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Carolyn G Heilbrun


HEILBRUN, CAROLYN G. (1926–2003), U.S. academic, literary critic, and feminist writer; president of the Modern Language Association (1984). Born in New Jersey, the only child of Archibald and Estelle Roemer Gold, Heilbrun moved to New York City with her family in 1932 and lived there for the rest of her life. Privately schooled in childhood, she received her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1947. She married James Heilbrun in 1945, during her sophomore year. The couple had three children, born while Carolyn worked toward a Ph.D. in English at Columbia University. Heilbrun taught briefly at Brooklyn College, then at the Columbia School of General Studies, moving eventually onto the Graduate Faculty where she taught as a full professor until her resignation in 1992.

While still at Wellesley, Heilbrun published a prizewinning short story in the Atlantic Monthly that opened the vexed question of her sense of herself as a Jew. As a result of her parents' rejection of their Jewish identity, Heilbrun had grown up without any attachment to the Jewish community or knowledge of its heritage, observances, and beliefs. She was entirely unaware of the antisemitism endemic at Wellesley in the postwar period until she began to question, years later, her college's indifference to her achievements. In Reinventing Womanhood (1979) she wrote of her realization that "Wellesley had ignored me because I was a Jew." Eventually she would turn this new sense of herself toward the development of her feminism: "To be a feminist," she said, "one had to have had the experience of being an outsider."

Between 1961 and 2002, Heilbrun published nine works of non-fiction crucial to the development of feminist thought, including Toward A Recognition Of Androgyny (1973); Reinventing Womanhood (1979); Writing A Woman's Life (1988); Hamlet's Mother And Other Women (1990); The Education Of A Woman: The Life Of Gloria Steinem (1995); The Last Gift Of Time (1997); and Women's Lives: The View From The Threshold (1999). In these works she taught women to recognize the possibilities latent in androgyny, to reinvent themselves as women, to appreciate the distinctive shape of women's lives, to seize control of the boundaries of life, and to reconsider the ambivalent power of male mentors on women's lives (When Men Were the Only Models We Had (2002)).

Heilbrun also published more than a dozen popular novels under the pseudonym "Amanda Cross," in which a beautiful academic, a Protestant detective named Kate Fansler, dazzles the world by solving its mysteries. These include In the Last Analysis (1964); The James Joyce Murder (1967); Death in a Tenured Position (1981); and An Imperfect Spy (1995).

Although the tensions for women within academic life were always comfortably resolved for Kate Fansler, her fictional alter ego, Heilbrun left Columbia in bitterness in 1992, over a fight to tenure several women in her department. She committed suicide at 77, in 2003.


Sources:S. Kress, Carolyn G. Heilbrun: Feminism in A Tenured Position (1997).

[Janet Burstein (2nd ed.)]

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