18: Writing a Woman’s Life

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn Gold Heilbrun

Writing a Woman’s Life

I read this for my directed reading course this summer. At the top of my notes I wrote: “This might be worth buying.” That was in June. Then in July, on my annual Book Shop spree, I stumbled upon a copy of the book. Fate?

Heilbrun (1926-2003) was an English professor at Columbia when female professors were rarities and she was pissed off at how male academics treated their female colleagues. It probably would have made her life easier if she had publicly hidden that anger (and ranted in private, as one does) but she felt it was important that women express anger so that other women could learn from their experiences (or realize they are not alone):

The expression of anger has always been a terrible hurdle in women’s personal progress. Above all, the public and private lives cannot be linked, as in male narratives. … [W]omen are therefore unable to write exemplary lives: they do not dare to offer themselves as models, but only as exceptions chosen by destiny or chance. (p.25)

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. (p.37)

I like that last bit especially. Quote for my thesis, perhaps.

This has nothing to do with my thesis but I did find it amusing/sad in light of recent news articles:

In the last years of the twentieth century, it is unclear whether women who refer to themselves as, for example, Mrs. Thomas Smith know what servitude they are representing in that nomenclature. The same might be said today of women who exchange their last name for their husband’s. … Any possible ambivalence about this matter should surely have ended by the beginning of the 1980s at the latest. (p.85)

The 1980s! Haha! Heilbrun would no doubt be chagrined to learn that name-giving-up is more popular now than it was in the ’80s and that a Gen-Yer in Quebec (where “married names” have been legally prohibited since 1981) is suing so she can take her husband’s name. Gah. (Of course, the irony of Heilbrun’s position is that she adopted her husband’s name. That was, however, 40+ years prior to her writing this book, so I guess she had time to change her mind 😉 )

So anyway… after I finished the book, I looked Heilbrun up (ironically because I was curious about this series of detective novels she’d written—the Kate Fansler mysteries, as Amanda Cross) and that’s when I discovered that she quit her position at Columbia (age 66) because she felt unwelcome. Then she committed suicide (age 77) apparently because she felt her life had been completed.

Ack. Everything I’ve read tries to put a positive spin on this, in the vein of she wrote her own ending to her own story. But I can’t help but thinking: isn’t that classic cutting off your nose to spite your face? From what I’ve read a lot of women looked up to her as a role model. And she said herself that people need stories to follow. So for those who were following her story—they’re left with what? The jerks of the world will always win (or at least they’ll wear you down so you get tired of fighting) so you may as well kill yourself?


I really liked this book—but this coda left me conflicted. Lots to think about anyhow. Here are a few more links: