its most important ancestor. Woolf plays a part, more or less important, in three of the six essays.

In the second part of the Introduction, Margaret Higonnet analyzes the new literary history, which is being shaped “in part by feminist studies of the representation of women” and altered by the retrieval of a “past that had no status.” Making use of two major categories of feminist criticism proposed in part by Elaine Showalter (“Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry, Winter, 1981), Higonnet assigns the essays by Gubar, Marcus, and Poovey to the category of “historical revisionism.” The second category “emphasizes structural or semiotic modes of analysis.” The trendy essays in this category are certainly more difficult to take in, and some readers, myself included, will be grateful to Higonnet for providing a summary of each essay. Even so, there may be trouble, as the following portion of Higonnet's account of Nancy Miller's essay makes (un)clear:

Women's figures help define and (dis)integrate the multiple heterogeneous structures that we call literary texts. The richness of these relationships is suggested by Nancy Miller's essay deciphering George Sand's Valentine and exploiting topological and stylistic analysis along lines that bear comparison to Gaston Bachelard and Mikhail Bakhtin, as well as Michael Riffaterre. … One question raised by defining woman as a function within a system of signs is whether we are dealing with signifier, signified, or both. An evacuation of identity appears to be one consequence of seeing woman as Otherness, altérité. She may be given positive value as the mystery of the ineffable and the néant that permits affirmation of (masculine) being, or she may retain the negative value of a mere empty void. The ambivalence of woman as signifier can be taken as the basso continuo of our topic.

And for a flavor of the essay itself, consider this sample, or rather, imagine listening to it:

This passage permits us, I think, to differentiate among three chronotopic valorizations of desire in a sexual and textual economy: masculinist (in its extreme, libertine) discourse, which...

(This entire section contains 692 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

valorizes the time of possession (and possession as penetration); feminizing discourse, which seeks a loving negotiation with the feminine (Saint-Preux enamored in the hour after; ultimately, Roland Barthes); and finally a feminine-feminist discourse, which indirectly or directly valorizes the hour that precedes and essentiallyprecludes possession (though not enjoyment, which becomes jouissance minus penetration.)

I obviously find the essays by Gubar, Marcus, and Poovey more digestible and hence more useful; but perhaps I will take uneasy refuge in one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings: “It takes all kinds to make the world.”

Charles Champlin (review date 20 May 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Two Women with the Kiss of Death.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 May 1984): 6.

[In the following excerpt, Champlin argues that the strength of Sweet Death, Kind Death is Heilbrun's portrayal of academic life.]

There are those who swear by another of the murderous angels, the academic who signs herself Amanda Cross. She is in the English tradition in a sense, recalling the work of other academics (like Michael Innes, who is in reality Prof. J. I. Stewart). The speech of characters is rich with epigram and literary allusions and reads as if it were being written rather than said.

Cross has the added appeal of writing as a vigorous feminist whose academic heroine, Kate Fansler, treats her husband as a minor adjunct of some limited usefulness in certain legal situations but who can trade citations (one of Martin Buber for two of Stevie Smith) in a way that makes life a perpetual High Table.

In her latest, Sweet Death, Kind Death (from a Stevie Smith poem), Cross sends Kate off to a small college where another academic woman has seemingly weighted herself with rocks and walked into the campus lake to drown. Unlikely.

It is a good enough puzzle, although as always in Cross' books, the strength is in the incidental music about academic life—the bitchery, the treacheries large and small born of ruthless politicking, and the ceaseless, unending, interminable high-arch talk.

My trouble—I'm not an enthusiast—is that Cross' expository prose and her dialogue merge indistinguishably into a continuum of small, set-off phrases like a dotted line across a map.

I quote, truly, at random, expecting, not improbably, that even more heavily perforated examples could be found, and admitting, not less improbably, that one could even unearth a lonely, defiantly uninterrupted sentence, if only, as Al Smith once remarked in conversation, we should live so long:

“AT&T has,” Kate pointed out, “provided us with means of speaking across distance. Do you, in the throes of your Humpty Dumpty complex, again suspect eavesdroppers?”

Yes, but only at the lower late-night rate.

As Rendell understands, pace is all, and a feeling of blood in the veins and fear in the heart.

Not all mysteries are created equal.

Maureen T. Reddy (review date December 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Reddy, Maureen T. “She Done It.” Women's Review of Books 4, no. 3 (December 1986): 8.

[In the following excerpt, Reddy delineates the role of contemporary feminism in Heilbrun's series of mystery novels, written under the pseudonym Amanda Cross.]

There seem to have been few feminist mysteries between 1935 and 1964, the year that Amanda Cross's first book, In the Last Analysis, appeared. Perhaps they passed rapidly out of print? Were written but not published? Since 1964, Cross has produced a total of eight mysteries, all featuring amateur detective Kate Fansler. Like her creator, who is actually Carolyn Heilbrun, the widely respected feminist scholar, Kate is a professor of English at Columbia University with a fine appreciation of the absurd.

The most recent Cross mystery owes a great deal to Gaudy Night: concerned less with crime and punishment than with the ways in which character, particularly female character, is shaped, No Word from Winifred is an unusual mystery novel. Although the ostensible object of Kate's investigation is a missing woman named Winifred, the real subjects of the book are women's changing social position and women's relationships with each other; in some ways, this book is about the effect of twenty-odd years of contemporary feminism on women's lives. Cross places Kate on the cusp of two eras. In her forties, she now has a circle of feminist colleagues, but is old enough to have been educated exclusively by men and to have seen this as the norm. (When she learns that Winifred, her “honorary aunt,” and the aunt's closest friend all once wanted to be boys, Kate easily sympathizes and explains the desire to her uncomprehending niece Leighton as an almost universal fantasy among young girls who discovered early that all freedom was denied them due to their sex.)

Combining an investigation of a mystery with an investigation of social conditions is becoming an Amanda Cross trademark. Two of her recent books, Death in a Tenured Position and Sweet Death, Kind Death, are more sophisticated in their political analyses than is No Word from Winifred, and are also more compelling as mysteries. In Death in a Tenured Position, Kate investigates the death of the first woman hired as a professor by Harvard's English department; in Sweet Death, Kind Death, she investigates a feminist professor's apparent suicide at a women's college that is resistant to women's studies; in both, the central crime and the social criticism are more convincingly interwoven than in this most recent book.

The exploration of expanding possibilities for women in No Word from Winifred is most interesting but also most confusing in the sections on female friendship. At times Kate seems to celebrate the endurance of bonds between women and the relatively new phenomenon of female collegiality (one cannot be collegial without colleagues), but at others she seems caught in a 1950s time warp. For instance, in the midst of a discussion of women's powerful connections with each other, Kate says to a woman (a professor who has just left her husband and moved, with two small children, from New York to California, where she has a university appointment),

That's the way it is with women … We're separated each into her own home, each feeling a monster if she isn't happy every minute with the company of her small children and her microwave oven. Women need to talk to each other—sometimes, I think it's more important than the ERA—talk to each other honestly, discover we're none of us unique monsters.

(p. 158)

Now, suburban imprisonment remains an issue for many women, but it is patently not an issue for these two particular women; the conversation rings false.

Cross seems anxious to work certain messages into No Word from Winifred; although I sympathize with the political impulse, it often causes the novel to go awry, especially since many of the messages are trite (such as the idea that plainly dressed women are not necessarily lesbians and that lesbians are often very chic). Well, yes, but so what? This sort of thing may be the deliberate effect of Cross's aiming at a wide audience, but it makes Kate seem absurdly naive.

Abigail McCarthy (review date 2 December 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: McCarthy, Abigail. “Women Who Step Forward: Fasting & the Politics of Carmel.” Commonweal 18, no. 21 (2 December 1988): 647-48.

[In the following review, McCarthy applies Heilbrun's ideas in Writing a Woman's Life to several case studies, including political activist Carol Fennelly's fasting campaign and the dispute at the Morristown Carmel convent.]

I recently reviewed Carolyn Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life (W. W. Norton) for another publication. It is a thought-provoking little book about the depiction of women in biography and autobiography. As is often the case with books with interesting theses, or with ideas which interact with my own, I find it coloring my thought about events in the news.

Columbia professor Heilbrun holds that the truthful telling of a woman's life—even the self-telling (and even the authentic living of it)—has been impossible until very recently because of the age-old view of woman's role. “Anonymity, we have long believed, is the proper condition of women,” she says. To be a woman has meant “to put a man at the center of one's life and to allow to occur only what honors his prime position. Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one's own desires and quests are always secondary.” Women have not been allowed ambition, self-realization, or the acquisition of power except under some disguise or other.

This was in my mind as I watched and read the news reports of Carol Fennelly, member of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, who narrowly escaped death from fasting during the last six weeks of the presidential campaign. She is the long-time companion and co-worker of Mitch Snyder, activist for the homeless, who has survived several such life-threatening fasts. As the result of one (during which he was supported by prominent government wives and film personalities) he extracted from President Reagan himself the promise of the renovation of a government building as a model shelter. The campaign fast was another attempt to focus attention on the homeless. It culminated in a march on the Capitol led by Snyder and Cher among others—by that time Carol Fennelly was too weak to join them.

Whatever we may think of the tactic of fasting to make or gain a point—at its best it is a kind of spiritual blackmail and, used too often, may promote callousness—it has sometimes been very effective, at least in the short run. To fast almost to death must require great courage, a strong will, steadfastness, and devotion to a cause—all traits exhibited by Carol Fennelly. But why, I wondered, did she join the fast herself this time after being a supportive figure for many years, nursing Mitch Snyder through one crisis after another, and content to act as his spokeswoman?

Fennelly says it was because it was time for women, especially mothers like herself, to step forward in the cause of the homeless. They must do so because the plight of homeless children is dire—they are living their whole lives in shelters, abandoned cars, slum-like motel rooms. Thus she felt she had to act. Sympathetic newspeople saw it a bit differently. They reported her as “stepping out from the shadow of Mitch Snyder” and asserting leadership for women in the cause. The impulse to personal accomplishment and leadership is almost always, Heilbrun asserts, depicted in the self-telling of women's stories, as the response to a spiritual call “to an accomplishment and an achievement in no other way excusable in a female self.”

Fennelly's story recalls another thesis of Heilbrun's—that women seeking spiritual achievement discover themselves through identification with some “other.” “Identity is grounded through the relation to the chosen other.” Certainly Fennelly became an activist as a follower of Snyder. There are very interesting parallels here in the stories of saintly women. But here I would quarrel with Heilbrun about her use of the word “occasionally” in saying that occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man in their lives. Literally hundreds and thousands of women have done so and many lived lives of heroic accomplishment as a result. If one is to reexamine the telling of women's lives, the stories of the saints, canonized or not, are a wonderfully fertile source of exploration.

Actually a very good start at exploring this source has already been done by Phyllis McGinley in Saint-Watching. She limned strong women like Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Mère Jahouvey. She also included a fascinating and sophisticated study of the attachments between many men and women saints—“the comradeship between men and women geniuses.” She lists such famous pairs as Benedict and Scholastica, Paula and Jerome, Clare and Francis of Assisi, Jeanne de Chantal and Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, etc. And in not all of them is the woman the follower. In every case, however, McGinley argues that each one of the pair would have been less without the other. A second look at the women's stories in these pairs is now due.

Another theme of Heilbrun's is that the part other women play in any one woman's story is seldom told. She thinks of this omission primarily in terms of women's friendships and of supportive groups of women. Still another theme is the issue of power and control in women's lives. Exactly because they bring these two themes together, it would seem to me that the study of religious communities, only recently initiated by women historians, is another very fertile source. These communities, like women's colleges and women's organizations, may be subcultures, but their study will illuminate the stories of women.

The above was borne home to me by the headlines about the disputes at the Morristown Carmel where five nuns barricaded themselves in the infirmary in protest against their new superior. Shades of St. Teresa sent to be prioress at the convent of the Incarnation! “When … she entered the choir, an angry group attempted to bar her way. Some cried out against her; others for her. The pandemonium was increased when some of her supporters attempted to sing the Te Deum and the rest shouted them down” (Peers, Mother of Carmel). When we think of the further insights into the politics of Carmel, of which we catch glimpses in the story of Thérèse of Lisieux, we can only wonder, as Heilbrun evidently does, whether women would really prefer, as many claim they do, “a world without evident power or control.” It is worth looking into.

Marian Sandmaier (review date January 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sandmaier, Marian. “Outlaw Stories Empower & Inspire.” New Directions for Women 18, no. 1 (January 1989): 20.

[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Sandmaier commends Heilbrun's contention that women need to chronicle the true stories of their lives as well as the female experience as a whole.]

In 1968, novelist and memoirist May Sarton published Plant Dreaming Deep, an exquisitely beautiful meditation on the experience of buying her own home and living alone. The reviews were approving; her readers rapturous. And then Sarton did something extraordinary: She rewrote the story of those bravely told years of aloneness and called it Journal of a Solitude: now a furious, pain-charged account of struggle and survival. The year was 1973. The mask was lifted; the pretense over.

The publication of Sarton's twice-told tale marks a genuine watershed in women's autobiography, contends Carolyn T. Heilbrun in her passionately argued, revelatory book, Writing a Woman's Life. It was, she says, the first deliberate attempt to set the record straight on a woman's own experience: to reject the blandly passive, culturally sanctioned stories women have been permitted to tell about themselves—or have told about them in biography—and to expose to the world one's anger, dreams of power and the unapologetic struggle to set the course of one's life.


Women need many, many more of these outlaw stories, these clandestine records of feeling and doing, as models for their own still difficult, harshly judged journeys toward autonomy, says Heilbrun, who is the Avalon Foundation. Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the author of two other ground-breaking books of feminist analysis.

Heilbrun makes a convincing case that such “new plots” serve as crucial sources of inspiration as well as detailed road maps for destinations still officially closed to women. Yet until recently, women have been deprived of such hopeful narratives, offered instead autobiographies and biographies of women that traced the only acceptable female plot—one driven by a need for male love and approval and untainted by a yen for power in the public domain. As surely as fairy tales and myth, Heilbrun contends, “these stories have formed us all.”

Heilbrun draws on a vast knowledge of 19th and 20th century literature to illustrate how women's lives have been systematically distorted for public consumption. One telling example: Although the life of medieval scholar and detective novelist Dorothy Sayers was marked by what Heilbrun calls “a profound sense of vocation,” her authorized biography by James Brabazon reads like a brave but sad compromise. “Life robbed (Dorothy Sayers) of most of the ordinary human experiences of satisfactory emotional relationships, sexual and parental. No wonder she had to fall back on the intellect.” It is the Brabazon interpretation, of course, not the Heilbrun revision, that is the most widely read version of Sayers' experience.

What's perhaps more disturbing than biographical bias is that women themselves—regardless of the enormity of their accomplishments—have rarely dared to publicly tell the true stories of their lives. Read the autobiographies of Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir or Eleanor Roosevelt, and you will find these extraordinary leaders taking pains to deny their own “unwomanly” power, pointing instead to luck or others' generosity or a vague “call to service” to explain their dazzling achievements. But pour over their journals and letters—documents never intended for public scrutiny—and very different women emerge: ambitious, managerial, plainly exhilarated by their impact on worlds beyond kitchen and nursery.

The self-protective instincts of these women were not misplaced. Heilbrun amply documents the punishment meted out to women who have dared to tell their “unacceptable” stories. When Anne Sexton began writing poetry about her own physical experience of femaleness, for instance, one male reviewer fumed: “It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience …” When poet Adrienne Rich published the searingly honest Of Woman Born in 1975—in which she admitted that women at times may hate their own children—even some women reviewers denounced the book as bitter and sick, effectively ghettoizing it as a “radical feminist” book. Yet Rich took her risks willingly, noting in her book that only when women are able to share their “private and often painful experience” will they understand the universality of their oppression and find the fearlessness to live authentic lives.

And this willingness, Heilbrun reminds us, is not only the mandate of a few poets and famous women with book contracts. “Women,” she writes, “must turn to one another for stories; they must share the stories of their lives and their hopes and their unacceptable fantasies … We must begin to tell the truth, in groups, to one another. Modern feminism began that way and we have lost, through shame or fear of ridicule, that important collective phenomenon.” She is right on target, and this eloquent book makes one understand why in a fresh and compelling way.

Emily Toth (review date February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Questioning the Quest.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 5 (February 1989): 11.

[In the following excerpt, Toth praises the eloquence, honesty, and wit of the essays in Writing a Woman's Life.]

And certain motives are still not seen as appropriate for women, Carolyn Heilbrun points out brilliantly in Writing a Woman's Life. The romance and marriage plot is still the accepted narrative for a woman's story; the quest narrative of ambition—like Lorin Jones' singleminded concentration on her art—is much harder to shape when the life at the center is a woman's. Polly's first impulse, once she learns that Lorin Jones didn't care about anything except her painting, is to portray her as spiteful, sly and selfish—the usual condemnations for a woman who puts her own dreams first.

Let's look at it another way, says Heilbrun in these eloquent essays. Why do women who are public achievers not present themselves as powerful? Women like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, she says, have written their autobiographies as if they were passive agents of destiny, as if their causes, like seducers, sought and courted them. But their letters show that the women were actually powerful and tireless fighters to change the world. Did Tarbell, Addams and their sisters see ambition as the dirtiest of female secrets? As Heilbrun notes, the ambitious and passionate George Sand was in her day described as a “great man.” In the constricted terms available for women, there was no way to describe a woman who succeeded at both love and work.1

Narratives of women's lives in the past have emphasized their relations with men, and we've all read narratives of women's sacrifices, endless variations on “she was a success on the job, but a failure as a woman.” Even grocery-store tabloids offer love, motherhood and loneliness as the only possible roles for women: famous stars like Linda Evans are alleged to be longing for the children they never had, and Elizabeth Taylor is always unhappy in love, for life is lonely at the top.

Men, in short, have tried to sell us a very skewed version of what is in our own interests—and few writers remind us of this as deftly as Heilbrun does. Young womanhood, we're told, is the season when the world is open to us: we're at the height of our beauty, and therefore of our power. (As Gloria Steinem has pointed out, this is why college women often have trouble believing that women are oppressed.) Only the quest for a suitable husband is presented as romantic or exciting, and this is a sly ploy, says Heilbrun: “Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight” in order to “encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality.” Marriage has to be portrayed through a romantic haze, to make it “attractive to its female half” and therefore “useful to its patriarchal supporters.”

There are, Heilbrun points out, a few marriages that don't kill women's possibilities: Virginia and Leonard Woolf's marriage was “revolutionary,” for both put work at the center. While “the compulsion to find a lover and husband in a single person has doomed more women to misery than any other illusion,” Heilbrun says, the Woolfs managed a much more interesting variation: they always surprised each other. But for most of us, the most interesting possibilities come later in life, and only if a woman escapes “the temptation of the conventional woman's life.” In the past, being a “fallen woman” was one escape route, although it was not celebrated as such: it's rarely said that George Eliot not only benefited from living in sin, but also was blessed in being neither beautiful nor maternal. She had the chance to create her own life.

Writing a Woman's Life is a delight to read, for Heilbrun never hesitates to talk straightforwardly about forbidden subjects—such as women's anger and desire for power. She celebrates both, because they give us strength, and she also gives generous credit to other women, especially Nancy K. Miller, who have helped hone her ideas. Our greatest source of knowledge and power is consciousness-raising with other women, she says (and I agree).

Moreover, it's with other women that we can begin to chart rich new narratives for women's lives. Writing itself can be an act of self-creation, an “awakening” that often takes place for women in early middle age. The new, uncharted quest plot replaces the tired old marriage plot as women discover their real talents, their real selves. Heilbrun describes how she came to be “Amanda Cross,” writer of detective fiction a fascinating glimpse into her own self-creation (and wonderful material for Heilbrun's own biographers. I hope there'll be many).

But what is most inspiring about Writing a Woman's Life is Heilbrun's celebration of growing old for women. The older we get, she points out with relish, the less we need to care what “they” think. We become much freer to ignore rules, including beauty standards: as they aged, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Mead chose to be fat and felt fine. (Similarly, Alison Lurie's Polly says to hell with diets and high heels.) Past 50, we worry less and less about catering to others' needs, and the last third of life is best marked by “laughter,” the “spontaneous recognition of insight and love and freedom.”

Heilbrun, as always, is clever and memorable, full of passages to underline and quote One of my favorites: “Lord Peter Wimsey once said that nine-tenths of the law of chivalry was a desire to have all the fun. The same might well be said of Patriarchy.” Through her writings in the last two decades, she has mentored all of us: I read her reviews so I can share in her wisdom and her laughter. And in Writing a Woman's Life, she is telling me that I'm still on the right track. Now I am one of the women who can, as she has, “make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.”

I resolve to do just that.


  1. Personally, I've always enjoyed Andre Maurois's claim that after sex, Sand would get out of bed and continue writing her novels, while her men lay wrung-out and groaning. (Confession. I just made up “wrung-out and groaning,” as my own contribution to Sand's biographical legend—but Sand did leave her lovers in bed while she wrote every day, eight hours a day.)

Linda Simon (review date 10 February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Biography beyond Gender.” Christian Science Monitor 81, no. 53 (10 February 1989): 13.

[In the following review, Simon derides the lack of sympathy for men as well as the narrow focus of Heilbrun's thesis in Writing a Woman's Life.]

In her latest book, Writing a Woman's Life, feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun asserts that in telling the story of a woman's life, whether in autobiography or biography, that story must be shaped to fit a male narrative—a linear progression of experiences ending in worldly success. There are only a few narratives available to women—the marriage narrative, for example—and except for these, women are bereft of a story.

Like many other feminist critics, Heilbrun draws on a small population of women to support her views. Sylvia Plath, for one, and Virginia Woolf, Colette, and George Sand. Eudora Welty annoys Heilbrun because she is too sentimental and nostalgic. “I do not believe in the bittersweet quality” of Welty's memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Heilbrun writes. “Nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.” Ida Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work, also fails to reveal anger, according to Heilbrun.

Women who do not reveal anger are, in Heilbrun's view, repressing the true quality of their lives. But men who reveal anger, distress, or suffering are likewise not to be believed.

There is a curious lack of empathy in Heilbrun's reading of men's lives. These lives, she says, are “easy” and “inevitable.” She claims that T. S. Eliot's life reads as if it were a tale from the Hardy Boys adventure series. “Men tend to move on a fairly predictable path to achievement,” she writes; “women transform themselves only after an awakening.”

I do not know many lives that fit her summary; if one looks at writers like Ezra Pound, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, or even Truman Capote, one does not see easy lives.

Heilbrun's thesis suffers from a narrow focus. The women she, examines are white, middle-class, well-educated, 19th- or 20th-century writers. She calls for new criteria for the lives of women, but such criteria cannot be generated from this sample. Instead, Heilbrun and other feminist critics must ask themselves if the criteria they wish to apply to women are true across cultural and historical lines. Furthermore, they need to ask themselves if the patterns they see in the telling of women's lives for any particular period were also true in the telling of men's lives at that time.

When Heilbrun refers to Ida Tarbell, for example, she fails to consider the biography of one of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, another social activist. Flynn's autobiography, The Rebel Girl, bristles with the indignation one would expect from its inflammatory title. Heilbrun, I think, would be well satisfied by the anger expressed in its pages. And yet the autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker, one of Tarbell's closest colleagues, is a work that is as much a “public” telling of a life as that of Tarbell, as reticent and reserved.

When Heilbrun complains that Tarbell's book is what it is because she had no model for a woman's story, I wonder why Tarbell, who forged her own career quite aggressively, who began as a biographer, who invented, with a handful of other writers, the “literature of exposure,” would suddenly, at the end of her life, have needed to emulate other writers' works. There is, I would argue, something else going on in the writing of a life besides the creation of a narrative influenced by gender.

Heilbrun's interest in the telling of lives seems more than academic. Much of this slim volume is given over to anecdotes from her childhood and youth, to revelations about her authorship of mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, to hints about the quality of her marriage.

These autobiographical explorations are far more interesting, and seem far more authentic, than the sweeping statements Heilbrun makes about other women's lives. Too often she veers from discussing the telling of lives to criticizing the life as it was led (as with Welty), and too often her conclusions seem unsubstantiated.

Feminist criticism is moving intrepidly from fiction to nonfiction, but it must move cautiously, taking into consideration the complexities that distinguish each life from every other, male or female. To argue against Heilbrun's thesis is not to dismiss the work of many feminist critics—Phyllis Rose, for example, in her more temperate and illuminating collection of essays, Writing of Women—who have sought ways to understand the differences between women's and men's lives and to interpret an individual's behavior. But this book does not further that work. It pushes it backward.

Linda Simon (review date winter 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “The Shape of Women's Lives.” Michigan Quarterly Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1990): 133-39.

[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Simon examines Heilbrun's assertions about the problems and constraints of the genres of female biography and autobiography.]

Biography and autobiography present quite enough problems for critics and scholars even when we do not consider the gender of the subject. What, after all, happens in the process of distilling a life into the pages of a book? How do we perceive the theme and plot of an individual's life? What questions do biographers ask of sources to help them understand a life as it was lived? What criteria should we apply when evaluating a biography or autobiography as a work of literature or history?

These problems are compounded when we decide to compare the biographies and autobiographies of women with those of men; and, inevitably, the lives of women with the lives of men. What is the difference—is there a difference—in the shape of women's and men's life stories?

It is this last question that complicates the whole enterprise of feminist literary criticism, whether focused on fiction, poetry, or such non-fiction as biography and autobiography. There are many reasons for differences in texts: cultural, historical, sociological, psychological reasons, that have nothing to do with gender. But examining textual differences according to gender presupposes an assumption that not all feminist critics share: that there is an essential definition of maleness and womanness that transcends historical and cultural context.

Those who subscribe to such a definition would have us seek patterns of behavior that distinguish all men from all women. Whether women are artists, journalists, scientists, social activists, entertainers, mystics, mothers, pioneers, socialites, gymnasts—it does not matter how a woman defines her identity, these critics say, in order to examine the text of her life; it only matters whether the individual is a woman. A middle eastern woman, veiled and shrouded, therefore, has more in common with Emma Goldman, say, than does John Reed. A fifteenth century British noblewoman has more in common with Grace Paley, for example, than with Henry VI. And, these critics assert, ways that women choose to relate their lives have some consistency throughout female experience.

As improbable as these assertions may seem, they have formed the basis for some past work on women's biography and autobiography, and they have been revived by Carolyn Heilbrun in her latest reflection on the subject, Writing a Woman's Life.

The title itself is confusing. A woman's life story, after all, may be written by a biographer (male or female) or by the woman herself. Those projects are distinct from their conception, and the resulting texts cannot be discussed as if they were interchangeable. One, biography, is a work of history; the other, a primary source upon which histories may be based. One, biography, bears the burden of recording verifiable evidence; the other, of inventing a text that translates felt experience into a work of literature.

The biographer aligns with the reader in examining a life as a text. She “reads” a life for theme, patterns, and plot. She serves as mediator between sources about her subject and the reader, allowing the reader to enter the subject's historical context. A biographer draws her conclusions from a legacy of words: diaries, letters, legal documents, memoirs of friends or lovers or enemies, transcripts of interviews. She cannot be certain of anything that has not been documented as some form of text.

The autobiographer, on the other hand, is both subject and source, I and eye. Her task is to assert a consistent identity, much as the novelist does in creating the protagonist of a tale. Whatever the autobiographer's motivation—to be remembered, to set the record straight, to give testimony to an existence that would otherwise be obliterated by death, to fulfill public expectations for juicy gossip—she creates a text that the biographer may one day read as one source, among many, in examining a life. The autobiographer is able to draw upon undocumented sources—feelings and memories—and select from them. She is not constrained to place herself within a context, to explain anything, to defend her behavior.

Biographers have pressures from the marketplace that place constraints on the shape of their work. They are, as a rule, never so famous as their subject. But biographers do gain status in the literary community according to their subject. If I am writing about T. S. Eliot, I am more important, as a biographer, than if I am writing about the American poets Louis Zukofsky or Lorine Niedecker. I will have an easier job finding a publisher. My book will be reviewed in more journals. I will be invited to speak at more author's hours at local libraries.

If I am compelled, out of sympathy with their lives, to write about Zukofsky or Niedecker, I need to justify to potential publishers why that person's life will result in a marketable book. I will have to persuade an editor that my subject had alliances with interesting people; led a life filled with action and tension; travelled to colorful places; produced work that was defined by others (recognizable critics, for example) as successful. If I can find instances of insanity, alcoholism, disease (preferably venereal), and adultery, so much the better.

If I am fortunate enough to find a publisher who will commission a biography of Niedecker, I will be fulfilling expectations about biography in general, not about women's biography in particular, when I set out to write.

The assumptions of the genre itself have changed throughout history. In the nineteenth century my subject would have been a public figure whose life was informed by exemplary values. The resulting biography would have confirmed the prevailing view that the world in general and western culture in particular was moving energetically toward betterment. Life, by definition, was linear, whether it was the life of a man or a woman.

As we move into the twentieth century, however, no longer are we interested in relating the tales of exemplary lives, but of flawed lives. Modern psychological theories have given biographers permission to delve into the depths, the underside, the dark corners of human experience, and to tell a story of success (our subjects are, at some level, successful or they would not be visible) threatened at every moment by failure. Modern biography is the search for vulnerability.

Autobiography has different constraints from the marketplace. An autobiography may be poetic and impressionistic and still be taken seriously. The autobiographer does not have to sell veracity or thorough documentation to find a publisher. She merely has to present a good story, with the same requirements that might make a good novel. She does not have to be famous—in the past year we have seen autobiographies by such women as Eva Hoffman, Mary Morris, Mary Kay Blakely, Nancy Mairs—women who are not likely subjects of a biography, but are published because they have created, in their text, an interesting character.

I take this time to distinguish between biography and autobiography because if we want to consider seriously the issue of life plots, it is autobiography that is our primary source; it is autobiography that is free of the constraints of publishing and marketing that shape most biography; it is autobiography that defines itself as invented life.

Heilbrun's reading of autobiographies leads her to conclude that women are bereft of a story of their own. But her reading is curiously selective. She cites the autobiography of Ida Tarbell, for example, to prove that women refuse to disclose their feelings of aggression and anger when they tell about their lives, but she fails to cite others, such as the autobiography of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a contemporary of Tarbell, and like her involved in social activism and reform, whose book bristles with the indignation one would expect from its inflammatory title, The Rebel Girl. Nor does Heilbrun compare Tarbell's work with other such “public” autobiographies as Ray Stannard Baker's American Chronicle. Baker, a colleague of Tarbell, was also a muckraker, but not so well-known as she, then or now. When Heilbrun complains that Tarbell's book is what it is because she had no model for a woman's story, I wonder why Tarbell, who forged her own career aggressively, who began as a biographer, who invented, with a handful of other writers, the “literature of exposure,” would suddenly, at the end of her life, have needed to emulate other writers' work.

I would argue, instead, that Tarbell, who wrote her life story because she needed money, was responding to her readers' expectations for a book that focused on her work as a journalist and her central role as a major force in the country's political history. Heilbrun would like us to believe that the same criteria apply to Tarbell and Flynn, but not to Baker; but the kind of autobiography a writer chooses affects the telling of the tale, and that choice is not necessarily gender-based.

Take Gertrude Stein, for example, whose Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has been examined by feminist critics as if it were an authentic effort to explore her identity, and lamented as a work that bows to patriarchal conventions. But Stein was writing for fame and fortune, at the suggestion of friends with publishing connections, to perpetuate the legend of herself as the center of a Parisian community of writers and artists. All the time she was writing, she complained in her real work—those serious, hermetic volumes that Yale University published after her death—about the whole enterprise of commercial publishing. She did not mean The Autobiography to reflect the reality of her life plot. That plot was explored, in all its tortuous circumlocutions, in the hermetic works.

Yet critics such as Heilbrun do not allow for different aims and motivations in writing one's life story. Instead, they recall the lives of a small circle of unhappy women—Sylvia Plath, of course, and Virginia Woolf—to generate criteria about the telling of lives for the rest of women, in all cultures, through all time. It is as if sweeping theories about the telling of men's lives were constructed from the life stories of Gerard de Nerval (who, the story goes, walked his lobster through the streets of Paris) or Wittgenstein, who seems to have been a trifle rigid.

Heilbrun veers from criticizing the writing of a life to evaluation of the life as it was lived. She complains about Eudora Welty because she is a proud southern lady whose memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, is to Heilbrun's taste too sentimental and nostalgic. “I do not believe in the bittersweet quality” of the book, Heilbrun tells us. “Nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.” I think such an assessment is irresponsible, but Heilbrun insists that all women are restively squirming to lace themselves into ill-fitting corsets of life.

Impatient as she is with Welty for her cultivated femininity, she is equally impatient with Willa Cather, who at times assumed male dress and pseudonyms. Cather, Heilbrun says, “could neither fit, within the expectations of her sex, into a life that allowed the enactment of her dreams, nor discover in the public sphere a place where she could be wholly herself.” Other feminist critics, however, have not seen Cather's life as so miserably circumscribed. Phyllis Rose, for example, in her more temperate and illuminating collection of essays, Writing of Women, grants, with more generosity, Cather's right to choices that served to liberate her from the provincialism that stifled many other American writers—male as well as female. “This writer we think of as Middle Western spent most of her life in the East. She chose to be a New Yorker. She was the hard-driving editor of a successful magazine and didn't start writing fiction full time until she was forty. Her literary ties were to Europe. The girl next door of American letters hated small-town America, rejected heterosexuality, and distrusted the family as the enemy of art. “It is time,” Rose says, “to establish Willa Cather's complexity and her stature as a writer.”

Heilbrun, in her effort to help forge a new direction in feminist criticism, ignores the complexities that distinguish each life from every other, male or female. Her approach, based as it is on the belief in a generalized female experience, is shared by many other feminist critics. But this belief is being questioned publicly now in such works as Inessential Woman, by Smith College philosophy professor Elizabeth Spelman.

Feminist theory, Spelman sees, has evolved from many disciplines, most significantly from psychology, sociology, literature, and history. Yet the women on whom writers have based their work have been, for the most part, white and middle-class. They have been educated far beyond most women in the world. They have access—unusual for other cultures and other times—to goods, services, support systems, and one another.

This homogeneity disturbs Spelman. “Is it really possible,” she asks, “for us to think of a woman's ‘womanness’ in abstraction from the fact that she is a particular woman, whether she is a middle-class black woman living in North America in the twentieth century or a poor white woman living in France in the seventeenth century?”

To explore this issue, Spelman takes a close look at two seminal works in feminist theory: Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering. In both works, she finds that a lack of recognition of the differences in race and class weakens each author's generalizations about consistencies in the behavior of women, about sexism, and about alternatives possible in women's lives. De Beauvoir, she notes, resists the idea that there is some “essence” of womanhood common to all females and urges her readers to look at the lives that women lead in order to draw conclusions about gender. But at the same time, de Beauvoir insists that “woman”—no matter who or where—“lacks the sense of the universal,” and instead sees the world as “a confused conglomeration of special cases.”

When describing relationships between men and women, de Beauvoir ignores the influence of race or class. Spelman cautions us to remember that power is based not only on gender. “To refer to the power ‘all men have over all women,’” she writes, “makes it look as if my relationship to the bank vice president I am asking for a loan is just like my relationship to the man who empties my wastebasket at the office each night.”

Unlike de Beauvoir, Nancy Chodorow evolves theory from a universal human experience: parenting, and she claims that the relationship between mother and child is therefore universally consistent. Drawing upon Freud (who himself based his theories on women of a particular Viennese class), she concludes that girls see their mothers as extensions of themselves, while boys see her as the “Other” with whom they can never identify. This early relationship then sets a pattern that establishes all future relationships, causing women to invest themselves in their connections with others, and men to seek power over others.

Besides raising questions about the connections men do make in their public and private lives, Spelman also questions Chodorow's assumption that women necessarily identify with one another and value a strong sense of community with other women. How, then, Spelman asks, do some women become racist?

“There are no short cuts through women's lives,” Spelman concludes. It is very good advice for feminist critics, and Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck would agree. Their collection of essays, Life/Lines, breaks new ground in our understanding of the range of life plots available to women as they transform their experiences into literature.

Although Heilbrun herself defends her interest in “privileged” women in one of these essays, other contributors examine the life stories of women from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. There are essays on blacks, native Americans, Latin Americans, lesbians, medieval and Renaissance women, and a turn-of-the-century Egyptian feminist. Autobiography as genre is defined broadly to include poetry, fiction, and film. And other contextual considerations, besides gender, are explored. So, in discussing Native American autobiographies, British writer Helen Carr pays close attention to the motivations and assumptions of the anthropologists who collected the testimonies. Nellie McKay, writing about Zora Neale Hurston, does not exclude race and cultural context from her study; to illuminate Hurston's work, she even compares it to the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. It is rare, indeed, to set male autobiography beside female and to question differences; but Life/Lines is an unusual book in its scope and aim.

What makes the collection so refreshing, when set against Heilbrun's book or Estelle Jelinek's Women's Autobiography, is the editors' uncompromising commitment to diversity and their recognition that gender “is no longer the only situating category of interest” for many feminist critics. “As we see it,” Brodzki and Schenck tell us, “this vigilant stance can help us to push beyond the mere overturning of binary oppositions, the implications of which are as crucial for male as for female readers and critics of autobiography. The establishment of a separatist female tradition, even feminist critics have warned, carries the danger of reverse reification. Autobiography can thus provide male and female readers with fertile ground for reseeding, along newly drawn feminist lines, contemporary ideas about selfhood.”

Life/Lines will serve as a strong model for future collections and studies that explore textual representations of lives. Perhaps even men's lives will be included in such studies, persuading male and female readers that such exemplary autobiographers as St. Augustine, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams do not represent the range of male experience as much as they do not represent female experience. It is the variety of human experience, after all, that interests those of us who look to autobiography for intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

Lawrence E. Mintz (review date summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Mintz, Lawrence E. “Review Essays.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 1 (summer 1992): 165-71.

[In the following review of Writing a Woman's Life, Mintz compliments Heilbrun as an astute and provocative feminist scholar.]

In the 1960s and 1970s feminist scholars voiced a concerted objection to the patriarchal bias in western intellectual thought. Because scholarship has been dominated by male voices, telling all stories from a male point of view, they argued, women's experience has been ignored, devalued, or wrongly interpreted. Feminist scholars insisted that we listen to women as they tell their own stories, so that we would have a balanced view of human experience. It sounded reasonable enough, but for almost three decades, feminist scholars have been wrestling with an intellectual puzzle: if we accept the argument that western knowledge is flawed by a fundamental patriarchal bias, how can we find informants who will have resisted the patriarchal consciousness, informants who will have viewed their own experience with a female mind's eye? In short, how can a woman tell her own story if she has been indoctrinated with a male point of view?

The first answer was to look at women's experience “objectively,” and so in the first wave of feminist scholarship, social scientists frequently led the way. Like the cliometricians who described slavery by measuring calories and space, feminist sociologists determined means and norms to describe women's experience. But this was not a universally satisfying solution. Anyone who has experienced a feminist consciousness-raising group realizes that objective statistics lack the transformative power of personal narratives—storytelling. In c-r groups, participants recognize details of their own lives in the graphic personal storytelling of other women. Although this storytelling has been ridiculed by detractors as narcissistic self-indulgence, many feminist scholars have insisted on the validity of personal narratives as evidence. At the same time, they have struggled to develop theories and methods for collecting, evaluating, analyzing, editing, and using them.

Literary critics have held a prominent place in recent feminist scholarship because they examine stories by and about women. Carolyn Heilbrun is one of the most astute practitioners of the craft. In her most recent book, Writing a Woman's Life, Heilbrun tells her own story. As a young girl, she says, “I was profoundly caught up in biography because it allowed me to enter the world of daring and achievement. But I had to make myself a boy to enter that world.” For girls and women, romances have been the major available narrative model. In romances, women seem to be the center of the story for that brief time when they withhold themselves; when they accept the man as the center of their lives, the story ends.

Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight—and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations—to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality. And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion: that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret.


Heilbrun argues that limiting the life stories available to women will limit the way women can envision living their lives. Heilbrun believes that stories have a greater effect than day-to-day living.

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts.


Having persuasively stated her thesis, Heilbrun turns to the lives of exceptional women to explore alternative life narratives in a series of speculative essays. Using Dorothy Sayers's writings and life, she examines the quest theme—a theme traditionally reserved for men—in women's biography. Reminding us of Hannah Arendt's words, that “if we do not know our own history, we are doomed to live it as though it were our private fate,” Heilbrun looks at women poets who expressed their anger in the autobiographical, “confessional” mode: Levertov, Cooper, Kizer, Kumin, Sexton, Rich, and Plath. Heilbrun shows us alternate stories about marriage and friendship; she suggests that, contrary to most women's expectations, aging can allow women to “stop being female impersonators” and begin living their own lives. And she briefly explores her own reasons, as a young college professor, for creating an alter ego, Amanda Cross, who writes detective stories about Kate Fansler, a gutsy and questing woman detective.

The book suggests that there are some women who have led lives that we might profitably emulate: women who married for equitable companionship rather than passion, women for whom female friendship is a support in their forays into the public world. It is a small book, easily read, but also provocative.

Stacey Vallas (review date September 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Vallas, Stacey. Review of Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, by Carolyn Heilbrun. English Language Notes 30, no. 1 (September 1992): 72-3.

[In the following review, Vallas asserts that Hamlet's Mother and Other Women demonstrates Heilbrun's significant role in the progress of literary and gender studies.]

Carolyn Heilbrun begins her Writing a Woman's Life (1988): “There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.” Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, a collection of Heilbrun's essays, reviews, and addresses spanning the years 1957 to 1988, also explores these modes of biography as well as the construction of female character by male artists and critics—in short, the multiplicitous means of “writing” women's lives. As the volume's title suggests, with its joining of a fictional female character with “other women,” both fictive and actual, and with its substitution of “women” for the expected “essays,” Heilbrun is interested in pursuing the connections between fiction and lived experience, between the models and narratives imagined for women in literature and in life. “Out of old tales,” she asserts, “we must make new lives.”

In “What Was Penelope Unweaving?”—an inspired and inspiring regional MLA keynote address—Penelope serves as a figure for such a revisionary practice. For Heilbrun, Penelope is “without a story” in the sense that all women, having been confined to the plot of courtship, marriage, and motherhood—having identified themselves primarily in the light, or shadow, of male desire—are without their own stories. But unlike so many female characters, Penelope finds herself, for a time at least, “in a rare position of autonomy and choice” to unweave the old story and invent a new one. At the heart of each of these essays is this feminist concern with the struggle “to become the subject of one's own life.”

While the voicing of untold stories and the invention of new scripts—of mothers and daughters, of female friendship, of women in equal partnership with men, of the questing woman artist, of female middle age—is a common thread throughout, this collection demonstrates the impressive heterogeneity of Heilbrun's interests and knowledge. In the section “Exemplary Women,” she ranges from Margaret Mead to Freud's daughters (literal and figural) to Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby to Woolf's complex relationship to the work of Joyce. Included in “Literature and Women” are essays on May Sarton's autobiographies (To the Lighthouse,Little Women) and transformations in the English novel's representation of marriage. “Feminism and the Profession of Literature” is comprised of lectures and addresses Heilbrun gave in the late '70s and '80s, while a final section examines the workings of class and gender in detective fiction, both defining the particular contours of this popular genre and challenging any rigid dichotomy between it and “real novels.”

In many ways this volume traces not only a history of Heilbrun's discerning and varied work as a critic, teacher, MLA president, author and reader of detective fiction, but also a history of second-wave feminism within the profession of literature. The titular essay, “The Character of Hamlet's Mother,” was Heilbrun's first publication, opens the volume, and alone comprises its first section. While all the other pieces were written between 1973 and 1988, this article appeared in 1957. It is dated but illuminating precisely for this reason. One can sense that Heilbrun knows she is advancing what will be deemed a radical, suspect, even ridiculous argument: that Gertrude, though “passion's slave,” is intelligent, insightful, and gifted with language. Meticulously and persuasively marshalling evidence, Heilbrun demonstrates what now, of course, seems self-evident—that the queen is far from a slothful, shallow, and dull creature—but what at the time was the charting of new interpretive possibilities. In her reading of Gertrude, Heilbrun calls into question conventional assumptions about gender, reframing how the relationship between a women's sexuality and identity might be viewed. This essay and the others which continue this work—and continue to refine the terms of the feminist project—mark how transformed the terrain of literary studies has been in the last three decades and how significant a role their author has played in that transformation.

Lillian S. Robinson (review date July 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Robinson, Lillian S. “Postmurderism.” Women's Review of Books 12, nos. 10-11 (July 1995): 32.

[In the following review, Robinson notes the dislocation of structure and content in An Imperfect Spy.]

The distinguished feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun has been publishing mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross since 1964. So it was by design that, in 1991, the names of both Heilbrun and Cross appeared on the program of a Texas conference called “Feminist Practice: Representation of Women in Law and Literature.” (I was on the same panel as Cross.)

Ten years earlier, in Cross's Death in a Tenured Position, Professor Kate Fansler, tired of teaching Middlemarch (“even Middlemarch”) at her Columbia-like university, took off for Harvard to untangle the events surrounding the appointment, mistreatment and death of the first tenured woman in that institution's English Department. Now, in 1995, Fansler is still tired of teaching Middlemarch—tireder, perhaps, since there's not even an “even,” this time. So, in An Imperfect Spy, she takes a busman's holiday to teach a seminar at a reactionary local law school. And what is the topic of this seminar? None other than “Women in Law and Literature.” Intertextuality being the name of the game in this novel (which relies on significant references to Tess of the d'Urbervilles, John Le Carré's Smiley novels and Harriet the Spy), I cried out, “I been there before,” but in delighted recognition, and without the least desire to light out for the territory.

After some thirty years, I thought I knew what to expect of an Amanda Cross novel, especially since growth and change in the continuing characters is one of those things. In this sense, An Imperfect Spy does not disappoint. We get the usual mix of characters: not only Kate and her husband, Reed Amhearst (who is—I warn you—in mid-mid-career crisis), but the familiar group of pompous academic men who are complicit in crimes against women, and the witty, literate women who resist them. Two recent deaths at Schuyler Law School bring up issues concerning gender in the academy (Schuyler's first tenured woman, the object of ill-treatment by her colleagues, might also have been helped—by them?—to her death) and in the larger world with which the academy interacts (another law professor's battered wife is in prison for his murder). There are some male students at least as vicious as their teachers, as well as some of both sexes whose consciousness gets raised.

But An Imperfect Spy differs from its predecessors in both its design and its content. Structurally, the narrative breaks the expected, essentially nineteenth-century pace and sequence. We learn important pieces of the plot too late or too soon or, somehow, obliquely, and there are so many red herrings that if you removed them, there would hardly be a plot left. Similarly, the feminist issues are brought in rather perfunctorily. If the reader isn't already and unequivocally on the side of battered women, this novel's treatment of the problem is not likely to prove convincing. Even the male students' sexist campaign against Kate, because we learn about it at second hand and after the fact, fails to ignite appropriate indignation.

Because these developments violated my entrenched expectations, I was unsure at first what to make of them. I now think that what is going on is not inept construction, much less unconcern about dramatizing women's issues. Rather, An Imperfect Spy is The First Postmodern Amanda Cross Novel. It's not just Kate Fansler who's tired of Middlemarch, it's Carolyn Heilbrun. And what she's doing about it is making another kind of novel, dislocating the familiar elements that she brings over into the new form. The dislocation is provocative in two senses of the word—at once stimulating and annoying, with the former winning out. I'm eager to see where the experiment takes her next.

Gayle Feldman (essay date 11 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Feldman, Gayle. “Heilbrun on Steinem, Steinem on Heilbrun.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 37 (11 September 1995): 25-6, 30.

[In the following essay, Feldman explores the collaboration between Heilbrun and Gloria Steinem, which resulted in The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem.]

She's the woman who told the world, “This is what 40 looks like,” and made many yearn to look just like that.

She's been treated as an icon—and as a pinup. For years, her life has been picked over for public delectation.

There was the childhood spent alternately on the road or in a bathing suit at the lakeside resort her family struggled to run; the years from 10 through 17, after her parents' divorce, taking care of a mother whose mind wandered in and out of reality; the escape to Smith College and the life of the 1950s “good girl”; the sojourn in India, long before it became fashionable to do so; her discovery of journalism, and journalism's discovery in the '60s of a miniskirted “darling,” who was condescended to as a sexy career girl or treated seriously—as an honorary man; the early '70s feminist epiphany and founding of Ms.; and the past quarter-century living as gadfly extraordinaire for causes great and small. Not to mention two bestsellers along the way—Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Holt, 1983) and Revolution from Within (Little, Brown, 1992).

Gloria Steinem, this is your life. Well, sort of. For however much that life has seemed to be carried out and dissected in public, there is a part of Steinem that has remained elusive even to those close to her. Now, Carolyn Heilbrun, no slouch herself in the feminist pantheon—author of the classic Writing a Woman's Life (Norton) as well as the Amanda Cross mysteries, and former Avalon professor at Columbia University—is trying to lift the curtain a little more, in The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem, which was written with Steinem's full cooperation—although without any right of approval.

With a 40,000-copy first printing, the biography is the lead title in this first year of the reincarnated Dial Press. Heilbrun will be going on a five-city tour and doing further promotion from New York; and Steinem's cooperation is extending even to a few interviews on the book's behalf. Thus, during one week in August, PW spent an afternoon with Steinem and an afternoon with Heilbrun, being “educated” as to the nature of the two women's lives and the book that comes from their commingling.

Despite a few similarities—Steinem is 61, Heilbrun is 69; both graduated from seven sisters schools in the 1950s—the two couldn't be more unalike. Steinem lives alone on several floors of a Manhattan brownstone, in rooms darkened by draperies and damask, where the memories of a vagabond life take object form, spilling over onto every table, every corner, every wall.

Heilbrun lives across town, facing the western edge of Central Park in a prewar block whose very solidity seems to speak of long decades of married life, in rooms where order and neatness are intensified by the light of the large picture windows.

But if you ask either what she hopes for The Education of a Woman, their answers are remarkably consonant. Heilbrun first: “We live in a time when all the pressure is to go back, for women to live a conventional, prescribed life. The backlash against feminism is fundamentalism, and it is very widespread.

“I'd like people to read this book and say that this is a different life from the kind most women lived in those years. It shows that there are other ways for women to live. But this life is exemplary only in its possibilities—this is what one woman's education could look like.”

For Steinem, “what's remarkable about Carolyn is that here is a woman who married young, had children and an academic career and yet never condemns me for living a different life, and I'm someone who's been frequently condemned. We both hope this book will be of use to female readers trying to figure out that there are as many ways to live as there are individual women.

“It's possible this may be one of the few, or the only biography of a contemporary woman that doesn't interpret her worth in terms of the presence or absence of a husband and children. The self-willed moments of moving forward toward one's true self—those are usually missing from women's biographies, which tend to show how women survived adversity rather than how they were self-directed.

“Carolyn's use of my life as the peg for larger insights was for me the high point in the emotional roller coaster of reading the book. For example, there was her insight about the conventional male division of life into public and private—with ‘public’ being work and ‘private’ being family—so that men who leave public life often say, with varying degrees of sincerity, that they want to spend more time with their family. But for women, the division is usually into ‘others’ and ‘self.’ At some point later in life, women often take a turn away from others toward the self—whether or not they have husbands and children. In a way, this was as true for me after 50 as it is for many women whose children are grown. It seems to be a pattern that is deeper than different life choices.”

But of the reading experience, in terms of seeing her life set out before her, Steinem says: “I'm not sure I can answer the question whether it seems to me it is my life I am reading. When I read it, it plunges me into the events and I lose track.”

One thing is sure, though. Steinem has always maintained that she intended to write the story of her life one day but admits, “I wasn't ready to do an autobiography. It felt like going back, and I wanted to go forward. But I've come away from this feeling it's possible for me to write that book. The experience of this book will help draw me away from being a reporter. I don't have to explain the externals because Carolyn has done it.”

Ironically, Heilbrun's biography started—so many do these days—as an attempt by Steinem to hold on to her own life. As Steinem recalls, “It was 1988 or '89 and I was consulting for Random House at the time. I had never met Carolyn, but I had always admired her work, and at one of the Random House meetings, I wondered about whether we couldn't get her to do a biography of P. D. James.

Meanwhile, over a number of years I'd been approached by people about doing my biography. I remember saying plaintively to friends, ‘Can't I get the legal rights to my own life?’ Several juvenile biographies had already been done, and when I voiced my complaints, friends told me, ‘All you can do is cooperate with someone you respect.’

So when P. D. James said no, I offered myself to Carolyn as a consolation prize, and I was amazed when she said yes. It seemed to me I should be writing her biography [at least two biographies of Heilbrun are indeed in the works]. I've given up on the legal rights to my own life [another Steinem biography is currently being written by Sydney Stern for Carol Publishing]. When others have asked for my cooperation, I've said that I don't have the time or the will to put into it. But part of what I've learned from Carolyn is that there's never a biography—there are many.

Heilbrun says, “I suspect I've always wanted to write a biography of a woman. I had written biographical studies of men, but biography has changed an enormous amount, and it's not easy to find a subject who's had a life that's satisfactory and at the same time is making a genuine contribution and is also a feminist. Others have asked me to do their biographies and I've said no. So many women are anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist. Steinem didn't seem any of those.

Doing her biography seemed a chance to use an academic approach and at the same time write something that was readily accessible. For example, what academics have discovered about gender and sexuality needs to be read by intelligent people everywhere. The essential point for me was to think what I could do with her life, and as I went along, the life became even more interesting than I had expected.

For example, Gloria had the courage to live apart from socialization, which she escaped to a great extent—that's a tendency of women who have lived exceptional lives. She didn't go to school [as a younger child], and this escape from normal socialization can also be a really dramatic response to a mother whose life was unhappy.

Steinem's mother, Ruth, was, unusually for the 1920s, a college graduate. Even more unusually, she worked full-time as a newspaper journalist while also managing a house, raising a baby (Gloria's older sister Susanne) and coping with a financially irresponsible husband, until her first nervous breakdown in 1930, four years before Gloria was born.

By the time Steinem was 10, her parents had divorced and her mother's mind was lost in a web of fears and voices and unreality. Although many years later, with enlightened professional help, Ruth achieved a fragile equilibrium, Gloria Steinem spent her adolescence trapped in Toledo, Ohio, living in squalor, taking care of her mother on her own (her sister was by then away in college). But, as Heilbrun explains in the book, instead of indulging in the dreams of the “socialized” young girl, which would have had her rescued by a man, Steinem's fantasies always placed herself as the rescuer.

She was determined to get out, and, growing up in a working-class neighborhood, was determined not to be a “victim” like so many of the women she saw around her. One of the exit routes she explored was a beauty pageant. And, interestingly, one of the areas on which biographer and subject disagree most concerns Steinem's celebrated beauty. Heilbrun makes much of Steinem's appearance throughout the book. As she told PW, “Gloria takes for granted a body in which she is wholly comfortable, and she isn't realistic about her looks. But what I had to learn was that looks could be a burden, too.”

But according to Steinem, “Carolyn's emphasis on my appearance is not the way I feel about myself. For example, when I entered that pageant at 16, it was the only game in town. It seemed to me the only way of getting out of Toledo. She talks about the pageant, but not about the impact of losing. It was very crushing to one's self-worth. I cried and felt this way of getting out of my neighborhood was lost to me. Moreover, I had lied about my age to get in at all.”

Another area of sensitivity between biographer and subject is the treatment of Ms. magazine. According to Heilbrun, “anytime I said anything critical about Ms., she was very unhappy, or thought it was unfair.” Steinem finds Heilbrun's take on the magazine's history as “very critical. It's a question of proportion and context.”

Another part of the book that is “quite painful” for Steinem is the section on Revolution from Within: “Carolyn writes very critically about it, and clearly didn't like it very much. It's also painful to see the coverage of [the affair with Mort] Zuckerman. It seems to loom larger than in life. Neither one of us was wrong. I was simply infatuated with someone I made up.”

Nevertheless, although “sometimes painful,” Steinem found the experience of working with her biographer on the whole “often surprising and gratifying and illuminating. It's good for a writer to be a subject. But I wish she had traveled with me. She's too accustomed to dealing with dead authors and texts!”

Both agree that Heilbrun learned a lot through the process, especially about what it is like to live life in the glare of the media spotlight. As Steinem puts it, “Carolyn hadn't paid a great deal of attention to the popular media before this enterprise. My own indignation has been worn down over the years. I've come to expect that complexity gets simplified into labels. But it was interesting to watch Carolyn's indignation as she encountered the media coverage compared to the real event.” Heilbrun says simply, “I discovered there are two different realities: the media and real life.”

Steinem was able to open most doors for her biographer—but not all. She and the late Jacqueline Onassis had been friends, sometimes going to the movies together in the afternoon. Heilbrun recalls, “there was a lovely letter from Jackie to Gloria that I wanted to use, but the lawyers for the estate said that they would go to the full extent of the law if I even tried to paraphrase it.”

Facing publication, Steinem says, “there is not the same level of anxiety I experienced with my own books, but I'm still nervous and fearful, particularly for Carolyn. I feel I'm something of a lightning rod for ill will that may wash over on her.” Heilbrun seems sanguine, however: “I always expect controversy. All the people who have hated Steinem will say I was taken over by her.”

In the end, what does Heilbrun make of the education of a woman? “My sense of it is that a woman goes on developing through her whole life—the older she gets, the more she learns and changes. Men are more radical in youth; women in age. Maybe there are things we all have to have in our lives, but we don't all have to do everything at the same time.”

And what of Steinem? What does she make of this “education” based on her life? “I'd emphasize the ‘a’ in the subtitle. The more individual the truth, the better chance you have of being useful to others. And for me, Carolyn's book has helped me to let go. I can't control it, and that's all right. I suppose you need to live in the present as much as possible and do what feels true.”

Marion Winik (review date 8 October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Winik, Marion. “Heilbrun for the Defense.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 2, 7.

[In the following review, Winik contends that The Education of a Woman “reads like a biography written by the subject's feminist-academic-maiden-aunt—too careful, too dry and too doting.”]

When I heard that Carolyn Heilbrun had written a biography of Gloria Steinem [The Education of a Woman], I was excited. Heilbrun's book Writing a Woman's Life has been required reading in women's studies classes since its publication in 1988 as a pioneering framework for understanding the lives of “women who write their own scripts.” As Steinem is undoubtedly one such woman, this seemed an inspired pairing of biographer and subject.

Indeed, the “serious” parts of Steinem's story are well-told: her difficult, poverty-stricken childhood with a mentally ill mother and a lovable but irresponsible father; the formation of her ideas during a post-college year spent in India; the evolution of her feminism in the '60s and '70s, and the trials and tribulations of Ms. magazine are presented cogently and insightfully, as are the personal changes she went through when she reached the age of 50. But Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon because of the colorful life she's led and the fun she's had, as well as what she has had to overcome. Heilbrun's careful telling of Steinem's life is a respectable choice, but one that leaves some of us frustrated that the “juicier” parts of the story are covered in less detail.

Steinem offers her biographer a public and private world peopled with celebrities, set in the vibrant spheres of publishing and politics, laced with scandalous incidents, from the rescue of Linda Lovelace to an affair with millionaire Mort Zuckerman. This is a woman who went underground as a Playboy Bunny for an article in Show magazine, who staged a demonstration at her 25th class reunion at Smith College, who ran on a ticket with Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin for comptroller of the city of New York. She is known not only for her politics, but for her “look,” her personal style and her wit, which has made its mark from the White House, where she helped Ted Sorenson add humor to JFK's speeches, to the newsstands of Manhattan, where readers devoured her '70s City Politic columns for New York magazine with titles such as “Kissing with Your Eyes Open: Women and the Democrats.”

This seems to be the material for a pretty racy book, but that is clearly not the book Heilbrun wanted to write. In fact, she sees Steinem as a victim of prurient interest in her unconventionality, her looks and her private life on the part of both the shallow-minded, sensationalist dogs of the American media on the one hand and the jealous, relentlessly PC meanies of the feminist movement on the other. And she makes it her business to take Steinem's side in every one of these battles, to plead the case even where Steinem herself backed down, victim of her own relentlessly conciliatory nature. (This combination of, “I don't care what you think”/“Oops, don't be mad at me” is one Heilbrun rightly identified as a burden of our gender; a good object lesson for all of us.) But the resulting story is yet another one-dimensional portrait, this time not by way of media sensationalism but of revisionist goody-goodyism. The Education of a Woman reads like a biography written by the subject's feminist-academic-maiden-aunt—too careful, too dry and too doting.

Heilbrun is fascinated by the way Steinem's femininity is set at cross-purposes with her feminism, her famous beauty causing trouble with everyone from ego-maniac rivals, such as Betty Friedan, to sexist pigs, such as Screw magazine Publisher Al Goldstein, to patriarchal old farts at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a research institute affiliated with the Smithsonian. It was an ongoing disappointment for Steinem, one with which her biographer sympathizes, to have the press focus so relentlessly on her appearance. For example, Heilbrun tells us about a 1971 article in the Miami Herald that described Steinem as “blessed with a hard-to-beat combination of brains, beauty and charm.” It further noted that she “believes her good looks have been more of a hindrance than a help in her success … and feels women are more interested than men in sex.” Heilbrun's comment is that “reporters were still picking out the salacious bits [of their interviews with Steinem] to report.”

Personally, I don't see the salaciousness, and wish only that Heilbrun would have seen fit to share these views about men, women and sex, which today are so respectable you can take courses on them in college. As Heilbrun acknowledges, one of the many interesting things about Steinem is her love life. She never married, but she did have a series of romances with well-known and/or interesting men such as film director Robert Benton; Tom Guinzberg, publisher and former editor of the Paris Review; director Mike Nichols; Franklin Thomas (president of the Ford Foundation), and Assistant Atty. Gen. Stan Pottinger, virtually all of whom claim to love her to this day. Unfortunately, for those who would like to know more about this astonishingly successful career in serial monogamy and who wouldn't mind a few prurient details along the way, the accounts of these relationships are disappointing, partly because they emphasize politics over feeling, partly because they tread so carefully around the privacy of this cast of living characters.

For example, Heilbrun notes that “Steinem met Rafer Johnson at the 1968 convention; this was the first of her ‘romantic friendships’ with a black man. Many of the activist black men she met were, she found, more sensitive to the dangers and oppression of sexism than their white male counterparts.” Oh god, we're thinking, is this really all we're going to hear about this? Nor does this theory do much to explain her '68 affair with football-player-turned-actor Jim Brown, who, Heilbrun reports, included an account of his affair with Steinem in his “sex-stuffed” 1989 autobiography. For a moment, I wished I was reading that book.

In telling us about a widely reprinted photograph of Steinem and Henry Kissinger and her accompanying jest, “I am not now nor have I ever been a girlfriend of Henry Kissinger,” Heilbrun tells us: “This picture and the rumors it produced would haunt Steinem forever.” Oh, please. Is it really so haunting? Or if it was then, do we have to solemnly agree with that view today?

Steinem has suffered because, by being sexy, by being photographed with Kissinger, by having an interesting love life, by putting Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. magazine—she violated the movement's idea and the media's idea of how a feminist should look and act in the '70s and '80s. She felt bad about this, tried to downplay it, and even retreated from it as her life went on. Her biographer continues this scramble for acceptability. One cannot help but feel that if Heilbrun would just get off the defensive, a more powerful Steinem would emerge. One finally is not sure whether Steinem was so battered by the forces of political correctness that she became boring in her attempt to placate critics, or whether Heilbrun is doing it to her out of an urge to respect her privacy. And one wishes, at least for a moment, that no matter how tough it was for Gloria to be a babe in the feminist movement, we would take a moment out to admit that it's really not so bad to have great legs.

Perhaps the most confusing thing about this book is the ending, where Heilbrun sums up Steinem's contribution to feminism in these words: “To the media and those who live in its light, Steinem is, to various degrees, an enigma, and, perhaps inevitably, a paradox. But to the many thousands she has helped or encouraged or rescued, she is, like the mythical Kilroy of World War II, essential and ubiquitous. Steinem was here.”

Is it just me, or is that a pretty backhanded compliment?

Vivian Gornick (review date 6 November 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gornick, Vivian. “What Feminism Looks Like.” Nation 261, no. 15 (6 November 1995): 544-46.

[In the following review, Gornick maintains that one of the major thematic concerns of The Education of a Woman is the impact of Steinem's beauty and femininity on her life and career.]

The first woman astronaut went up into space and, standing on the ground, her mother cried, “God bless Gloria Steinem!”

The women's movement, in a moment of disarray, needed an enemy within, and it cried, “Gloria Steinem!”

Asked in a small city why she had never married, Steinem said for the television cameras, “I wanted women to see that you could not marry, and still have an interesting life.” In the studio people applauded wildly.

A few years ago, watching her drift through a roomful of intellectual women—it was not her crowd, she could find no easy place to touch down—I heard a scientist ask, “What exactly is it that she does?” and a critic replied, “It's not what she does, it's what she arouses in others.”

Gloria Steinem belongs to a generation of feminists that includes Kate Millett, Ellen Willis, Betty Friedan and Susan Brownmiller, yet she alone became its enduring emblematic figure. She is to feminism what Yasir Arafat is to the Palestinians: an incarnation, a figure of powerful suggestiveness, a projection in the popular imagination of all in our cause that glimmers, and all that grieves. After twenty-five years of the most sophisticated politicking in feminist history, the glamorous woman among us is the one who, more than any other, continues to hold the inner attention of depressed housewives, expectant schoolgirls, angry waitresses and restless academics.

If you should turn in the crowd and ask, Why? the answer you're likely to get is, “Because she's beautiful, and she's not threatening,” or “She's beautiful, and she's made herself vulnerable,” or “She's beautiful, and …” fill in the blank, it doesn't actually matter what comes next. The answer always astonishes. I am moved when I hear it. Moved and appalled and sobered. “She's beautiful. She could have been anything. And she became a feminist.” Indeed, an incarnation. To contemplate Steinem's image in the world is to gaze steadily into the meanness of our everlasting anxiety, the gravity of our uprising. Steinem herself understands this better than anyone: from the inside out. And perhaps Carolyn Heilbrun does too, as her new biography, The Education of a Woman, is remarkably absorbed by the question of Gloria's looks.

Steinem was born sixty-one years ago in the Midwest into a family whose drift toward the margin was steady. She was smart, and she was pretty. Like millions before and after, she thought pretty would be the passport to another life, but as it turned out it only meant “coming in second in beauty contests in Toledo, Ohio.” An older sister rescued her, took her to Washington, D.C., to finish high school. Then came a scholarship to Smith College. After Smith she knew how to do the world.

A couple of years out of college she came to New York to find an exciting job. Fit for nothing in particular and connected to no one at all, luck failed to rescue her. But a curious job in Cambridge came her way. Through the good offices of a man she'd met in India (she had spent a year there on a student fellowship), she went to work for the Independent Research Service, a foundation that “encouraged” young Americans to attend the International Communist Youth Festivals being held in Europe. The year was 1959. The money was coming from the C.I.A. This Steinem did not know, but even if she had known, she would have taken the job. Not that she was a baby cold warrior, not at all; it was rather that she had no real politics, she only knew that she loved doing politics. That, and being close to men in power, kept her in the Service until 1962 when, with new savvy and sufficient connections, she hit New York running.

Not pretty enough to come in first in a beauty contest, the future founder of Ms. was very pretty for a girl journalist around town. In no time at all she was writing for the slicks, interviewing the famous, sleeping with the powerful. She became known for whom she knew. An article about her in Newsweek in 1965 stated, “Gloria Steinem … is as much a celebrity as a reporter and often generates news in her own right. … She has dated Ted Sorensen and Mike Nichols, discussed the poverty program at lunch at the White House, and makes opening nights (and the women's pages the next day). … Her subjects often become her most vociferous fans. ‘She's the smartest, funniest, and most serious person I know,’ says Nichols, ‘and she looks great.’”

When I read this paragraph recently in Heilbrun's book, I recalled an early-seventies piece in which famous men Steinem knew were interviewed about her newly declared feminism. John Kenneth Galbraith, trying to explain Gloria's success, attributed it to “brains, comic perception and extremely good looks.” Good looks was a factor? “I have to be honest,” he said.

I remembered myself all those years ago, staring at that sentence; remembered going cold inside; remembered looking at her picture and thinking, No wonder your face is opaque, your body controlled, your style unreadable. Necessary weapons, if it's Galbraith with whom you need to be seen. It was tempting then to think of Steinem, How different the game she's been playing is from that of the rest of us, how hidden its terms, how complicated its bounty. But I must have quickly corrected myself because I also remember thinking, This woman says something none of the rest of us are going to say. It's not the words, it's the presentation.

I had always been struck by the absence of expressiveness in Steinem's face, coupled with the steady patience of her voice repeating its simple feminist message. The face was neither unintelligent nor insincere, it simply betrayed no signs of inner life. It was a face that had been carefully put together—and not yesterday, either; a face behind whose eyes one could never get; a face modeled not by nature but by will. What she was saying, coming out of that face, was her offering to feminism. The entire performance urged, “Mark me well, listen and look, the two go together.”

More than twenty years later the face is remarkably unchanged, as are the words and the listeners. They flock to her, still, by the thousand, and often one sees on their faces the penetrating stare of first recognitions. As Steinem talks one hears repeatedly the inevitable murmur of “She's so beautiful,” but in the crowd stand countless women who also came in second in a beauty contest in Toledo, Ohio, and also needed to command the attention of the local Man of Power. The women who might have become Steinem, but instead became Thelma and Louise. These women listen intently to her, their faces as knowing as her own. To them Steinem speaks directly, and tirelessly. She is famous—and justly so—for her kindness, her devotion, her unfailing response to the women who remind her of her own young self; famous as well for repeating in speech after speech what other feminists stopped repeating fifteen years ago. It isn't just that she knows there are women out there waiting to hear the fundamentals for the first time; it's that she herself is still mesmerized by her own message. She can taste in her mouth the iron she tasted thirty years ago, in that first moment when she “got it,” when she saw herself as she was seen in the world.

Steinem once wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe, with whom she identified. Of this identification Heilbrun writes, “Monroe believed she existed … only because men saw her with delight. … Steinem recognized [her] conviction that she was invisible, except when seen by others. … About the same time she was writing the Monroe book, she began to wonder if that insight might not describe her own situation as well.”

Marilyn Monroe was one of the great examples of a woman both gratified and imprisoned by that in herself which aroused fantasy in others. It was the loneliness in her that compelled, the peculiar, haunting nature of it. That loneliness is there in all of us, but in Monroe it created a vacancy that, somehow, became erotically inviting. It is into this vacancy that projection inevitably moves. Why, exactly, the phenomenon occurs in some and not in others is hard to know. It is the mystery of “star quality.” A quality there in Monroe the Sexpot, as it is there in Steinem the Feminist. Two pretty girls who believed what every woman in the world believed: that to be beautiful was to be free of shame, conflict and humiliation.

Carolyn Heilbrun's biography does not penetrate the mystery; it celebrates the incarnation. Heilbrun, like all right-minded feminists, yearns for the spirit of revolutionary feminism to be alive, fully fleshed and walking about once more. Out of that longing she wrote this book. Because of her book I wrote this piece. Steinem's life, Heilbrun's book, my reflections—together they form a document of sorts. Evidence of the ongoing need in my generation of feminists to keep sifting through the history, trying to puzzle out better how we came to be the women who made a powerful piece of politics out of one's “own hurt feelings.”

Wini Breines (review date December 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Breines, Wini. “Career Feminist.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 3 (December 1995): 8-9.

[In the following review, Breines criticizes The Education of a Woman, arguing that the biography is “strangely transparent, an unmessy narrative of Steinem's admirable life with little attention to depth, complications, or contradictions.”]

Carolyn Heilbrun writes Gloria Steinem's life [in The Education of a Woman], as an uncomplicated story. Steinem was born into a white lower-middle-class family in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. She spent many years parenting her seriously troubled mother, eventually went to Smith College, traveled in India and returned to the US to become a journalist. She is independent, has had many lovers but never married or had children; as Heilbrun points out, she is an uncommon woman whose life has been determined only by herself. (Heilbrun argues that in this Steinem is more radical than many feminists who have chosen the security of marriage and children.) Steinem has always had sympathy for the underdog and has unselfishly committed herself to causes larger than herself. In 1969 she became, or understood that she was, a feminist, and has devoted her life to feminism ever since.

Steinem appears to have been unusually ambitious and energetic in the pursuit of power and celebrity, albeit for good causes, but Heilbrun never considers ambition as a motive. Steinem's experiences, encounters and accomplishments are narrated as if her motives were consistently clear and good-hearted. Is this one more woman downplaying another woman's ambition in order to present her as acceptably feminine, with no desire for power, recognition and authority? Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Heilbrun's themes is the centrality of Steinem's femininity to the success of her feminism.

The story Heilbrun tells is strangely transparent, an unmessy narrative of Steinem's admirable life with little attention to depth, complications, or contradictions. Her well-known disconnectedness from her inner self is reproduced by her biographer: Heilbrun does not probe deeply or analytically into Steinem's personality, or, for that matter, her relationship to the women's movement; she positions herself as a sympathetic friend or referee, supportive and uncritical. The Education of a Woman reinforces a picture of a full but unreflective life.

For me, reading The Education of a Woman raised two thorny issues that the US women's movement of the 1970s grappled with. (Heilbrun seems untroubled by them; her instinct is to defend Steinem from criticism.) The first is the relationship of the women's movement to Steinem, a woman whom the media recognizes as a leader (in Heilbrun's words, “the most famous feminist in the country, if not the world”), a woman who founded Ms. magazine—a great achievement and tool for second-wave feminism—a woman who is in the news when feminism is in the news. The second issue, which expands upon the first, is why the internecine struggles between different wings and personalities of the women's movement were so bitter. Writing about such issues is risky in this period of cruel and deadly attacks on feminism's achievements and on women themselves, but to a student of second-wave feminism they call out for attention.

To locate myself in this discussion: I am a first-generation women's liberation movement participant. I was an activist in the New Left and antiwar movements and a member of Bread and Roses, a socialist feminist Boston-based organization that was part of the youthful radical wing of the women's movement. Today I am an academic. Steinem, for me, was and is remote, a media figure, a liberal. I have never seen her or heard her speak. Heilbrun writes convincingly about Steinem's tireless dedication to feminism, her energetic establishment of and commitment to Ms. and women's issues, her compassion, conciliatory nature and fair play, her significance. I do not doubt all this, nor that Steinem has persuaded thousands of women to become feminists—although what that means is contested, and relevant for this discussion.

In fact, Steinem reminds me of Allard Lowenstein, murdered in 1980 by a mentally ill student he had mentored—another tireless, nationally prominent, liberal organizer of the same generation, in his case for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam and for a liberal anti-communist Democratic Party. Frenetic, uncentered, with minimal domestic life, through public speaking and personal interaction they both changed the lives of people with whom they came in contact. And because they were liberals who worked the media and were anointed as leaders, both continue to inspire mixed feelings in those who worked hard and quietly for years with no recognition. Radicals in particular have been critical of both Lowenstein's and Steinem's politics.

Analyses of the civil rights, New Left and women's movements have underscored their democratic inclinations towards anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical relationships and organizational forms that often took shape as hostility to leadership.1 Based on their experiences in American institutions and earlier movements, young feminists were suspicious that individuals would abuse power and authority. They wanted all women to feel empowered and equal; sisterhood meant rejecting hierarchy. Numerous women felt they had not been treated as equals in the civil rights, New Left and Black Power movements, and in their own movement(s) they tried to ensure that no one individual dominated, whether in consciousness-raising or activist groups.

In that political context, Steinem was controversial. Both her visibility and politics disturbed radical and youthful feminists. In Heilbrun's words,

For the women who were coming out of the left to organize the feminist movement, and to Betty Friedan, Steinem seemed … a late arrival on the scene. That she was also the one the media anointed because she was “feminine”, … glamorous, … and … nonthreatening was to cause a good deal of ill feeling among feminists who had arrived earlier, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor when the movement was young.

(p. 187)

An irritatingly repetitive theme is that Steinem's beauty separated her from the rest of us (reinforcing the idea that feminists are ugly), that her heterosexual desirability confused mainstream critics and feminists alike: how could you be sexy, beautiful, feminine and a feminist? (Duh.) Heilbrun argues that the “aura of frivolity,” associated with Steinem would reassure millions of women teetering on the edge of feminism that one did not have to eschew elegance or ‘femininity,’ or, above all, men, to be for ‘women's lib.’” She does not find problematic Steinem's combinations of public sexiness and commitment, high living and sympathy for the underdog, her talent for “getting over” with the media and for downplaying feminist political differences. Like her subject, she seems to believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is the way to bring women into the women's movement and that women's similarities outweigh their differences. But if this is ever true, it never lasts for long. Class, race, ethnic, generational, sexual preference and political differences always eventually surface.

Steinem has worked within the system, defining a feminism that, according to Heilbrun—who contrasts Steinem's politics to radical “structureless” feminism and Betty Friedan's “upper-middle-class” feminism—was palatable to most American women; in that way she kept “the feminist cause in the forefront of the national consciousness.” But Steinem raised the hackles of radical women in the trenches organizing rape crisis and day care centers, fighting for abortion law reform, abortion counseling and clinics, and simultaneously trying to reorder their lives according to new ideas about gender that provoked questions about compatibility with men and sexual preference.

Not that Steinem was against these projects. But her links to and comfort with powerful men—to power perhaps—her jet-setting, celebrity and inclination to work within the system led many to question her authenticity. While Heilbrun suggests that Steinem's contradictions were the very qualities that made her a persuasive feminist, for many young radical feminists they spawned only mistrust.

Because she assumes that Steinem's choices were consistently justifiable and well-intentioned, Heilbrun feels no need to wonder whether this hostility was deserved. But the conflicts were and are real, and they raise an issue that goes beyond Steinem's particular case: how did women in the white women's movement treat one another when they disagreed? There is a good deal of evidence that feminists were no less sectarian or more kind toward those they considered their enemies than men have been. Often they (we) behaved as though feminists with different politics, but with whom we basically agreed about the problems women faced in American society, were the real enemies.

Why? In a chapter entitled “Trashing” (taking its title from Jo Freeman's essay of the same name), Heilbrun tells the story of the New York radical feminist group Redstockings' accusation that Steinem had worked for the CIA when she organized anti-communist students to go to international youth festivals in the 1950s. Heilbrun represents Steinem as a victim of vicious attacks, “accusations … without substance and often ridiculous”; but this dismisses an important issue. Many people, like Steinem and Allard Lowenstein, consciously or not, were enmeshed in Cold War politics. Liberal student and youth activism, for example the National Student Association, was funded during the Cold War by the CIA and other government agencies.

Heilbrun asks “why, as their frustration and anger mounts, women attack one another rather than the establishment …” Among her answers are that radical women wanted publicity for themselves or their groups, believed Steinem watered down feminism to a politically unacceptable level, never got the credit they felt was their due, and were critical of any woman who stood out. Some of this is undoubtedly true: political differences existed and were significant for how one understood sexism, racism and heterosexism and the strategies that resulted. And as an individual Steinem had managed to acquire a degree of power and efficacy that less well-connected feminists could only dream of.

My interest is not in whether those accusations were true or not, but in how this bitterness was replicated in numerous other hostilities between groups of movement women. I do not want to belittle conflicts between those who embraced diverse political ideologies, analyses, strategies and goals. Nevertheless, like Heilbrun I do find the furious suspicion of other women disturbing. And I admit that my uneasiness may be due to the sense of siege women are experiencing in the 1990s. It feels important now to submerge differences in the face of the backlash, whereas in the heady days when feminism was new and feminists were feeling powerful, political differences among us seemed crucial.

But why would women activists be different from men? Am I replicating Heilbrun's focus on Steinem's niceness, holding women to a different political standard, worried that women should be nice to one another? Men attack each other out of frustration, anger and ideological purity. We know it is very difficult to create alternative psychological and social patterns. Radical social movements have divided over apparently minor differences, producing dogmatism as if by magic, with individuals and groups close in political perspective turning on one another with as much energy as they do on those in power.

Is this more characteristic of left-wing social movements? Consider, for example, the last years of SDS or the struggles between Black Panthers and Ron Karenga's group, US. Radical marginality appears to encourage sectarianism. Finally, though, maybe Heilbrun and I are both worrying about the wrong question. Mainstream politics always includes infighting and verbal assaults, but it's never characterized as cruel sectarianism when Republican politicians attack one another.

Working in the last several years with Alexander Bloom on Takin' It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader (Oxford University Press, 1995), a collection of original documents from the movements of the 1960s, I found that some white feminists of my generation who had been active in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed more bitter as a group than, say, white New Left men. There was contentiousness and suspicion about reprint permissions, about who had written what and who had gotten and should get credit for particular essays or manifestos. I sensed feelings of disappointment and bitterness, perhaps because these women had not received more recognition or because they were disappointed their worlds had not changed more. Expectations were so high during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was inevitable that the women's movement that has changed so much is blamed for not changing more. (Conservatives blame it for precisely the opposite.) Terrible disappointment and blaming or accusing other feminists of, for example, betrayal or ambition, need to be better understood. They are deeply connected to early feminists' feelings of hope, love and marginalization.

There is no doubt that Gloria Steinem is of enormous importance to the feminist movement, that she has worked tirelessly on behalf of feminism, that in the public eye her name, along with Betty Friedan's, is often synonymous with second-wave white feminism. But it seems too soon to write a serious biography. And Heilbrun's book is evidence of this; laboriously, even defensively, she reproduces a narrative Steinem herself has largely told. A more analytical biography would have helped us to get a better grip on the political messiness that Steinem's life embodies and provokes.


  1. See for example Wini Breines, The Great Refusal. Community and Organization in the New Left (Philadelphia: Rutgers University Press, 1989); Jo Freeman, The Politics of Women's Liberation (New York: David McKay Co., 1975); Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987); Edward P. Morgan, The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America (New York: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

Florence King (review date 29 January 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: King, Florence. “The Mud Turtle's Progress.” National Review 48, no. 1 (29 January 1996): 62-4.

[In the following review, King offers a negative assessment of The Education of a Woman, asserting that Heilbrun's inability to objectively portray her subject is “maddening.”]

The parable of the mud turtle comes at the end of this hagiographic book, but it so perfectly illustrates the feminist blind spot of both biographer and subject that I shall start with it.

Here is how Gloria Steinem claims she learned to respect the right to self-determination:

During a science field trip in college, she found a turtle beside a road. Afraid that it would get run over, she picked it up and carried it back into the woods where it would be safe—only to be told by her professor that it had probably taken the turtle weeks to reach the muddy shoulder where she wanted to lay her eggs, but now, thanks to Miss Steinem's help, she would have to start all over again.

“It was a lesson Steinem never forgot,” writes Carolyn G. Heilbrun.

Really? Coulda fooled me. Miss Steinem has made a career of meddling in women's egg-laying habits and taking them where she thinks they ought to be. Now, in what is tactfully known as post-feminism, they are faced with the task of starting all over again.

Writing a biography [The Education of a Woman], of a still-living subject whose friends, enemies, and lovers are still alive is a delicate operation, but Carolyn G. Heilbrun is eminently qualified to jump in with both feet. The author of Writing a Woman's Life, she is widely regarded as the leading expert on female biography. She is also a salted-in-the-shell feminist who used to teach at Columbia until the “boys' treehouse gang,” as she calls male English professors, drove her away. “Women who speak out,” she reminds us, “usually end up punished or dead.” Note that “usually.” Both Miss Heilbrun and Miss Steinem have flourished like the green bay tree.

Gloria Steinem was born in 1934 into a solid middle-class Toledo family, but her father's wild financial schemes and her mother's nervous breakdowns landed them in not-so-genteel poverty. After her parents divorced, she lived with her increasingly delusional mother in a ratty apartment and attended a working-class high school, earning extra money tap dancing at the Lion's Club. These gritty experiences shaped her politics. Years later, watching Chicago police beat up protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention, she said, “Those cops are the boys I went to high school with.”

Life improved in 1951 when her older sister institutionalized their mother and took Miss Steinem to live with her in Washington, where she entered the city's elite public school, Western High in Georgetown. No more tap dancing for Babbitts; secure in her improved social status, she became a swimming instructor at the segregated city's Negro pool. Lady Bountiful on the half shell.

To pay her tuition at Smith, the family sold a piece of property they had managed to hang onto. She graduated in 1956 and won a Chester Bowles fellowship to study in India, spending half of the $1,000 stipend en route on an abortion in London. Avoiding all Westerners, she sought out “the real India,” her solo trek through remote regions facilitated by railroad cars reserved for women only. She went completely native; dyed her hair black, wore saris—and had a karma reading. It said she had “lived in Bengal in a previous incarnation, and that she had done something disastrous to have been born in the United States.”

When she returned to New York, the guilt she had felt in India at being pulled in a tonga (rickshaw) by another human being made her resolve to ride in the front seat of cabs, but she soon gave it up for reasons not hard to imagine.

She conquered male-dominated publishing like a Marxist Scarlett O'Hara. Her best early writing had a Nellie Bly flair, especially her 1963 exposé of Playboy Clubs, “A Bunny's Tale,” but even the worshipful Miss Heilbrun admits that The Beach Book was “clearly not a book any serious publisher in his right mind would have agreed to.” But Viking's Tom Guinzberg was not in his right mind, he was in Miss Steinem's bed. We aren't sure where John Kenneth Galbraith was, but he wrote the introduction to her sandy anthology, explaining that he did so because “I like the girl who put it together.” Sold with a sun screen inside the cover, The Beach Book contained suggested fantasies: “You have just dealt a crushing defeat in public debate to (choose one: William Buckley Jr., Hugh Hefner, David Susskind, Ayn Rand), who is being laughed off the stage.”

But she was never frivolous for long. Given some stock in New York magazine, she used it as collateral to bail women out of prison to get abortions when the prison hospital refused to perform them. Even more earnestly, she told a new bride: “You married that man? I would have stopped you; he's another conservative central European.”

When she founded Ms. she vowed to run “a communal, cooperative, nonhierarchical, democratic” magazine patterned on the “strict structurelessness” of early radical feminism. Nobody had a title and there was no masthead, just an alphabetical list of “workers” with the now-famous Miss Steinem buried under S. This egalitarian code was broken when a worker's mother said, “I saw your boss on television.”

Private offices with doors were verboten; everyone worked in a communal room which also served as the nursery for single mothers on the staff. Editorial duties were assigned by lot; all the workers read all the copy and everyone got to express an opinion, including the receptionist. When a reviewer panned Kate Millett's book some workers didn't want to run the review because it might hurt Miss Millett's feelings; another warned, “Kate might have a nervous breakdown” unless they cut the mean parts.

By 1979 Ms. had lost so much money that Miss Steinem had to file for nonprofit status. This enabled her to get a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Whether it helped that she had had an affair with Ford Foundation president Franklin Thomas is not known.

Her last important lover was real estate tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman, whose limo made her feel so guilty that she asked him to replace it with a van. Normally she would not have slept with a man who believed in trade with countries whose embassies she picketed, but he knew how to break down her resistance: he told her he had had an emotionally deprived childhood. It worked. She decided to “help” him, telling herself, “Once happy, he would give all his money to the poor.” He didn't—nor did he get rid of the limo.

The only enjoyable parts of this book are the quoted passages by other writers. Miss Heilbrun herself is maddening. Three examples will suffice.

Miss Steinem's gullibility in business matters: “Those who despise all group hatreds, all racial and sexual stereotypes, are more easily duped.”

Miss Steinem takes up feminism: “Like Paul after his vision on the road to Damascus, but like him in no other way, she decided to go forth and speak, to spread the message.”

Miss Steinem today: “She has, furthermore, shocked many people in frankly stating that her sexual drive has diminished.”

What is so shocking about a woman of 61 saying that? It's the only sensible thing she's ever said.

Cathy Young (review date 31 May 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Young, Cathy. “Pretty-Power.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4861 (31 May 1996): 11.

[In the following review of The Education of a Woman, Young argues that Heilbrun's biased view of her subject compromises the biography as a serious study of Steinem's life and work.]

If there is one person whose name has been a symbol of American feminism in the past twenty years, it is Gloria Steinem. As journalist, activist and bestselling writer, Steinem has been a charismatic and controversial figure. Many, from the movement veteran Betty Friedan in the 1970s to dissidents like Christina Hoff Sommers today, have criticized her for promoting a gender-war ideology (though in the 1970s, some radicals also attacked her as too bourgeois). Others, more sympathetic to her politics, have been troubled by her recent plunge into New Age-flavoured pursuits such as inner healing and building self-esteem.

Now comes a lengthy, frankly partisan biography of Steinem whose author, the writer and academic Carolyn Heilbrun, is somewhat controversial in her own right (in 1992, announcing her voluntary retirement from Columbia University, she criticized the university as a male bastion where she felt beleaguered). Heilbrun chronicles Steinem's difficult childhood, plagued by poverty and her mother's mental illness; her entry into a more privileged world as a student at prestigious Smith College; her early career as a journalist-cum-glamour girl; her romances, some of them with rich and famous men like the publisher Mortimer Zuckerman; and her activism and writing after her conversion to feminism, including the history of Ms. magazine.

“To the media and those who live in its light, Steinem is, to various degrees, an enigma and, perhaps inevitably, a paradox”, writes Heilbrun. The Education of a Woman highlights many contradictions in Steinem's life. A critic of the traditional family, she never lived in one. Her father was not a stable provider but a feckless dreamer; her mother was talented but fragile and “sometimes crazy”; her parents separated when she was ten. (To Heilbrun, this suggests that a home environment at odds with conventional notions of the family is best suited for producing “a loving and passionately engaged human being”.) An activist who spoke of unequal opportunities for women, she herself was quite successful in the pre-feminist 1960s—but was often treated with condescension as “a pretty girl who writes”.

There is, finally, the paradox of “a feminist in a miniskirt”. While Steinem's name is linked to a movement that has railed against the treatment of women as sex objects, her looks, which age has barely withered, have always been part of her public image. Heilbrun, who seems rather too preoccupied with her subject's appearance, surely exaggerates when she calls Steinem “the epitome of female beauty”; but she was good-looking enough to go undercover as a Playboy bunny for a famous magazine assignment. Heilbrun concludes that despite Steinem's habit of “underplaying … if not denying” her attractiveness, she undoubtedly appreciated—“in however ambivalent a manner”—its value as an asset at the start of her career, and consciously used its effect later on as a living refutation of the stereotypes of feminists as hairy Amazons or ugly spinsters who could not get a man. In Heilbrun's words, Steinem proved that women “had the right to assume power without sacrificing sexuality.”

The Education of a Woman tells an entertaining enough story, offering some juicy anecdotes about celebrities who have crossed Steinem's path and painting an often colourful picture of the life of the left-wing intelligentsia in the 1960s and of the women's movement in the 1970s and 80s. But as a serious analysis of Steinem's life and work, the book is hopelessly compromised by Heilbrun's adoration of her heroine, whom at one point she likens to Gandhi and of whom she gushes, “On the part of many women as well as men, Steinem has inspired lust or passionate desire.”

Too often, the biography reads more like a valentine. Heilbrun does permit herself some critical remarks about Steinem's books, pointing out the banality of the self-help ideas articulated in Steinem's self-esteem work, Revolution from Within. But any detail that might be seen as less than appealing is explained away or glossed over. Thus, the episode in which Steinem told a writer for Vanity Fair that her former flame Zuckerman had never given money to Ms.—prompting Zuckerman to submit records of his donations and threaten a suit—is blamed on the magazine's negligence in fact-checking, but the issue of Steinem's apparent disingenuousness never comes up.

A committed leftist, Heilbrun even shows remarkable tolerance towards Steinem's work in 1959 for a CIA-backed foundation set up to send young Americans to International Communist Youth Festivals to counter Soviet influence (“these events must be seen in their historical context”); one suspects that her attitude would be quite different in the case of someone she admired less. And certain aspects of Steinem's activism, which even Heilbrun perhaps finds too embarrassing, are simply omitted—such as her involvement in the largely discredited cause of so-called recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Steinem's alliance with anti-pornography extremists cannot be evaded altogether, but Heilbrun tries to paper over the significance of the pornography debate in feminism, blithely asserting that “much of the disagreement could be cured by information”—for instance, “the antipornography groups are not advocating censorship, but activism and social pressure, and they are not ‘antisex’ but in favour of differentiating pornography from erotica, like rape versus sex”. But this is really misinformation, since the activists want any woman offended by pornography to be able to sue its producers and distributors, and some of their leaders, like Andrea Dworkin, essentially equate all heterosexual intercourse with rape.

Here, at least, Heilbrun acknowledges the possibility of legitimate disagreements within feminism. Elsewhere, feminists whose views differ from Steinem's are reduced to caricatures (Katie Roiphe is said to have found “fame and fortune by blaming the rape victim”), and women who criticize Steinem are assumed to have nefarious motives: they are threatened by a combination of “such looks and such radical and feminist ideals”, or they “ach[e] for the publicity Steinem seemed able so easily to evoke”.

Ultimately, the purpose of this impassioned tribute is not just a celebration of Steinem but a defence of what she stands for today: a brand of feminism that rejects the institutions of Western societies as thoroughly “patriarchal”, sees women as living in a state of siege, and often uses “male” as a pejorative (Heilbrun comments on the need for environmentalism “on a planet hideously misused by male ambitions of domination, exploitation, and arrogance”, as if women did not use technology). Steinem has undoubtedly played an important role, helping to bring attention to women's issues at a time when legitimate feminist ideas were not taken very seriously by the media. But the direction she represents has reached an impasse, and is being challenged by a new generation of independent-thinking women who reject both anti-feminist traditionalism and gender-war feminism. So far, Steinem and Heilbrun have responded by name-calling—a sign of weakness if ever there was one.

Annette Zilversmit (review date January 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Zilversmit, Annette. “Free at Last.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 4 (January 1998): 10-11.

[In the following review, Zilversmit praises the essays in The Last Gift of Time as courageous and inspiring looks at the process of aging.]

“Not to change one's life is not to keep living,” wrote Virginia Woolf. To open with a quote from Woolf is appropriate for a review of Carolyn Heilbrun's moving memoir-reflection [The Last Gift of Time]. It is obviously appropriate for those who know this feminist's writing on Virginia Woolf, who shattered the “appropriate” for women with her life and art. It is appropriate because Heilbrun's direct but supple prose is sp(l)iced with quotations from other authors, mostly women, offering what critic Laura Levitt has called “textual embraces.”

But this Woolfian aphorism is necessary as well as appropriate, because, in spite of what the book's title seems to suggest, this collection of essays is not the smooth continuing saga of the life and thought of a pioneer feminist mover during her seventh decade; it reflects the changing, the “re-imagining” once more of a woman's life that until 1992 looked like the fulfillment of Heilbrun's own directives as set down in her 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood.

By her 66th year, Heilbrun had been a professor for more than thirty years in Columbia University's English Department, where few women and certainly no Jewish woman had been appointed before. She had written several books of feminist criticism and literary history (all still in print and still read by a wide audience) and she was enjoying a “long, extended, mostly satisfying marriage” that had produced three children. And (where she fit it in is hard to fathom) she was the creator, under the name of Amanda Cross, of ten mystery novels, and promising more.

Having checkerboarded time and place successfully in all those roles, admittedly with struggle and anxiety (especially about being a mother, as she reveals in this book), Heilbrun had no intention of changing her life. Believing, as she had written in Reinventing Womanhood, that “[w]omen must continue to invade the domains of power in order to change institutions as we know them, in order to offer places to other women … and to do justice to themselves,” she had not planned on leaving her position. But she also did not plan to meet the depth of resistance toward feminism in her own department. Though she chooses not to give details of the final frustrating months, she epitomizes the situation in the words of an eminent male colleague, who declared in the student newspaper that one of the ten worst books he had ever read was by Adrienne Rich.

In the spring of 1992, as an act of protest (dramatic enough to be covered in the New York Times), Heilbrun resigned her tenured, and by now endowed, professorship. Having always feared the loss of her university affiliations and structures, she was “shocked” at how immediately relieved she was never to have to enter that “poisonous atmosphere” again. Understanding suddenly “how privileged Victorian women must have felt when they took off the stays and dresses that inhibited motion and flexed their bodies and moved their muscles,” she finds that she “had entered a life unimagined previously, of happiness, impossible to youth or to the years of constantly being needed at home and at work.”

The achievement of that transition, the reinvention of a woman's life after a long professional career, was not easy. How Heilbrun reached her present balance of “activity and serenity” outside the academy is the plot of this memoir. She begins by admitting that this transition was easier than her climb up “the slippery academic ladder,” where no stories, even oral ones, from the rare women faculty, were there to guide her. She acknowledges she now enjoys (I would say has earned) many advantages: a long-time partner, an ample pension, and city and country homes. But the greatest difference from her academic past is, she writes, the chamber of women's voices she now surrounds herself with—newly-made women friends and colleagues, daughters, long-lost cousins and, most of all, the many contemporary women writers, especially American poets, she reads and writes.

When Heilbrun finds the bitter and disillusioned memoirs of the well-known journalist and novelist, Doris Grumbach, who only mentions male colleagues, she confirms that “the intimacy [of women's voices] helped make [my] sixties my happiest decade.” In her essay-portrait of the now seventy-year-old poet Maxine Kumin, she expands: “We read … as women read about women who have braved the terrors and hopes we share, at least to some degree. Courage in women always catches me up, moves me to compassion, and the desire [to offer other women] succor, sustenance, if possible.”

Not by any means a self-help book, The Last Gift of Time is filled with gentle (sometimes not so gentle) proddings, disarmingly frank insights and lessons learned as Heilbrun re-maps what may be the last part of an achieving woman's life. Untethered from unsupportive colleagues, she finds the first of her “few but insistent desires”—total solitude. What she thinks she wants is that “room,” in this case a house, of her own. “To be alone,” she discovers, “if one has not been doomed to aloneness is a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation.” And her first essay in this book, “The Small House,” tells of her search for that space, and a surprising discovery once she inhabits it. She wittily recreates her wrangles with realtors who refuse to believe that she wants no swimming pool, large grounds, or old trees. But having found a spare barn-like structure and spent half a day there alone, she welcomes back her (luckily not very loquacious) husband, gives him a study downstairs (hers is up), and concludes that what she truly wanted was “a house where the only noise was mine and his.”

With space chosen and time taken, Heilbrun faces in Time her greatest challenge—how to fill them. Even this productive scholar “for whom work is the essence of life” has to decide how to make her new life satisfying. As she listens to two “muses,” one an erotically charged male, the other a female English writer, she makes her most serious wrong turn. Hearing in one ear Sylvia Townsend Warner urging “the aging” to undertake something difficult and new and “re-root” themselves, and in the other Andrew Marvell, warning his coy mistress of too little “world enough and time,” Heilbrun seduces herself into spending the first years of her retirement writing the biography of activist feminist Gloria Steinem. Yet with the publication of The Education of a Woman in 1995, to respectable, if mixed, reviews, she confesses she has wasted (her) time and spent her world with a non-introspective woman whom she still respects, but who, she acknowledges, provided no “sub-texts” for her literary soul.

The remaining twelve essays reflect the more careful use of her time and world. They are the richest part of the book both in substance and craft. Two of the best, “A Unique Person” and “An Unmet Friend,” are evocative portraits of May Sarton and Maxine Kumin, the first of whom Heilbrun actually befriended for many years before her death, the second very much alive, but one of those “unmet friends” she wants to preserve that way. Heilbrun has analyzed and praised their writings else where; here she highlights the courageous changes each woman writer made at crucial points in her career, moves both inspiring and cautionary for Heilbrun herself.

Sarton is admired for leaving the literary social circles of New York for desolate country houses, there to write of the joys and ravages of solitude. But after drawing Sarton with her wounds and woundings, her never-forgotten bad reviews and her inconsiderateness to those who did love her, Heilbrun concludes that, ironically, she with “husband, children, parents, and work” has been able “to bask” more fully in the solitude she carefully planned than this poet of solitary life who was always beckoning and berating lovers and friends. She cites Kumin for surrendering the security of a suburban Boston life, taking a reluctant husband and children to live on a horse farm so that she could write more deftly her “women's poetry” of animals, love and loss. Although this is the only writer she calls her “alter ego,” Heilbrun also knows that, unlike Kumin, she could never be the constant attendant of animals and domesticity.

Fortified by inscribing these “exemplary” women, Heilbrun moves into high gear herself, pronouncing on a wide range of subjects. Annoyed in “Sex and Romance” that middle-aged writers like Marilyn French and Doris Lessing still have heroines who yearn for sexual passion, she asks whether “if we could discover a word that meant ‘adventure’ and did not mean ‘romance,’ we in our last decades [would not connect] yearning and sex.” Resigned, though quite affectionately, to her own less than romantic, essentially intractable husband, she wonders in “Living with Men” why women bother with them at all.

Grounding some of these more jaunty pieces are intimations of mortality and some unfinished business. Perhaps the most poignant excursion is the unexpected return in “The Family Lost and Found” to that part of her self which has been problematic in many of her writings—that of being a Jew. Having identified closely with a women's tradition, first in Writing a Woman's Life (1988) and now in this latest book, Heilbrun is challenged to confront her other “outsider” position when cousins of her father's sisters (whom she claims not to have known about) read about her resignation from Columbia in the newspaper and arrange to meet her. Her immigrant father had severed himself from his family and religion once he became socially and financially successful; now she ponders her willed forgetfulness: “Which was stranger, that I never knew my father's family, or that I never wondered why?” The reunion leads to new recoveries, but Heilbrun still leaves much unresolved.

But it is the irresolutions and the points of contention (and agreement) I have as I read Heilbrun that remind me of what has always made reading her so bracing and pleasurable. For all her polished prose, the tone is always conversational, the “we” used frequently. Heilbrun is always challenging (women) readers to make more sense of their lives, “to catch courage” from reading other women's writings. Coming upon this book as I was myself trying to decide whether to continue as chair of a contentious English department, I caught that courage and made my decisions. For those inoculated by present contentment, reading this long-time feminist's charting of her last years will be no less than inspiring. For others, more exposed and conflicted, The Last Gift of Time may be that saving dose of courage.

Perspectives in Psychiatric Care (review date April-June 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of The Last Gift of Time, by Carolyn Heilbrun. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care 35, no. 2 (April-June 1999): 2, 36.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Last Gift of Time, praising the collection as entertaining and insightful.]

May Sarton's readers will remember Carolyn Heilbrun as Sarton's friend and critic. I also remember a scathing article Heilbrun once wrote in the New York Times Magazine about sexism in the English department at Columbia University. Heilbrun is a well-known feminist writer and biographer of Gloria Steinem.

As the title suggests [The Last Gift of Time], this book is a collection of essays about life after 60. For those of us around this age, or working with patients around this age, it will strike many familiar chords. In the preface, Heilbrun cites several other recent books about women aging. These include Doris Grumbach's Coming into the End Zone as well as Sarton's last four journals: At Seventy: A Journal; Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year; Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year; and At Eighty Two: A Journal. Heilbrun sees her senior years as more blessed than those of Grumbach and Sarton. She credits her close friendship with women as an advantage over Grumbach, who lived in a world of male writers. As for Sarton, Heilbrun characterizes her as a very troubled, volatile woman.

In the first essay, Heilbrun describes a house she buys to escape both New York City and the big country house she and her husband own and use to entertain their grown children and friends. Though she buys the house seeking solitude, her husband follows her and settles in, not wanting to be in the big house without her. Having lived a long marriage, they settle for solitude together.

Next, she buys a dog, Bianca, and learns to amble in her walks with her, for she no longer has to hurry.

My desire for Bianca, and my pleasure in her was rewarding, as many seemingly odd choices can be rewarding, if at a price. Of course there is always a price. But the fear of paying it, I convinced myself before giving in to my need for a dog, is the highest price of all.

(p. 35)

In the essay on time, Heilbrun quotes Grumbach's description in Extra Innings: A Memoir of meetings in academia:

All the things I disliked most about academic meetings in the old days were present in this one: the fraudulent surface of civility, the undercurrent of prearranged and determined agendas, the rude disregard of a woman chairman by male members of the executive committee accustomed to dominating every moment of their privileged lives, their loud (or contrivedly too soft) and always obtrusive voices carrying every question and insisting on every answer. My humiture was intense. I came away feeling sick, tired, discouraged, and angry at myself for spending four days of my diminishing supply of time in this absurd way.

(p. 38)

Heilbrun was shocked at how little she missed academia after retiring from Columbia, and how much she savored the gift of time she'd finally earned.

I entered into a period of freedom, and only past sixty learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power, always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous.

(p. 39)

An essay on e-mail discusses the possibility of keeping in touch with old friends and students without the inconvenience of calling them when they weren't prepared to talk, or searching for pens, paper, and mailboxes.

I hope it is now obvious that e-mail is especially suited … to those of us no longer revolving our days around the working world. It reaches into our privacy without invading it, an astonishing accomplishment; it connects us with those with whom the possibility of connection might have remained unexpected; it offers us welcome without the necessity of social arrangements; it inspires us to confidences and the practice of wit.

(p. 68)

I was especially enticed by the essay about May Sarton, “A Unique Person.” Along with the recent biography of Sarton (Peters, 1997), this essay does not paint a flattering portrait. In an attempt to present her strengths as well as her weaknesses, Heilbrun acknowledges Sarton's contributions to the women readers of her journals: “By writing of her own life, she illuminates theirs” (p. 72). Her attraction is seen as “an ability intensely to experience every moment and to convey that intensity in such a way as to enrich the lives of more sober folk” (p. 88).

One of the most entertaining essays for me was “On Not Wearing Dresses.” “Oh, the triumph of saying in one's sixties that one will never wear panty hose again” (p. 132). I was pleased to finally see something I wrote years ago in this journal (Lego, 1981) echoed in her words, “… without social and cultural restraints individuals will be sexually attracted to other individuals based not on their sex (meaning gender) but on the strength of their personal appeal” (p. 134). Heilbrun is heartened by signs that women of all ages are becoming more interested in comfort than desirability. “… at least some women will wish to be judged by qualities other than their dress, their ability to appear thin and helpless, their success in inspiring male lust” (p. 136).

Married for many years and working in a male-dominated department, Heilbrun has strong opinions about men. In “Living with Men” she writes that statements should not be made about “all men,” with two exceptions: All men, she believes, have an inability to accept the unconscious to change anything other than their appearance. In addition “… if you aren't doing what they want, they aren't going to love you no matter how nice you are” (p. 172). I found myself taking exception to these generalizations as, I suspect, many nurse psychotherapists will. She philosophically concludes “… if one is married to a man, this is what is to be expected on the debit side, just as if you have a cat as a pet, you expect the furniture to get clawed” (p. 123).

As nurse psychotherapists who have just gained reimbursement for Medicare clients, we will soon find our caseloads filled with patients over 60. I found Heilbrun's ideas and experience reverberated with my own, my friends', and the aging patients I now see. As she writes,

The greatest oddity of one's sixties is that if one jumps for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one's later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never effaced.

(p. 55)

Works Cited

Grumbach, D. (1993). Extra Innings. A Memoir. New York: Norton.

Lego, S. (1991). “Beginning Resolution of the Odeipal Conflict in a Lesbian Who Is about to Become a “Parent” to a Son.” Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 19 (3-4), 107-11.

Peters, M. (1997). May Sarton. A Biography. New York: Knopf.

Sarton, M. (1984). At Seventy. A Journal. New York: Norton.

Sarton, M. (1992). Endgame. A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth year. New York: Norton.

Sarton, M. (1993). Encore. A Journal of the Eightieth Year. New York: Norton.

Sarton, M. (1996). At Eighty Two. A Journal. New York: Norton.

Sarah Emsley (review date autumn 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Emsley, Sarah. Review of Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold, by Carolyn Heilbrun. Dalhousie Review 79, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 425-27.

[In the following review, Emsley compliments Heilbrun's portrayal of the challenges that women face in the modern world in Women's Lives, but concludes that the work's conclusion is incomplete and unsatisfying.]

Carolyn G. Heilbrun's Women's Lives is composed of the four Alexander lectures she delivered at the University of Toronto in 1997. The University of Toronto Press summary and introduction to Heilbrun's lectures (i-ii) lists her as part of “a line of distinguished scholarly work with such previous lecturers as Walter Ong, Robertson Davies, and Northrop Frye,” but then goes on to suggest that “Heilbrun, within this distinguished genealogy, reworks the very notion of the line, creating a new pattern of writing and approaching literary culture.”

Heilbrun does challenge the notion of linearity as a model of successful literature, invoking in her second chapter, “The Evolution of the Female Memoir,” Susan Winnett's argument in an article on “Women, Men, Narrative, and the Principles of Pleasure,” which asks “Is there … always the same ‘master plot’ imitating linear male sexuality, or do some narratives reflect female sexual experience?” (Heilbrun 33). Heilbrun says that “Women may be said to have neither a path nor a linear rise and fall; rather, their sexual experience may be defined as a series of circles, a rhythm that may appear to men, and to those of us taught to think like men, unfamiliar, repetitive, and declining to proceed to a single, ordained finale” (34). In her rhetoric in these lectures, Heilbrun says, she herself resists the male, linear pattern, and returns to some points in a seemingly repetitive but in fact intentionally circular way.

After explaining her own lecturing style, she draws attention to a number of moments when she creates circular patterns, such as when she reminds readers in Chapter Three, “Embracing the Paradox,” that she has already discussed Cathy Davidson's memoir Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji in the first lecture (71). But while asserting the validity of the circular narrative, Heilbrun simultaneously undermines her own argument by placing these intentional repetitions in parentheses, thus marginalizing the very method she seeks to defend. For example, she says in another parenthetical argument on the next page, “(Let me pause here to make a quite irrelevant and yet to me significant point about the liminality of current professional female nomenclature …),” and she then discusses the fact that many women academics are known by a married name that often belongs to a former husband. She argues that women should instead claim a name that will be their own for their entire professional and personal lives. This discussion of names is surely not incidental or unnecessarily repetitive in a chapter on the formation of women's identities. The parentheses may be intentional, but to claim that an issue she feels strongly about is “quite irrelevant” detracts from Heilbrun's defence of digression, repetition, and circularity as valid forms of female narrative.

Women's Lives circles through, among other things, questions of women's beauty or relative lack of it in relation to their intellectual and artistic success, women's lived experience of dissent from convention and the challenge of writing about that experience, the tensions between mothers and daughters over what constitutes a useful and fulfilled life, and the necessity of continuing the struggle to recognize and value women's lives and potential. Heilbrun writes clearly and passionately of the challenges women confront daily through their lives, and she urges readers to celebrate the idea that women are on the threshold of possibilities. The condition of liminality, she writes, is a “threshold experience” that offers choices and challenges: “to be in a state of liminality is to be poised upon uncertain ground, to be leaving one condition or country or self and entering upon another. But the most salient sign of liminality is its unsteadiness, its lack of clarity about exactly where one belongs and what one should be doing, or wants to be doing” (3). Women's Lives celebrates that state of liminality as possessing a transformative power for the direction of women's lives. What the book doesn't do, however, is talk much about the consequences of the choices women eventually must and do make.

Liminality may be liberating, but it is not eternal. It can indeed be exciting and energizing to imagine the power to make new choices, to create new patterns, and to live in a different way, but ultimately those choices, patterns, and lives are made, and then women have to live with them. Heilbrun says that “the place of feminism, and women within it … is a place that is amidst, among, atwixt, rooted nowhere but in the realm of questioning, experiment, and adventure, and as it questions everything, it uses what it finds befitting” (98). But how do women determine what is befitting? Heilbrun doesn't address this question, and at this point she avoids circling back to her first and most prominent example of a woman who created her own unconventional life and thus flourished as an artist—George Eliot, who with her well-known belief in the peremptory and absolute nature of moral duty would be unlikely to sympathize with a way of life that involves experiment without context or standards. Heilbrun argues that “in the higher reaches of academic feminist theory, the state of necessary in-betweenness is understood and valued” (98), which may be true, but academic feminism as Heilbrun outlines it nevertheless has a specific, decided, even linear goal: “Feminism, in literature as in life, has either moved women, or tried to move them, from the margins closer to the centre of human experience and possibility or has made evident their absence from that centre” (3).

Liminality and circularity are useful and exciting, sites of tensions, debate, and the opening up of possibility, but they are not ends in themselves. Heilbrun's argument for the value of women's liminal condition is important and interesting, but just as she undermines the value of circularity in her lectures by deriding some of her own points as irrelevant or as mere digressions, her case for the central importance of liminality in women's lives eclipses the consequences of the choices women make as a result of the very freedom that liminality gives them. These consequences are hinted at in the last paragraph of the book, where, after suggesting that the conventional place of women “will always be attractive to those who would rather be safe than sorry,” Heilbrun concludes that “the threshold, on the contrary, is the place where as women and as creators of literature, we write our own lines and, eventually, our own plays” (102). Following the conventional path of women's lives means rehearsing a drama others have acted before us; living on the threshold of experience means improvising and revising action, practising lines and writing new ones. The view from the threshold, however, is of the plays women will write, no longer hovering at the margin or the threshold in a condition of uncertainty and obscurity, but central to fully lived human life. The threshold is a valuable intermediate step, a place where women can practise, but it is not the place where they will write their own plays. Although Heilbrun doesn't say this explicitly, she implies that women won't live liminal lives at the threshold forever, because after rehearsing and improvising, they will need to move to writing from the centre, if possible. This book needs a sequel.

Carolyn Dever (essay date summer 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dever, Carolyn. “The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 185-206.

[In the following essay, Dever comments on the state of feminism through an exploration of the relationship between academic and personal life in Marilyn French's The Women's Room and Heilbrun's Death in a Tenured Position.]

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance.

—Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror1

When Ginny Babcock, the wealthy, white, Southern protagonist of Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1976), moves from Cambridge to Vermont to live in a women's collective with her lesbian lover Eddie, she soon grows impatient with the pieties of her liberationist friends. That impatience swiftly yields poetic justice, however, as Ginny's irritants are hoisted, jointly and severally, by their own petards. First falls Laverne, best known for her close relationship with an enormous vibrator; Ginny writes, “Just then there was a scream and a sizzling sound from upstairs, and all the lights went out.”2 Putting out the electrical fire, Ginny and her friends find Laverne, charred and apparently dead, lying under a sleeping bag. They resuscitate her, and when the ambulance arrives, the driver inspects Laverne's prostrate body: “Folding down the sleeping bag another turn, he rolled out one of her knees and discovered raw burned patches on the insides of her thighs. With a frown, he noticed an electrical cord. As he pulled on it, Laverne's vibrator popped out of her … The doctor held the phallus-shaped vibrator, turned it over, sniffed it, scratched his head. It had a big crack all the way up it. Laverne had apparently achieved her goal of the Ultimate Orgasm” (p. 332).

Laverne survives the trauma but leaves the commune to take up life in a convent; this is either a retirement or a retreat, depending on one's perspective on her pursuit of the Ultimate Orgasm. The next victim is not so lucky, however. Ginny's lover Eddie seeks revenge on freewheeling snowmobilers who trespass on the commune's property. In defense of that property, and hoping to entrap the trespassers, she erects a thin, nearly invisible piece of wire along the property line. But in a hysterical rage against Ginny, Eddie herself steals one of those snowmobiles and shoots across the snowy meadow:

But just before Eddie reached the pond, Ira's Sno Cat appeared to hesitate slightly. The next instant, Eddie's head flew off her shoulders and bounced and spun across the ice like a crazed basketball. I watched with utter appalled disbelief: What I had just seen couldn't possibly have happened! Ira's Sno Cat coasted to a stop, and Eddie's headless body rolled off the seat and onto the ice with a dull plunk.

(P. 335)

Most shocking for Ginny about this death is its very cleanness: there was no blood spilled as Eddie's head and body were severed far more precisely than even the adjective “surgical” might suggest. And if Eddie's decapitation underscores the flimsy logic of her feminist commitment, dying as she does in defense of private property, Laverne's self-inflicted injury suggests the dangers inherent in appropriating the phallus, especially when that phallus comes equipped with an electrical cord.

Soon thereafter Ginny leaves the commune to marry Ira Bliss, the owner of the snowmobile on which Eddie met her demise. Thus ends Ginny's radical feminist phase, and with the death of Eddie and the claustration of Laverne, thus ends the novel's engagement with non-heterosexual eroticism of any sort. Eddie's wire boundary would in the end prove brutally efficient as the commune becomes its own structure of feminist containment, securely detached from the world at large.

My purpose in this essay is to suggest that such episodes of violent death serve a profoundly constitutive, boundary-establishing function within feminist novels produced in the U.S. during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Death acts as the invisible wire that kills Eddie, marking a distinction between feminist survivors and feminist scapegoats, marking a distinction, too, as it does here in the most graphic of terms, between the feminist mind and the feminist body. Indeed, as Eddie's death most gruesomely suggests, the mind-body divide is a core concern for feminist fictions of this period, and in the novels on which I will focus, Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977) and Amanda Cross's Death in a Tenured Position (1981), it is thematized through the negotiation of protagonists' academic careers and their complex, often contradictory, personal lives. Indebted to The Group, Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel that follows a group of Vassar undergraduates into the world, feminist novels of the late 1970s exploit a university context in an attempt to fathom the intersection of the feminist mind and the feminist body, and, in the process, to develop a critique of the misogyny endemic within institutions. Among the many novels featuring university settings are Kinflicks,The Women's Room,Death in a Tenured Position, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1972), Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972), Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1974), and Alice Walker's Meridian (1976). My particular interest in The Women's Room and Death in a Tenured Position involves their setting in English Departments, and thus their engagement with overlapping concerns, specifically, the intersection of aesthetic practices and feminist social action. Characters' intellectual concern with literature, with instabilities of meaning, the construction of women's literary ancestry, and the far reaches of aesthetic sublimity, exists in marked contrast with the “here and now” of their own fictional lives and the bodies which they inhabit, encounter, and for which they clean.

The contrast of mind and body, of academy and “real life,” represents a standoff between feminism, in theory—that is, feminism as an idealized, abstracted, oftentimes academic pursuit—and feminism in practice, which involves difficult demands of the body, of dirt, of pleasure, of the daily degradations and humiliations that put theory to the test, find it wanting, and work to fine-tune its generalizing assumptions. In the early 1980s, feminism “became secure and prospered in the academy while feminism as a social movement was encountering major setbacks in a climate of new conservatism,” writes Jane Gallop in Around 1981.3 Among other factors involved in the increasing academicization of U.S. feminism in the early 1980s were recent translations, and thus the new availability, of texts by French poststructuralists including Derrida, Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, and Lacan. This critical context contributed to the acceleration of a shift in U.S. feminist theories from a primarily Marxist critical paradigm to one that depended increasingly on a psychoanalytic model. Thus intervening at an extremely sensitive moment in feminist history, novels of this period locate themselves at the intersection of academic and more generally social concerns; from that juncture, they present theories of their own about the means by which feminist ideals might operate in the context of material praxis.4

In 1981, Carolyn Heilbrun, then a professor of English at Columbia University who writes detective novels under the name Amanda Cross, published Death in a Tenured Position. This novel is part of a series that features the protagonist Kate Fansler, an independently wealthy, WASP-ish, feminist English professor at a major university in New York City, who happens to solve murder mysteries in her spare time. I want to emphasize the categories of identity that Cross rather aggressively attaches to her detective, not simply to suggest that Fansler is a surrogate for Cross/Heilbrun, but rather to emphasize the fact that Fansler, by virtue of her identity, symbolizes a series of mainstream, bourgeois feminist values: like many of her counterparts, including Isadora Wing of Jong's Fear of Flying, Fansler is a New Yorker, financially invulnerable due to her possession of a trust fund, heterosexual, white, well-educated, and because of her own personal experiences, concerned with sexual chauvinism. Kate Fansler's feminist politics run deep but not radical; early in Death in a Tenured Position, she encounters the lesbian separatist Joan Theresa and becomes painfully conscious of the legibility of her appearance: “The raincoat Kate had hung up was a fashionable raincoat. Her shoes, though flat, were fashionable shoes. Her panty hose covered shaved legs. Her suit, ultra-suede, was worn over a turtleneck knit, and on her jacket was a pin: a gold pin. Kate was dressed for the patriarchy.”5 “‘My clothes,’” says Kate to Joan Theresa, “‘make my life easier, as yours make your life easier’” (p. 10). Upper-class, educated, and a feminist, Kate Fansler's very liminality enables her to achieve the symbolic translations necessary to accommodate both feminist and “patriarchal” agendas. She is intelligent, attractive, and desirable, and in fictional worlds, the material and especially sartorial tokens of middle-class respectability are a central mechanism through which feminist agendas are transmitted to a mass-market readership. Later in the novel, Kate jokingly accuses her friend Sylvia of becoming “‘one of those awful women's libbers’” (p. 26). Sylvia's response: “‘You betcha. I eat bras; my favorite is 34B, pink, lightly sizzled. I will eat one soon if the waiter doesn't come. Shall we have it with white wine or red?’”

This novel's lightly satirical detachment from radical politics belies the fact that it contains the spectrum of feminist possibilities in characters that range from commune-dwelling lesbian separatists, to the gentler feminism of Kate and Sylvia, to the brutal misogyny of its villains and of its victim. And indeed, as both a detective and, suggestively, as an academic, Kate will need the protective coloring of her wealth and conventional style, for the novel's mystery goes right to questions of institutional authority: Death in a Tenured Position concerns first the career crisis, then the death of Janet Mandelbaum, the first female professor of English at Harvard University.

If Columbia University's English Department was symbolically central to the women's movement because of the scandal surrounding Kate Millett's publication of Sexual Politics in 1970,6 Harvard's English Department emerges even more powerfully as the emblem of patriarchal privilege paradoxically surrounded by Cambridge, the heart of youth culture and a center of the antiwar movement. The juxtaposition of Harvard's backwardness and the progressive enclave of Cambridge is fruitful within popular literatures of the women's movement, a dichotomy deployed not only by Cross, but also by Alther, Piercy in Small Changes, and most famously, by French in The Women's Room. Cross and French alike frame their fictions through the observation that there is almost literally no place for women at Harvard, an architectural critique that symbolizes implicit institutional misogyny. Both novels focus on what Lacan calls “urinary segregation,” borrowing on bathroom politics in order to make a point about gendered ideologies that follow from entrenched social conventions of sexual difference.7

French's novel opens with Mira peering into the mirror in an obscure Harvard “ladies' room”—“She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies' in the sign on the door, and written women's underneath”8—while Cross's Janet Mandelbaum is found dead in the English Department men's room. True to the larger lavatorial motif, the professional politics of misogyny represented through these women's encounters with the university focuses on bodily implications; the insistence in an academic context on women's bodies suggests that the body is profoundly inescapable, untranscendable even in the loftiest of contexts. In Cross's novel, a young Harvard English professor writes to a friend of his department's mandate to hire a woman, implicitly equating the male-separatist enclave of the academy with the politics of the old-boys' room: “Of course, they are all worried about menopause—it is absolutely all they can think of when a woman threatens to penetrate their masculine precincts—how revealing language is” (p. 1). And when Kate Fansler first considers coming to Janet Mandelbaum's assistance at Harvard, she recalls Henry James, who “wrote a novel in the 1890s in which a young woman shows an admirer around Harvard, pointing out each of the buildings and remarking that there is no place for women in them; Harvard hasn't changed much since. Little more than ten years ago, women could not use many of the libraries” (p. 14).

For French, too, the architectural exclusion of women from Harvard only underscores a more widespread pattern of exclusion justified by the putative uncontainability of the female body. Linking the scatological implications of bathrooms with libraries, Val, the most radical of Mira's graduate student friends (and the one who is ultimately—predictably—punished for her radicalism with death) argues similarly that Harvard discriminates against women for “sanitary” considerations: “‘You let women through the front doors and what will they do? Splat splat, a big clot of menstrual blood right on the threshold. Every place women go they do it: splat splat. There are little piles of clotty blood all over Lamont Library now. There are special crews hired just to keep the place decently mopped down’” (p. 304). Val's fantasy of the library's contamination caricatures misogynistic fears about the uncontainability of women's bodies, even as it suggests that patriarchal institutions—the library, the university—are insufficiently fortified to effect that containment at all.

Emily Martin argues that women have used sex-segregated bathrooms as “backstage areas” and spaces in which they could constitute their own “solidarity and resistance” to the containment of their bodies in the public sphere of the workplace.9The Women's Room, from its title to its conclusion, is intensely aware of the possibilities and the dangers of such resistance. Although bathrooms themselves in this novel tend to be spaces of women's isolation, anxiety, and panic, the collegial community that the women in Mira's circle succeed in constructing serves as the kind of “women's room” Virginia Woolf imagines in A Room of One's Own, its own site of subversion from within. But for some the inescapable, inevitably visceral embodiedness of women is the stuff of the most treacherous anxiety dreams, presenting a conundrum that is as frightening as it is liberatory. Reflecting Val's imagery, the graduate student Kyla has the following dream prior to her oral exam:

She dreamt she was in the room where orals were held, a wood-paneled room with small paned windows and a broad shining table. The three men who were to examine her were sitting at one end of the table quarreling as she walked in. She had just stepped inside the door when she spied the pile in the corner. Instantly she knew what it was, but she was incredulous, she was so ashamed, she moved nearer to check it out. It was what she thought. She was horrified. Those stained sanitary napkins, those bloody underpants were hers, she knew they were hers, and she knew the men would know it too. She tried to stand in front of them, but there was no way she could conceal them. The men had stopped quarreling, they had turned to face her, they were peering at her …

(P. 410, ellipses in original)

In a startling moment of unconscious identification, Kyla aligns herself, and her fears for and about herself, with the misogynistic establishment: she, like her examiners, fears the uncontainable bloody excesses of the female body, and for Kyla such a fear of bodily betrayal is at once embarrassing and professionally disabling. Her body's secrets refuse to remain contained in the other space of the women's room; in Kyla's deepest anxiety, her body refuses to collude with “the men” over the open secret of its femaleness, and simply reiterates the fear that her examiners will fail to perceive Kyla's mind within the insistent context of her uncontrollable body.

“Menstrual blood,” writes Julia Kristeva, “stands for the danger issuing from within identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.”10 For Val, for Kyla, for Janet Mandelbaum, their bodies signify sexual difference even as their vocational ambitions lay claim to a pretense of gender neutrality; the well-trained mind should, in theory anyway, neutralize the ideological effects of a binary-sex model. Like Cross, French deploys the ostensibly abstract intellectual politics of the university in order to undercut the ascetic assumptions of disembodiedness implicit within the life of the mind, foregrounding instead the painful struggle feminists faced in the effort to reconcile the body politics of academic labor with more abstract claims of aesthetics and the intellectual sphere. By forcing the reconciliation of the abstract and the material, such bodily degradations help to constitute the borderlines of the feminist subject, even as they expose the very vulnerability of that subject-position by modeling the most spectacular, even mortal, implications of its failure.

Kristeva suggests that the degradations of the abject help to serve a constitutive function: mediating within the binary pair “subject” and “object,” the abject becomes recognizable through the act of expulsion, through the putting-out that, in one stroke, constitutes and maps the boundary line between in and out. The constitutive function of the body, and especially of the abjectified corpse, in novels of the women's liberation movement expresses “feminist subjectivity” as a singular and a collective enterprise by modeling the serious implications of its failure. Bodily humiliation signifies the risks feminist subjects undertake: “as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live,” writes Kristeva.

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.11

Within Kristeva's theoretical model, produced in 1980 at the very transitional moment negotiated within these novels, the category crisis staged in the expulsion of the abject involves the psychic processes through which not only subjectivity but subjectivity as a gendered category is constituted: “The abject confronts us … with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before existing outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling.”12 As Kristeva suggests, the power politics of boundary-formation are delicate: the nascent subject, shuttling between the predicament of maternal claustration and its patriarchal obverse, autonomy, finds herself called upon to reconcile the irreconcilable, in a context in which her very survival is on the line. The double bind that characterizes Kristeva's emerging subject recapitulates the predicament of the mature but would-be feminist subjects of Cross's and French's novels, and in all three cases, the subject-formation at stake involves the conundrum of femininity; how might female, and indeed, feminist, subjectivity come into being, caught as it is between the annihilating codes of maternity on one side and the equally dangerous patriarchal sphere on the other? The corpses of Janet Mandelbaum and, later in The Women's Room, of Val, Mira's heartiest, most joyously embodied feminist friend, exist in these novels as abjectified objects against which a feminist subject expresses the extremes of her own enterprise. In one sense, and paradoxically perhaps, such feminist corpses act the role of good mother: they play dead, and accordingly constitute themselves as unresistant objects to be inscribed with meaning from the outside by those who profit from their loss. But more disturbingly, they also serve the function of the scapegoat: because the abject have been punished so brutally for their failings, the feminist subjects constituted in their wake are damaged goods, made timid and conciliatory by their awareness of the thin line they walk, by the mortal dangers implicit within the apparently paradoxical construct “autonomous woman.”13

The result is a form of bodily self-loathing inflicted by the academy, a misogynistic institution which stands in the way of women's access to the life of the mind, to aesthetic worlds, and to the professional prestige and livelihood that are presumed to follow upon academic success. Hence Death in a Tenured Position, a novel that presents its own ambivalence about the first woman to achieve the professional success that universities—and the culture for which they stand—would deny to the general population of women. Janet Mandelbaum was selected strategically to join the Harvard faculty, more perhaps because of her antipathy toward feminism than for the excellence of her scholarship. Janet rails against the expectation that she, as the token woman, will lobby for the greater good of women: “all the women—students, assistant professors, administrators—seem to think I should rally to some woman's cause: women's studies, the problems of women at Harvard, welcoming women to the graduate program, to Radcliffe—as though there were only one sex in the universe. Why should I be more interested in the women than the men? I'm interested in good seventeenth-century scholars; the sex is irrelevant” (p. 45). She continues later, “‘I honestly do think that if women have the ability and are willing to pay the price they can make it. I did’” (p. 46). Along those lines, Joan Theresa, lesbian separatist and radical feminist, argues that not only was Janet never a feminist, “‘She was never a woman, professionally speaking’” (p. 12), and Kate Fansler agrees: “‘I assumed that was why Harvard had taken her. She had also had a hysterectomy, when young, and therefore could be guaranteed not to have a menopause, during which all women go mad, as everyone knows.’”

Stripped of her “woman” credentials because she does not identify with woman-centered political causes and implicitly because she lacks that fundamental equipment for hysteria, the womb, Janet Mandelbaum is nonetheless punished—by misogynists, by feminists, by herself—because she is a professional woman. The first instance of this punishment occurs in the context of a rather improbable crisis, in which a graduate student slipped Janet a drugged cocktail; when she passed out, he placed her limp body in the ornamental bathtub located in the Harvard English Department men's bathroom. He then telephoned Joan Theresa's commune and warned them that one of the “sisters” was in trouble. The idea, apparently, was to suggest that Janet, who would appear to know the lesbian separatists who came to her rescue, would be tarred with the same brush, would be taken for a lesbian herself; this produces crisis not only for Janet, but for the rescuing lesbian, Luellen, who is in a custody battle for her children. Sylvia muses on the illogic of this plot: “‘The point however, is that they thought they could discredit Janet by getting her involved with that all-women commune in Cambridge. Perhaps add another suspicion to her deteriorating reputation. But they were fools. They united two groups who would never, otherwise, have anything to do with each other: the woman-identified and the male-identified’” (p. 30, italics in original).

Kate Fansler was initially called to Harvard to intervene informally on Janet's behalf, and the women's commune, too, has something at stake in her presence in Cambridge: Luellen hopes Kate will testify in her custody battle, and Kate realizes that “‘a judge would take my word about whom to give the children to because of the way I dress’” (p. 87). As Sylvia suggests, the commune women are the polar opposite of antifeminist Janet Mandelbaum, but as the novel's plot suggests, they remain united in several concerns common to them as women: they both need the help of mainstream feminist Kate Fansler; they are similarly degraded and publicly humiliated in an intellectual (and homophobic and misogynistic) context because of their bodies and what their bodies suggest about their sexuality. But while Kate suspects the entire Harvard faculty is capable of murdering its first tenured woman professor in order to “scotch the whole scheme” of female faculty (p. 106), in the end, quite chillingly, it is not one of the suspects but rather Mandelbaum herself who acted in violence.

Kate Fansler's investigation into Mandelbaum's murder represents an attempt to locate violent hatred of Mandelbaum either in the radical feminist fringe or in the misogynist Harvard faculty, each of which has something to gain by her death. But it is ultimately revealed that Mandelbaum died by her own hand, and in the course of this investigation, that everyone is guilty—the Harvard English Department for its closed-minded loathing of her; her friends Kate and Sylvia for isolating her, for giving her “no community” (p. 187); her lesbian feminist “sisters” for turning their back on a woman in need: “‘She belonged nowhere, poor Janet’” (p. 181). Mandelbaum's chosen symbolic gesture was to commit suicide in the office of the English Department chairman; her colleague Clarkville, discovering the body, moves it from the office to the men's room (where it has already been discovered once) in a misguided attempt at concealment. Because Mandelbaum's body “‘was in a position with the legs drawn up,’” putting it “‘on the toilet in the stall may have seemed, under the circumstances, the logical thing’” (p. 166), and Clarkville, chivalrous to the end, chooses the men's room in order to spare the English Department's secretaries the shock of discovering Mandelbaum dead.

The circumstances of Mandelbaum's death, the ensuing cover-up, and its discovery, decisively reiterate the scatological motif. But this time, Mandelbaum herself, although a prominent scholar, was responsible for placing her own body in a suggestive position. The novel ultimately punishes Mandelbaum, exchanging her embrace of scholarly asceticism for a conclusive gesture toward her body's status as material and as grotesque. Why, though, despite its indictment of everyone from radical feminists to vicious misogynists for failing to accept Mandelbaum's person and politics, must this novel conclude with a revelation of her suicide? This text turns on the death of a woman. And despite the belated regrets of most of its characters, there is enormous hostility directed toward Janet Mandelbaum, whether because she is female or because she is not feminist. The message implicit in a novel whose protagonist speaks for the feminist mainstream is that while there might be no room for women at Harvard now, there will be eventually—but there is no room for women such as Janet Mandelbaum, whether by her own choice or the choice of feminists, within the women's movement. Kate Fansler represents a new feminist orthodoxy here, a middle ground available to women who fall somewhere between the radical feminism of Joan Theresa and the borderline misogyny of Janet Mandelbaum; vaguely skeptical of both, Kate looks on more in sorrow than in anger as both are punished for their occupation of the fringes.

Death in a Tenured Position is set in an English Department, and it exploits its setting in order to foreground not only questions of professionalism, politics, and sexuality relevant to the women's movement, but also questions of aesthetics. In this it is paradigmatic of popular feminist fictions from this period, which consistently emphasize the importance of beauty, creativity, and in that vein, education, as fundamental to feminist social action. These texts suggest that the desire for aesthetic and erotic pleasure, as well as the liberal feminist egalitarian impulse, can be addressed through the cultivation of the analytical tools found in the university, while the cultivation of the mind, as Cross's novel suggests, represents the possibility of circumventing the gross bodily implications of femininity. As fictional texts, these novels clearly have much at stake in underscoring the importance of fictional and literary works to a larger feminist project. But the consistent representation of aesthetic concerns within the aggressively professional context of the academy—Janet Mandelbaum's investment in George Herbert, for instance, concerns career more than pleasure—equates the cultural valuation of the sublime with a kind of bourgeois careerism. An academic career is potentially feminist and also quite democratically accessible to smart women with the proper training. The university, paradoxically, symbolizes both the most rigidly entrenched of patriarchal institutions and a context in which feminist political interventions might take hold. In this it stands somewhat optimistically for the potential of bourgeois feminism to transform the world.

Feminist fictions emphasize the profound importance of class issues to the women's movement through their concern not only with the class status of women, but also with the fluid class boundaries available through education. The sense in which they remain conventional narratives, then, underscores the nature of the fictional intervention into feminist practice, addressing central questions of the women's movement while putting a premium on the human cost of the difficult decisions these central questions require. These are novels in which female characters agonize over the double binds that characterize their lives, and in which every decision, one way or the other, has negative implications. Just as Kate Fansler serves a crucial mediating function between the extremes of radical lesbian feminism and rigid misogyny, these narratives, too, operate in terms of mediation. They construct an implicit readerly identification for white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and through the trials of their white, middle-class, usually heterosexual protagonists, they model strategies for the accommodation of feminist principles of equality within essentially conventional lives.14 In the context of such narratives of identification, the topos of violent death persists as a sign of abjection that, through the purifying, almost excretory function, exposes the outermost limits—and the frightening risks—of the feminist project.

Marilyn French's The Women's Room is the most fully realized of various attempts to work through the conflicts created by cultural expectations for women, and as in most feminist novels, feminism is a positive possibility within otherwise annihilating choices. French follows her protagonist Mira through girlhood, adolescence, marriage, life as a suburban housewife and mother, divorce, graduate school, and ultimately—and not optimistically—to a lonely existence as a junior-college instructor of English literature in a town isolated on the coast of Maine. This is not a happy ending, but Mira is introspective and intact at the novel's conclusion, no mean feat considering the extent to which her ostensibly “normal” and certainly conventional life experiences are represented in terms of their ability to inflict psychic and even physical damage, despite Mira's reasonably protected status as an open-minded, intelligent, middle-class, well-educated white woman. She is not a woman living in poverty like the lesbians in Death in a Tenured Position and Piercy's Small Changes who must fight the system that would take away their children; nor does she experience overt misogyny and certainly nothing like racial discrimination or hatred. Rather, Mira is a woman who suffers because she is a member of the cultural mainstream, even the cultural ideal, an intelligent, thinking, sensitive woman living in the post-war U.S.; her suffering is acute and its damage genuine.

Mira's predicament leaves her split, more knowingly than Janet Mandelbaum, between body and mind, between the grotesque implications of her material existence and the possibilities held forth in the act of intellection. It is not possible for Mira to reconcile these claims. Accordingly, her feminism, however abstract it gets, never fully escapes the most degraded bodily implications of patriarchy in terms ranging from the cleaning of toilets to rape at knifepoint. The Women's Room is a novel set largely in a university context, but it opens in the bathroom of that university, and French is meticulous in situating the more abstract ideological concerns of the women's movement within the material context of women's lived experience: university, bathroom.

Mira, an acutely intelligent child, first found that intelligence disrupted by menstruation: “The problem was sex … At the end of her fourteenth year, Mira began to menstruate and was finally let in on the secret of sanitary napkins. Soon afterward, she began to experience strange fluidities in her body, and her mind, she was convinced, had begun to rot. She could feel the increasing corruption, but couldn't seem to do anything to counter it” (p. 14). With menstruation comes the beginning of sexual desire, and Mira's introduction to the entire consumer economy of womanhood. Suddenly the intellectual emphases of her private life give way to ideas of romantic love, but as a teenager, she swiftly learns that her participation in romance means that she must forsake not only physical but also mental independence: left alone one night in a bar, she drinks too much, dances with a number of teenage boys, and comes dangerously close to being gang-raped by them.

Other girls went to bars, other girls danced. The difference was she had appeared to be alone. That a woman was not marked as the property of some man made her a bitch in heat to be attacked by any male, or even by all of them at once. She was a woman and that alone was enough to deprive her of freedom no matter how much the history books pretended that women's suffrage had ended inequality, or that women's feet had been bound only in an ancient and outmoded and foreign place like China. She was constitutionally unfree.

(P. 35)

Having been introduced to the consumer culture of womanhood, Mira soon learns, violently, that she is its chattel. And significantly, as this quote should demonstrate, the feminist praxis modeled by The Women's Room, with its title's allusion to Woolf's peroration for women's intellectual freedom in A Room of One's Own, is more concerned with the subtle sexism of white, middle-class heterosexual culture than with interventions at the level of formal law.

Like the women of Woolf's text, Mira's intelligence, her private life of the mind, is her only path of escape from the insidious degradations of middle-class femininity. But mind is inextricable from body, and Mira's body, as she so rapidly learns, represents a problem in a culture that would see it only in terms of a man's ownership: “Mira understood—what young woman does not?—that to choose a husband is to choose a life. She had not needed Jane Austen to teach her that. It is, in a sense, a woman's first, last, and only choice. Marriage and a child make her totally dependent on the man, on whether he is rich or poor, responsible or not, where he chooses to live, what work he chooses to do” (p. 26). As Virginia Woolf suggests and French reiterates repeatedly, women are a social class, and as a class, they are generally poor. This point is represented particularly acutely given the novel's normative middle-class context and its version of heterosexual marital convention, for Mira's perception that her future physical well-being depends on her choice of husband presupposes certain assumptions about that husband's earning power; in contrast, in Rubyfruit Jungle (1972), Rita Mae Brown's lesbian protagonist Molly Bolt, working outside the presumption that her life is coextensive with her marriage, tells a story of economic self-sufficiency that originates in a childhood of constant poverty.

For the women of Mira's suburban adult lifestyle, on the other hand, “work” is tied to the body and detached from the monetary economy of wages; they are in a secondary relationship to earning power, and the power relations of their marriages reflect the equation of money and control. “Women see men as oppressors, as tyrants, as an enemy with superior strength to be outwitted. Men see women as underminers, slaves who rattle their chains threateningly, constantly reminding the men that if they wanted to, they could poison his food: just watch out” (p. 68). Women's work involves the bearing of and caring for children, tasks that further alienate them from “ownership” of their bodies and that impose a form of exhaustion that drains their intelligent minds; when Mira first gets pregnant, “She saw the situation as the end of her personal life. Her life, from pregnancy on, was owned by another creature” (p. 48). The narrator interposes here with a commentary on Mira's “unnatural” response to her predicament: “What is wrong with this woman? you ask. It is Nature, there is no recourse, she must submit and make the best of what she cannot change. But the mind is not easily subdued. Resentment and rebellion grow in it—resentment and rebellion against Nature itself. Some wills are crushed, but those that are not contain within them, for the rest of their days, seeds of hate. All of the women I know feel a little like outlaws.” Feminism for Mira represents the fomenting of rebellion in her mind against the captivity and ownership registered on her body. Because of the differences between male and female bodies, “Women and men. They played by different rules because the rules applied to them were different. It was very simple. It was the women who got pregnant and the women who ended up with the kids” (p. 216). The material implications of women's lack of access to money and men's access to freedom are dire for women and children; after Mira's divorce and the mid-life divorces of several of her friends, the narrator writes, “If you want to find out who all the welfare mothers are, ask your divorced male friends. It sounds easy, you know, going on welfare. But apart from the humiliation and resentment, you don't really live very well. In case you didn't know. Which is unpleasant for a woman, but sends her into fits when she looks at her kids” (p. 230).

The indignities, petty humiliations, and injustices represented in The Women's Room are the by-product of “normal” American life, and in her exposé of the quotidian, French locates “women's liberation” at and as the heart of middle-class concerns. French's critique of marriage represents a logical progression from material degradation to larger epistemological questions, and the novel's more esoteric academic analyses of inequality suggest that experience and epistemology are inextricable. Feminist praxis begins, for French, for Mira, at home: “But for women especially, the new washing machine or dryer or freezer really was a little release from slavery. Without them, and without the pill, there would not be a woman's revolution now” (p. 72). Indeed, the liberatory implications of labor-saving devices have been central to bourgeois feminism, from Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), with its analysis of affluent women's boredom, through more contemporary debates about day care.15 In The Women's Room, labor-saving devices represent an avenue out of the endlessly self-replicating implications of dirt generated by human bodies. “All my life,” the narrator comments, “I've read that the life of the mind is preeminent, and that it can transcend all bodily degradation. But that's just not my experience. When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too” (p. 46). From this point on, the phrase “shit and string beans” is the novel's refrain, representing the physical and mental captivity entailed in housewifery, and particularly in the raising of small children and the maintenance of the affluent suburban household. Mira, living the “American Dream” and trying to “get her mask on straight” (p. 151), is explicit about the most hideous aspects of middle-class womanhood: “Down on her hands and knees in one of the endless bathrooms, she would tell herself that in a way she was fortunate. Washing the toilet used by three males, and the floor and walls around it, is, Mira thought, coming face to face with necessity. And that was why women were saner than men, did not come up with the mad, absurd schemes men developed: they were in touch with necessity, they had to wash the toilet bowl and floor” (p. 150).

For Mira and women like her, the “necessity” of dealing with “shit and string beans” is a universal among women, and this novel suggests a related universality of female oppression, even if the presence of options in this context, such as cleaning help, appliances, and even access to birth control, locates this form of protest firmly in the middle of the middle class. “Everybody should clean up their own vomit,” Mira thinks. “Everybody should clean up the toilet they use” (p. 227). But in Mira's world, everybody doesn't—women do. And even in the most openly feminist contexts, behavioral expectations based on gender roles are stubborn; theory and practice remain at odds with one another. To the suggestion of universal “selflessness,” to men and women equally bearing the expectations of the other, the narrator replies:

It was a rhetorical solution. Because the fact is that everyone doesn't act in both roles and probably can't and not everyone would be willing to accept that and so the whole thing seemed to me as if we'd been talking about the street plan and architecture of heaven. In fact, it didn't make much sense even for us to insist that men and women both should be selfless, because although we were all in graduate school, all of us took the female role at home … And we were supposed to be “liberated” … I mentioned this, and Isolde sighed. “I hate discussions of feminism that end up with who does the dishes,” she said. So do I. But at the end, there are always the damned dishes.

(P. 60)

Someone is always stuck doing the dishes, and the question of cleaning up afterwards is allegorized outward in this novel to suggest its centrality for both feminist practice and theory. “Women always have to clean up their own messes,” thinks Mira (p. 246), and the rage provoked by such debasement is the fire behind feminist theoretical passions. After a theoretical argument, Kyla, Mira's graduate school colleague, bursts out: “‘Oh, Mira!’ … ‘Why do you always have to bring us down to the level of the mundane, the ordinary, the stinking, fucking refrigerator? I was talking about ideals, nobility, principles … ‘And she leaped up and charged across the room and threw herself on Mira and hugged her, kept hugging her, saying, ‘Thank you, oh, thank you, Mira, for being so wonderful, so awful, for always remembering the stinking, filthy refrigerator!’” (p. 241).

As Kyla's outburst indicates, the “evidence of experience” proves a powerful polemical tool within The Women's Room: pragmatism emerges as the inescapable groundwork to more esoteric flights of feminist fancy.16 “For here, underneath all the intellect, the abstraction, the disconnection, were the same old salt tears and sperm, the same sweet blood and sweat she'd wiped up for years. More shit and string beans” (p. 304). Mira's return to school following her divorce occurs as an attempt to transcend the “real” implications of everyday existence: “It was a new life, it was supposed to revitalize you, to send you radiant to new planes of experience where you would get tight with Beatrice Portinari and be led to an earthly paradise. In literature, new lives, second chances, lead to visions of the City of God” (p. 147). But typically within the genre of feminist realism, Mira quickly realizes that the formal conventions of representation fail to accommodate her own lived experience, with the result that “shit and string beans” continue to preoccupy her daily life. The narrator writes:

The problem with the great literature of the past is that it doesn't tell you how to live with real endings. In the great literature of the past you either get married and live happily ever after, or you die. But the fact is, neither is what actually happens. Oh, you do die, but never at the right time, never with great language floating all around you, and a whole theater full of witnesses to your agony. What actually happens is that you do get married or you don't, and you don't live happily ever after, but you do live. And that's the problem.

(Pp. 148-49)

Marriage in French's novel rarely guarantees happiness, and life without happiness is in effect a living death. And this novel, consistent with its dark aesthetic vision, is pragmatic about the implications of Mira's feminist struggle. She gets her Ph.D., true, from the same Harvard English Department that effectively kills Janet Mandelbaum, but she does not turn into Mandelbaum, much less Kate Fansler, reaping the material and intellectual benefits of a scholarly life. Mira, an older graduate, settles into a job at a very isolated small college in Maine. So despite the fact that she opts out of marriage and more children with her lover Ben in favor of her intellectual freedom, she winds up a solitary eccentric wandering the rocky shores of Maine all winter long.

But employed, and living on her own terms, Mira is alive. She is friends with her adolescent sons and occasionally even enjoys her life as a teacher. If Mira represents the feminist mainstream, French paints a bleak picture of the implications of acting on a commitment to personal freedom; typically pragmatic, she underscores the sense in which every decision carries its price, and Mira's integrity costs her human relationships. On the other hand, however, this novel, like so many others of this historical moment, articulates a feminist mainstream through the sharp contrast with the feminist radical fringe. And occupation of that radical fringe is, as is so often the case, lethal.

In French's novel, Mira's most radical friend is Val, who with her daughter Chris constitute a family unit that is presented as idyllic: it is open, fluid, accepting, political, welcoming, a household of women who practice a utopic, user-friendly version of the feminism with which the novel's more conventional women struggle. Chris, however, goes off to college and is raped, and their ensuing trip through the justice system brings Chris and Val down to the level of degradation, humiliation, and debasement that is the more common experience of women in patriarchal culture. This radicalizes Val to a degree that the novel represents as understandable but untenable; Chris and Val conclude that any male attention is rape, that the legal system is complicit with the rapist, and that Chris is fighting for her right to exist in a world of men. Representing an extreme version of the separatist rhetoric of anti-porn and other radical feminist groups, Val declares, “‘Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes’” (p. 462).

The novel rejects this position implicitly.17 Mira is the mother of two sons and thus typically represents the feminist struggle for equality without separatism, and at this moment, she feels “liberated” through her pursuit of her scholarly work: scholarship, she believes, “did not seem slavery to her but freedom. For the first time, she understood what graduate school had been all about: it was designed to free her for this. She did not have to worry over every detail; she had enough knowledge to make certain statements, and enough awareness of how to get knowledge to find out how to make others. That was liberating. She was free to be as methodical as she chose, in a work that seemed significant. What more could she ask?” (p. 475). If knowledge is Mira's ticket to liberation, then political action is Val's, for Val becomes a political activist, indeed, an extremely radical feminist, as a result of her daughter's rape.18 And for this decision she pays the price of death, no mere poisoning as in Janet Mandelbaum's case, but a brutally graphic and public destruction of her body and all that it stands for: as Val participates in a protest, police shoot so many bullets into her body that it explodes.

“‘There are no words,’” someone says at her funeral (p. 496), and unlike Mira, whose choice in the mind-body binary places her on the side of the mind, Val surpasses the contingencies of materiality; because she exploded, she is containable neither in body nor in words:

No words to wrap her body in like a shroud, like clean white sanitized bandages, around and around and around until she was all clean and white and sanitized and pure, her blood dried, her mass of exploded flesh covered, her stink deodorized, and she sanitary, polite, acceptable for public notice, a mummy propped on a table for public ceremony, its very presence a promise, a guarantee that she will not rise up in rage with hair wild on her head, a knife in her hand, screaming, “No! No! Kill before you accept!”

The novel does not deal with Val's death with any real explicitness, nor does it pursue the implications of the cause in which she died: Val and her group were trying to rescue a young black woman, Anita Morrow, who had been raped, and who stabbed her rapist in self-defense. The rapist, “from a respectable white family,” died, and Anita Morrow was charged with murder. The prosecution claimed she was a prostitute, but like most of the female characters in this novel, she was a university student who “wanted to be an English teacher” (p. 492), although the media represented her as uneducable. Eventually, “Anita Morrow was found guilty of murder on grounds of illiteracy” (p. 493)—as if illiteracy were a crime.

This murder case introduces an important new tension late in the novel: the suggestion that education and the upward mobility that it purchases are the prerogative of middle-class white women alone underscores a certain complacency within Mira's analysis of the class politics of gender difference. Anita Morrow, Val, and Chris are punished for declarations of rage and selfhood that are significantly more extreme than the world, including the world of the protagonist Mira, is willing to handle. And in the context of the novel's dark representation of feminist life choices, the injustice of these concluding events is clear, even as their overarching message is still more clear: there is an ineradicable danger to life as a radical feminist, and in the bourgeois worlds of mainstream feminism, radical life-choices are conventionally punished either by humiliating ridicule or by death. Radical life-choices, in other words, put the body on the line, and by underscoring its material vulnerabilities, they realize the danger ever present within female resistance. The protections afforded within this equation are various, for some lives—Anita Morrow's, for example—are always already in danger; the concept of “choice” for Anita Morrow involves only the degree to which she might dare to resist a system which is implicitly constructed to resist her. Mira's place on the scale of privilege is quite high, but even her choices, reasonably moderate though they are, strand her on the rugged coast of Maine. And Val was forced by circumstance and by violence to choose a life for which there is no place at all in the world. This caused her body to be shattered to bits all over the street, in the name of legal justice.

The fictional texts of the mainstream women's movement are decidedly anxious about feminist rage and feminist activism, and they represent an ideal of bourgeois feminism as a decidedly cerebral endeavor. Characters such as Alther's Ginny or Jong's Isadora Wing, whose trust funds enable them to try on roles, jobs, and sexualities without material consequences, enable a parody of the double bind Marilyn French represents as agonizing and inextricable: more abstract theoretical approaches to sexual discrimination emerge subtly as the property of the “straight,” of the white, heterosexual middle classes. Amanda Cross's series detective Kate Fansler is certainly represented as a feminist, but short of coming to the rescue of a colleague in crisis at Harvard, her more conventional mode of feminist action is her eternal presence as “‘The Token Woman’” (p. 5) on any number of university committees. The ubiquitousness with which feminist novelists in the late 1970s situate their characters' political activities within universities is symptomatic of a larger set of agendas pertaining to the brand of feminist action they represent: feminism is an individual concern, is a movement connected with the achievement of personal career and intellectual goals facilitated by education, and relies on a logic of metonymy, suggesting that what is good for one woman will be good for women more generally. In this context, radical individualism becomes its own form of activist intervention; Ginny Babcock leaves the commune to marry Ira Bliss, and later still, she leaves Ira, rolling her “Sisterhood is Powerful” T-shirt into a knapsack and striking out after new adventures.

Serving the practical aims of consolidation in death, the feminist abject is occasionally recapitulated in further service to the feminist subject. At the end of Jong's Fear of Flying, in a moment of crisis, the protagonist and first-person narrator Isadora Wing reads a notebook she kept in the early days of her present marriage: “I sat very quietly looking at the pages I had written. I knew I did not want to be trapped in my own book.”19 What follows is an anxiety dream that is at once liberatory and anomalous, that ruptures the terminologies of psychological, intellectual, narrative, and sexual entrapment that constitute Isadora's “own book”—her diary as well as the novel Fear of Flying. Isadora dreams of walking up the steps of Columbia's Low Library to receive her college diploma, her three “husbands” watching from the audience, and encountering lesbian novelist Colette at the lectern, “only she was a black woman with frizzy reddish hair glinting around her head like a halo.” Colette says:

“There is only one way to graduate … and it has nothing to do with the number of husbands.”

“What do I have to do?” I asked desperately, feeling I'd do anything.

She handed me a book with my name on the cover. “That was only a very shaky beginning,” she said, “but at least you made a beginning.”

I took this to mean I still had years to go.

“Wait,” she said, undoing her blouse. Suddenly I understood that making love to her in public was the real graduation, and at that moment it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Very aroused, I moved toward her. Then the dream faded.

(P. 290)

Jong's novel continues for two more chapters of denouement in which Isadora considers a reunion with her husband. But despite the structural centrality and psychological importance accorded this dream, the novel never refers back to it, nor attempts to elucidate its implications.

Why does Fear of Flying reach its climax in and through these terms? Somehow “Colette,” racial and erotic exotic, is a profoundly useful, if alien, object of desire to the rampantly heterosexual, white, New Yorker Isadora Wing.20 The novel that begins with the notorious fantasy of the “Zipless Fuck” (p. 11) concludes with a commencement that reestablishes the boundaries of sexual transgression: “Very aroused, I moved toward her. Then the dream faded.” Interracial, transnational, exhibitionist lesbian sex is tied up here with the goal of successful authorship, both registering in the realm of “academic” achievement: Isadora's book represents a form of ongoing coursework, whereas “making love to [Colette] in public was the real graduation.” But, again, “the dream faded,” the erotic encounter between Isadora and Colette relegated, again, to the realm of the unsaid.

The love that dare not speak its name speaks volumes for Isadora Wing, whose Colette-fantasy consolidates a number of crucial—and troublesome—identity categories within the women's movement. Colette is a white Frenchwoman turned into a red-haired African-American; she is a lesbian and an academic; she is a literary figure, access to whose fictions, in practical terms, presupposes a certain achievement of literacy. And “making love to her in public was the real graduation,” for Isadora Wing the key to escaping the conventional Bildung of her life thus far, the “graduation ceremony” that leads Isadora to the brink of an independent, self-determined identity.

In her deployment of Colette, Jong, like other feminist novelists of this period, forges a strategic connection between pleasure and knowledge, linking women's unleashed eroticism both to the concept of their intellectual freedom and also to formal institutional structures of the academy—Columbia's Low Library; a graduation ceremony. Knowledge is not only power; it is power rooted in pleasure; the realization of the creative and the beautiful; the construction of a feminist counterculture utopia right in the belly of the patriarchal beast itself. But perhaps the most common critique of the women's liberation movement in the late 1970s and the early 1980s focuses on what feminism leaves out. The argument that feminists, and feminist theories, construct white, middle-class, heterosexual women's experiences as normative recapitulates the politics of abjectification modeled by fictional deaths. In both cases, the mainstream constitutes itself through an act of violent expulsion, through a philosophical decapitation symbolically rendered, like Eddie's, through self-contradiction, through the failure to perceive the invisible boundaries that feminists have established and, however unconsciously, that they continue to patrol.

“Here it is not only a question,” writes Judith Butler, “of how discourse injures bodies, but how certain injuries establish certain bodies at the limits of available ontologies, available schemes of intelligibility … [H]ow is it that the abjected come to make their claim through and against the discourses that have sought their repudiation?”21 How, in other words, do the dead reawaken? Or, more appropriately perhaps, how do they expose themselves as the always already there, as the ghosts on whose very animating alterity feminist theories of animation, and of alterity, rely? In this context, Isadora Wing's transformative dream is as efficient as it is revealing of the profoundly constitutive role of the un-dead feminist. Colette, ghost, is the token black woman; lesbian; feminist literary ancestor; import from the prestigious context of French high culture. This leads to a new form of liberation: Isadora Wing, intensely aroused, responds sexually to Colette. And then she and her novel together walk away from this encounter; in the last scene Isadora is contemplating reunion with her husband. By reawakening the dead Colette, and by apostrophizing her in the name of categories of identity under erasure in this novel, Jong reveals the contingencies to which Isadora Wing's ultimate liberation, her release from entrapment within the generic confines of the fictional real, are indebted. Literally, figuratively, politically, Colette's outrageously overdetermined alterity serves an authorizing, even constitutive function for Isadora, for this novel, and for the witty, urbane feminist subject canonized in its graduation ceremony. Isadora forgets, but the novel reminds us, that it is Colette who confers the degree. And then she is gone.


  1. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982), p. 3.

  2. Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (New York: Plume, 1996), p. 331. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 10.

  4. For an argument concerning “une fiction théoretique,” or Nicole Brossard's notion of “fiction/theory” as it occurs in formally experimental feminist and lesbian novels, see Teresa de Lauretis, “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation,” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 141-58.

  5. Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), p. 10. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. Time, August 31, 1970 and December 14, 1970. I discuss this episode, and its implications, at length in the introduction to my current book project, Feminism, In Theory: The Practice of Abstraction.

  7. Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the letter in the unconscious,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 151.

  8. Marilyn French, The Women's Room (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 1. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), p. 97.

  10. Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, p. 71.

  11. Ibid., p. 3, italics in original. See Martin, The Woman in the Body, pp. 45-50, for an analysis of the cultural and economic construction of menstrual blood as a form of waste.

  12. Ibid., p. 13, italics in original. Kristeva argues later that women's use of the abject involves not mastery but the reiteration of an external patriarchal authority: “When a woman ventures out in those regions it is usually to gratify, in very maternal fashion, the desire for the abject that insures the life (that is, the sexual life) of the man whose symbolic authority she accepts” (p. 54).

  13. On the constitutive function of the scapegoat, see René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977). On the gendered politics of abjection, see Judith Butler, “Bodies That Matter,” in Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993).

  14. For a feminist theory of readerly response and identification, see Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  15. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1963). Of the many critiques of Friedan's class- and race-blind theory of gender, bell hooks's is perhaps the most influential; she writes: “[Friedan] did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute, than to be a leisure class housewife … She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women” (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center [Boston: South End Press, 1984], pp. 1-2).

  16. Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” in Abelove, et al., pp. 397-415. Scott's post-poststructuralist critique of the experiential as an authoritative epistemological form provides an interesting theoretical foil to the very serious authority granted experience in theoretical and fictional works of the late 1970s.

  17. For an analysis of critical responses to the question of men in The Women's Room, see Lisa Marie Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women's Liberation Movement (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 90-93.

  18. On the cost of Val's “failed activism,” and on the surprising infrequency of feminist fictional representations of activism, see Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions, p. 107.

  19. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York: Signet, 1995), p. 288. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  20. On Colette's mixed-race heritage, see Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (New York: Knopf, 1999).

  21. Butler, Bodies That Matter, p. 224.

Publishers Weekly (review date 6 November 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of Honest Doubt, by Amanda Cross. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 45 (6 November 2000): 74.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that the plot in Honest Doubt draws from many autobiographical elements of Heilbrun's own life.]

In her 13th Kate Fansler novel (after The Puzzled Heart), Cross lets her mask of pseudonymity slip [in Honest Doubt], building her plot and characters out of the myriad impressions of vicious, small-minded academic infighting she has amassed as the real-life Carolyn C. Heilbrun, Columbia University humanities prof and past president of the Modern Language Association. Introducing a new investigator, heavy, mid-30ish, motorcycle riding PI Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, Cross pulls Fansler onto the sidelines to serve as charming adviser in a murder case set at insular, fictitious Clifton College in New Jersey. When Charles Haycock, a reactionary Tennyson scholar, drops dead at a Christmas party, poisoned via an overdose of heart medicine placed in his private bottle of Greek retsina, Woody is hired by Clifton's English department to find the killer. Soon she turns to Fansler in despair at academicians' double-talk. In a gentle, courtly style that rubs off awkwardly on the much-younger Woody, college professor Fansler shares her rueful insights into the bias and petty tyrannical oldboying that has mired contemporary academia in irrelevance and mediocrity. As wry and charming as Fansler is, however, Woody's exasperation soon rubs off on the reader. Virtually all the characters Woody interviews end up spouting off about what a dull and noxious little bog Clifton College is. All agree that the dead man was so sexist and such a nut that the world is better off without him. Alas, the redoubtable Cross has produced a kind of mystery emeritus, a meandering reflection on a kind of cultural crime that cannot be satisfyingly solved.

Daphne Merkin (review date November-December 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Merkin, Daphne. “A Fantasy of Empowerment.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 43-5.

[In the following review of When Men Were the Only Models We Had, Merkin praises the work's scholarship, commenting that Heilbrun “affords us an inside look at the conflicted and not always straightforward route she took in carving out a piece of intellectual turf to call her own.”]

Since the beginning of post-Gutenbergian time, when the first young woman with a writerly gleam in her eye looked up from her loom and gazed pensively into space instead of attending to her weaving, it has been hard for both men and women to reconcile intellectual aspirations with the demands of domesticity—not to mention the perceived imperatives of femininity. Yeats may have famously ruminated on the inherent conflict between ordinary preoccupations and the single-mindedness of an artistic calling in his poem “The Choice”—“The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work”—but until fairly recently this was presumed to afflict mainly those of the male persuasion. There can be little doubt that historical role models for socially well-adapted brainy women have ever been in short supply, as opposed to the many cautionary instances of lonely bluestocking or alcoholic poetess types.

I can remember as a graduate student in the English Department at Columbia University nervously imagining myself growing old and gray and brittle among the stacks, and the gratitude I felt when I came upon the example of Madame de Staël's lively literary salons or George Eliot's unconventional, late-blooming love life. But then again these women struck me as the more remarkable for managing to have it all, even from the vantage point of the liberated '80s. In Clare Boothe Luce's famously bitchy play, The Women, currently enjoying a revival on Broadway, some of the more cutting (and less dated) remarks are at the expense of women whose fate it is to be thought clever—made by one of their own, a successful but loveless lady novelist. Far better, we in the audience are left to infer, to be a woman saddled with a head filled with straw.

How much have things changed for our daughters in the postfeminist world we live in? Are the preponderance of young girls still socialized the way they have traditionally been—that it is, say, safer to be cute than smart? (Certainly one night of watching Dawson's Creek or Britney Spears' new video “I'm a Slave for U” with my 12-year-old daughter would convince anyone that popular culture is sending out its same old constricting and sexually segregated message: She who gets the boy wins. End of story.) These are but a few of the questions that came to mind while reading Carolyn G. Heilbrun's When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, Trilling.

Heilbrun taught in the English Department at Columbia for more than three decades and has written, among other books, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny and Writing a Woman's Life; she is also the author of a best-selling series of detective novels under the pen name Amanda Cross. Her new work is a meditation on professional mentorship—or, more properly, a signal lack of mentorship—and how it came to be that a young woman in otherwise admirable possession of her senses found herself stuck in a holding pattern, first as a graduate student and then a professor of literature in search of an academic “father” who was nowhere to be found.

The book opens like a fairy tale to be read aloud at bedtime, an improbable yet captivating story from long ago and far away: “Once upon a time there were three men who exemplified, without knowing it, my ideal life. All of them became famous as writers, influential thinkers and public figures. Their names are Clifton Fadiman, Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. … Although one of them never knew of my existence, the second ignored it, and the third treated me with formal kindness, without them I would have had no concrete model in my youth of what I wanted to become. Indeed, until I was past 40 they remained my guides. It is hardly too much to say they were my motivation, my inspiration, my fantasy.”

Those words would be of interest coming from any woman whose level of accomplishment would seem to suggest that she considered herself the equal of any man. But they are particularly striking coming from Heilbrun, who early on embraced the antipatriarchal ideology of the emerging women's movement and made her mark as a critic with a keen nose for the stratagems and subversions of gender.

In Writing a Woman's Life, Heilbrun wrote perceptively about the obstacles strewn in the path of a woman who wishes to inhabit diverse and often equally demanding roles without giving short shrift to any. And she pointed to the delicate marital balance achieved by Leonard and Virginia Woolf as one worth emulating: “Despite all the criticism that Woolf scholars in America have leveled against Leonard, and the scorn that Woolf critics in England have leveled against them both for their social position and class, these two had a revolutionary marriage, which I would define simply as one in which both partners have work at the center of their lives. …” Given the sorts of authoritative judgments she has become known for, it is all the more to Heilbrun's credit that she affords us an inside look at the conflicted and not always straight-forward route she took in carving out a piece of intellectual turf to call her own.

Heilbrun was a Columbia graduate student during the '50s, when men ruled the academic roost. (“No books by women,” she observes, “were studied in the honors courses.”) Already married, she was, as she tells it, “merely putting my toe in,” not intending to go further than a master's. But Lionel Trilling's lectures, tracing the innately double-edged nature of human desires through novels like Henry James' Princess Casamassima, convinced her to go on to doctoral studies: “He spoke as a prophet—no less dramatic a word will suffice. He made acceptable what we believed, but had thought improper to believe.”

It was in a graduate seminar co-taught by Trilling and the historian Jacques Barzun, who were close friends as well as colleagues, that Heilbrun learned how to write “readable, clear, elegant prose” and discovered the passion for “the life of the mind” that fueled her own desire to enter the field. Both professors were attentive and hard-working; each annotated Heilbrun's paper “as no other paper I wrote in graduate school was ever marked, perhaps ever read. The respect they showed for us,” she writes, “was invigorating, and full of the promise of what an academic life might afford.”

Significantly, that “promise” was conveyed even though Trilling and Barzun deigned to include only one novel by a woman—Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre—in their seminar. It undoubtedly helped that the two men were constitutionally courteous, if a bit remote—the one described as “distant and disdainful,” the other as “distant” and “cool.” Heilbrun went on to pave a lifelong friendship with Barzun. But it is Trilling—“self-enclosed” in his aloofness and essentially inhospitable to intellectual ambition in women—who really makes the blood rush to her cheeks, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) his ungenerous views.

The genteelly-mannered author of The Liberal Imagination had “no use for Virginia Woolf” and thought women in fiction, in contrast to male characters, “seldom exist … as genuine moral destinies.” Nor does Heilbrun overlook the fact that although Trilling was famous for cultivating disciples (who worshiped his every word, and would continue to do so after his death), there were no female students among them. She readily concedes that Trilling's lofty conception of engaged yet dispassionate scholarship offered scant hope to women aspirants: “Never once in anything he said did Trilling admit women to the fellowship of learning. Men were what it was all about, men struggling for some assurance—these were the actors in Trilling's drama.”

Still, whatever his flaws, Trilling was the male presence who inspired Heilbrun as none other and who remained forever out of grasp. He is, in a manner of speaking, the Boy That Got Away, not as a sexual object so much as an idealized (i.e. older and wiser) alter ego, a kindred spirit with whom she shared certain cultural values, an appreciation of the uses of the double negative, and a psychological outlook based on an acceptance of the ubiquity of ambivalence. (She quotes Trilling's charming and profound rejoinder to Richard Sennett's accusation, as reported by Sennett in the New Yorker, that he was too much of an equivocator—“always in between” positions. “Between,” Trilling replied, “is the only place to be.”)

The chapters Heilbrun devotes to Clifton Fadiman—whom she encountered only in his writings and through his radio show, Information Please—are, for me, the least persuasive. In part this is because he does not quite fit into the book's larger trajectory, and in part because the thinking in these sections feels less shaped by personal reflection and more pressed into the service of a post facto feminist agenda.

Heilbrun first came upon the New Yorker critic and longtime Book-of-the-Month Club judge when, as a 15-year-old, she disagreed with his scornful assessment of Jane Austen (“Even before graduate school, I knew that Jane Austen was in no way genteel”). But she attributes her youthful appreciation of James to a volume of his stories that Fadiman published in 1945. “I thought then,” she writes, “and I still think, that this was … a remarkably advanced and incisive introduction to the Master.” She goes on to recount how her initial enthusiasm for Fadiman faded over the years as she realized that he exhibited a casual yet consistent misogyny in his reviews of writing by women. He is included as one of Heilbrun's “three musketeers,” I suppose, because he, like Trilling and Barzun, was an unwitting influence, and because his career incarnated one of her ideals, holding out the possibility of writing high-level criticism aimed at “the nonacademic intelligent reader.”

As perhaps befits a work by a woman who looked in vain for a male mentor, the true hero of When Men Were the Only Models We Had is a heroine, and a somewhat surprising one at that: the writer Diana Trilling, Lionel's formidable wife, to whom posthumous tribute is offered. She had discounted Diana as a figure of stature for much of her lifetime, both on the basis of her ferocious, harridan-like reputation—“all I heard of her left the impression that she was carping, demanding, exacting, unworthy of Lionel”—and a disgusted perusal of Diana's Claremont Essays, published in 1964.

Heilbrun belatedly discovers an unsuspected affinity with her when she is asked to review Diana's portrait of her marriage to Trilling, The Beginning of the Journey. Impressed by Diana's ability to empathize with people very different from herself, and with her willingness—“unlike anyone else in her circle, from Lionel to Hannah Arendt”—to reconsider her views, Heilbrun goes back and re-reads Diana's earlier books in the light of her new appreciation of Diana's own struggles to establish herself as an intellectual presence while still accepting her “wifely role.” While at pains to keep her distance from some of Diana's opinions—notably on feminism and McCarthyism—Heilbrun ends up respecting her for her willingness to “allow the truth about women's lives to enter into her writing.”

When Men Were the Only Models is full of wonderful insights and revealing anecdotes, yet what sets it apart from other “look back in mellowness” narratives is the author's tone of almost inadvertent honesty. Without ever addressing directly the issue of how she herself navigated the academic status quo, Heilbrun drops enough clues for the reader to form an impression that her strategies for implementing her own ambition included a hefty dose of surface compliance with “male rule.” Hers was the way of a good girl with a hankering for subversion, rather than of an out-and-out rebel.

Heilbrun demonstrates throughout a disconcerting ability to go along with the intellectual fashions of the times until it was safe to do otherwise. Although she was, by her own account, quietly ahead of the curve in her convictions about Virginia Woolf's literary greatness, she kept these feelings to herself as late as 1964, when she admitted having been captivated by Woolf's writings “in secret.” One wonders whether she would have discovered Diana Trilling a bit sooner had she not adopted the habit of conformity.

Finally, though, what makes Heilbrun's account so moving is the unrequited romance that informs it. Her book is a love story of sorts, more Jamesian even than anything Henry James could have written, about a woman living in a chronic state of longing for the affirming male glance that never comes. Even now, as a woman in her 70s looking back with a mixture of incredulity and fondness at the misogynistic attitudes she was willing to swallow in her younger days, and professing to a “disenchantment” with Lionel Trilling, Heilbrun is still capable of describing his effect on her as a graduate student in near-rapturous terms: “Trilling's lectures,” she writes, “seemed to hold the key to salvation, and salvation, for me as for him, is what I hoped to find in literature. …”

Hers is a fantasy of intellectual empowerment that will strike a chord with many readers—never to be fully renounced so much as permanently suspended in imaginative recall: “Like the perfection of the man one did not marry,” Heilbrun writes toward the end of her book, “of the life one did not choose, of the child one did not have, the dream remains unchallenged by reality.”

Jeffrey Hart (review date January 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “A Lost Lady.” New Criterion 20, no. 5 (January 2002): 65-8.

[In the following review of When Men Were the Only Models We Had, Hart provides a scathing indictment of Heilbrun's book, asserting that “we witness the melancholy sight of a mind in ideologically induced disintegration.”]

This is an extraordinary book [When Men Were the Only Models We Had], I am relieved to say. If Mr. Kurtz had kicked free of the earth, as Conrad wrote, the Columbia English professor Carolyn Heilbrun has kicked free at least from common sense and immensely shared human experience. The “woman's movement,” she tells us, struck her as an overwhelming and liberating development. She appears here to be interested in absolutely nothing except the situation of women as she sees it. I called this book extraordinary, not intending that as a celebration. If the emotions and ideas that inform it came to prevail generally, life would not be worth living.

When you know that she has written a book on androgyny, you understand that we are in serious trouble. In 1997 she published The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty. She reflected on turning sixty, not wearing clothes that are distinctively female, and gaining a lot of weight as if deliberately to destroy whatever attractiveness she might have had. The age sixty moment causes her to consider committing suicide, though these days sixty is hardly the end of the line. You would think she had just turned ninety instead of sixty. It is entirely plausible, on the evidence of this book, that for Heilbrun life itself has lost its savor. Her emotions have been so wrenched out of shape by feminist dogma that she cannot present to the readers of her books a recognizable shared world.

Heilbrun has been married and is a mother, but she is awfully sour on marriage. In When Men Were the Only Models We Had, she observes that

Unrealistic fantasy explains why so many novels in the past ended with wedding bells. The marriage did not have to be endured by readers, only by the participants, and then it was not to be overseen. Hope was all that mattered, that and the experience, at least in novels [italics added], of “being in love.”

That first sentence says that a happy marriage is an “unrealistic fantasy.” This amounts to moral and intellectual treason against an enormous amount of actual human experience. Her use of the synecdoche “wedding bells” has a sneering quality. The next sentence says that marriage is something to be “endured.” Sometimes, maybe. But you can move out. She knows that the woman is the victim in marriage. The third sentence says that “being in love” is an experience that happens “in novels,” whereas in the actual world it is one of the most overwhelming of human experiences. She sneeringly encloses the phrase “being in love” within quotation marks, as if it were a fiction or an illusion. I suppose for her androgyny is a superior condition. Planet Earth calling Carolyn Heilbrun: Romeo and Juliet are angry. (You would also gather from these sentences that novels do not, or seldom at least, depict unfortunate marriages. If that is what is implied, the notion is preposterous. Start with Middlemarch.)

Evident in this book are the destructive forces that have divided the once-powerful Columbia English Department into bitter and dysfunctional factions. She herself acknowledges the bitterness within the department. In fact, Columbia has had to bring in Professor Jonathan Arac from the University of Pittsburgh to serve as chairman and try to patch things back together. The hope is that Arac can talk with people who refuse to talk with each other. I gather that this is a first in the history of the American university. But the feuding Columbia professors have been unable to agree on appointments, promotions, requirements, and so forth because of ideological furies. Professor Edward Said, himself a fanatic in his own right, has been driven to ask his colleagues to calm down and start teaching literature again. Fat chance.

For decades, the freshman Humanities I-II course has been the jewel of Columbia's undergraduate liberal arts education. Students and alumni have almost unanimously testified to its value. I myself taught it for six years (1956-62). It begins with the Iliad in the Fall of Freshman year and travels through established classics and selections from the Old and New Testaments, ending with an important novel—when I taught it, Crime and Punishment. The faculty teaching the course met for lunch once a week at the Faculty Club on Morningside Drive to exchange ideas. These were often brilliant occasions.

Sourpuss will have none of that. She writes:

When I, however, joined the Columbia faculty, as a woman I was not allowed to teach the so-called honors courses in the college, though I longed to. I cannot resist noting here that decades later, it afforded me much amusement when the young women now teaching the honors courses, Contemporary Civilization and Humanities (CC and LIT-HUM, as they were dubbed), hated almost every minute of it, evidence of the sharp change in the department since the days when those honors courses had been revered.

The expression “sharp change” is a risible understatement. The Humanities I-II course was justly revered, I might add. I am skeptical about Heilbrun's statement that she was not assigned a section of that course because she is a woman. Professor Marjorie Hope Nicolson, a major eminence, was chairman of the graduate English Department.

There are many reasons for not assigning a particular individual to Humanities I-II. Reading this book, I am certain Heilbrun's classroom discussion would have been a destructive travesty. The sentences I have just quoted drip with resentment and venom. “So-called” honors courses? In fact they were called honors courses, part of a core curriculum. And how about those “young women” who “hated almost every minute” of teaching Homer, Plato, Exodus, Job, Sophocles, Thucydides, Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Molière, Goethe, Dostoyevsky? Who were these “young women”? Clearly, they were unsuited to be professors of literature, since they “hated” teaching some of the best things ever written. They surely belonged in the Department of Abnormal Psychology, not as teachers, to be sure, but as objects for scientific study.

What pathology blinded them to the best that has been thought and said and split the Columbia English Department? Pretty clearly, they were radical feminists who were bored by great literature, “hated” it even, and instead wanted to teach their gripes. Harold Bloom has called this faction the “party of resentment.” To permit one of these vipers into an academic department of literature was an act of tragic folly.

Heilbrun has here a nasty little chapter entitled “From WASPS and Dryden to Jews and Freud.” I note her treatment of Mark Van Doren, one of the great classroom teachers in the history of Columbia College. I took his course called “The Narrative Art,” one of the most profound and thoughtful courses offered: Homer, the Bible, Dante, Cervantes, Kafka. His books The Noble Voice (on epics) and Shakespeare are still powerful, vital critical efforts. His first major work, John Dryden, remains the best book on Dryden, and was reviewed with great admiration in the Times Literary Supplement by none other than T. S. Eliot. Not bad for a Ph.D. dissertation.

Heilbrun seems to think that Mark Van Doren became a star at Columbia because he had the right WASP background and connections. This is reductive nonsense. Probably he did have such connections. His brother Carl was in the History Department. But his M.A. thesis on Thoreau had been published and without a doubt he deserved his appointment and his eminence because of merit.

Heilbrun seems to have an irresistible desire to turn herself into an intellectual disaster area. She writes: “I … sat in on Van Doren's Shakespeare's lectures and can remember nothing at all except a general ambiance of pleasantness.” This is but one of her many epiphanies of disgraceful self-revelation. Van Doren's lectures on Shakespeare were luminous. Hers was a mind losing active cerebral cells.

The arch-villain of this book, absurdly enough, is Lionel Trilling. (He was already the model for a murderer in her 1970 mystery novel Poetic Justice, written under the pen name Amanda Cross.) Two other figures, Clifton Fadiman and Jacques Barzun, make cameo appearances. She never met Fadiman, but admired his relaxed prose style, and he is marginally in this book because Heilbrun thinks he undervalued writers who were women. I judge that Fadiman is here as stuffing, to make a book out of her attack on Lionel Trilling. She has nothing but praise for Jacques Barzun, and he did, according to her, respect the possibility of achievement for women. But his impeccable politeness was to her a distancing wall. Life sometimes is really hard. Her multitude of gripes and whines soon becomes Marie Antoinettish.

Her main gripe here, among a cavalcade of somewhat lesser gripes, is that Trilling and Barzun were not familiar enough with her, either as a graduate student or as a colleague. “They knew each other well; me they scarcely knew at all.” She did not seek intimacy in a sexual sense. She wanted informality, exchanges of ideas, appreciation, and she met with formal manners, she thinks, of course, because she is a woman. She was excluded from their “club” as she puts it.

Now I had a somewhat parallel career to Heilbrun's at Columbia. I took the famous Barzun-Trilling seminar, as she did, while a graduate student and a member of the English Department. I knew Barzun and Trilling, but they were thirty years older than I, had gone to Columbia together as young men, and had been friends for decades. Social intimacy such as Heilbrun desired was out of the question. Exchanging jokes, let along personal revelations, was not something desired. These older men, formal but also relaxed, were friendly and interested. Still, such comradeship as she wanted would have falsified our relative positions. Unlike the needy Heilbrun, I experienced their formality as a form of honesty.

Trilling did not mix with the younger professors over cocktails, though he did have me and others to the Trilling apartment for drinks and talk, sometimes dinner. He engaged me to give his son Jim tennis lessons. I had Lionel and Diana to dinner at the West Side Tennis Club. I remember that on one occasion at the Trillings' apartment I spotted a large cockroach running around and said “Gregor.” Lionel said “No one throw an apple,” but Diana was furious, saying we should not joke about the great Kafka. But despite such fun he was still Lionel Trilling, and I was still only trying for importance and achievement.

Barzun and Trilling, professionally speaking, were immensely powerful. I had little power. It would have been absurd for them to treat me as if I were thirty years older than I was, as if my meager achievement were somehow comparable to theirs. Formality is a good way to recognize the disparities of power. It is more authentic than some sort of false “intimacy.” You don't slap the President of the United States on the back.

About Trilling's literary criticism Heilbrun is now to a considerable degree dismissive. In the real world, Trilling at his best ranks among the great literary critics who have written English. Heilbrun does not admire his somewhat mandarin prose style, a mixture of the Oxford style of Newman and Arnold plus something of the distinction-making delicacy of Henry James. She prefers Fadiman. But at its best Trilling's prose is an inspired instrument.

She thinks, with some reason, that he considers men more important than women in a power sense. Surely that was a product of his time and place. I myself think his Liberal Imagination is a mixture of great essays and potboilers to fill out a book. It is remarkable that he can write about Dreiser without acknowledging the greatness of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. And his defence of Mark Twain's ending to Huckleberry Finn strikes me as silly. As Heilbrun says, graduate students today do not pay much attention to him, but that is their loss. Does any civilized person care much about Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida? Flies of a summer.

Heilbrun records that when she was a graduate student Trilling advised her to drop her monocular feminist obsession. That was excellent advice. In this book we witness the melancholy sight of a mind in ideologically induced disintegration. Her mental lens is befogged. She has lost the ability to see the object as in itself it actually is, certainly the preliminary to reasonable discourse. She is a tragedy that has happened, unless, in a tough-minded way, you may regard her as a comedy without laughter. She is besotted by feminism. Trilling also supported her for tenure at Columbia. He must have been tired or intimidated. To use a term he liked and she would hate, it would have been “manly” to send her packing.


Principal Works


Further Reading