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Writing a Woman's Life
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Writing a Woman's Life

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  472 ratings  ·  46 reviews
Of the two basic plots that shape our lives, the quest and the erotic script, the quest has been, for centuries, reserved for men only. A woman's journey ended at the altar. Professor Heilbrun notes that the diversity of women's lives now makes it possible for women to dare to choose their own scripts.
Paperback, 144 pages
Published September 2nd 1989 by Ballantine Books (first published 1988)
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Mar 14, 2012 Sydney added it
I bought a copy of this book in my early 20s, recently graduated from college, friends heading off to law school, medical school--all kinds of professional opportunities. I was taking a women's studies class at North Seattle Community college.

But I didn't read it until now.

Now I'm raising a teenage daughter who would probably trade her intelligence to fit into our culture's new narrow definition of looking "hot." You know, size 2 butt with size D boobs.

The hope and promise in Writing A Woman's...more
This book seemed much more dated than it did the first time I read it, shortly after its publication, but the fundamental message remains relevant despite the fact that today's women have far more socially legitimate options than those who provide Heilbrun's examples.

The main reason for the ongoing relevance is the fact that even exceptional women of times past often told their own stories in ways that would conform to the socially acceptable standards of their time rather than tell the blunt tr...more
Elizabeth A.
quote from the last pages of the book:

"We women have lived too much with closure: "If he notices me, if i maary him, if i get into college, if i get this work accepted, if i get tht job" - there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. this is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, advernture for women will begin. Endings - the kind austen tacked onto her novels...more
Beth Browne
This little book should be required reading for every graduating high school student. Although I found it hard to get into at the beginning, by the end I was savoring every word. Author Carolyn Heilbrun had her finger on the pulse of what it means to be a woman, even so long ago when this book was published in 1988. It’s sad how little we’ve progressed since the exciting days of the Suffrage and Women’s Liberation movements.

But this book allows the modern woman to take heart, that our place in s...more
Linda Robinson
Heilbrun names 1973 as the turning point for modern women's autobiography. May Sarton wrote "Plant Dreaming Deep," a memoir about buying a house and living alone. She was dismayed to discover she'd left out the rage, struggle and despair in the memoir. She wrote "Journal of a Solitude" to reclaim the pain. Thus it is a watershed in women's autobiography.

Biographies about women, written by men - and other women - contain the language of men, and are written in the context of patriarchal culture....more
Keely Hyslop
I adored this book. It might very well knock off one of the books currently on my favorites list. I had to read it with a notepad handy to take notes on all the biographies, novels, and poetry books she mentioned that I hadn't heard that will now be trickling onto my too read list.

Plus, I love the voice of the author. When a book can be extremely academic and yet highly entertaining that's a rare feat in my eyes.

Simply stated, the book is about women's biographies and how they've been historical...more
Theryn Fleming
Heilbrun was an English professor at Columbia when female professors were rarities and she was pissed off at how male academics treated their female colleagues. She felt it was important that women express anger (tell their stories) so that other women could learn from their experiences (or realize they are not alone).

After I finished the book, I looked Heilbrun up and discovered that she quit her position at Columbia (age 66) because she felt unwelcome. Then she committed suicide (age 77) beca...more
Laura Tanenbaum
A fascinating and important and at times frustrating book ... Heilbrun was a pioneer scholar and original voice who here turns her attention to the ways biography, autobiography and memoir shape our sense of a life and how it is lead. As she notes, men's lives have been written as stories of struggle towards autonomy and achievements while women's more often have marriage as an endpoint. Heilbrun has a particular kind of life in mind - the creative one, where autonomy and self are the ultimate g...more
Jul 01, 2013 Laura added it
Shelves: women-gender
A landmark feminist opus that I had somehow never read before now. I could definitely see how it broke new ground, but also how in some ways it is an artifact of its times. Women's deep friendships are vividly in view nowadays, and women's public anger no longer in short supply. So if Heilbrun's incisive critiques seem dated, well that is a good sign.
Writing a Woman’s Life

Carolyn G Heilbrun

“Instead, we should make use of your security, our seniority , to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.”
“It is hard to suppose women can mean or want what we have always been assured they could not possibly mean or want.”
After reading this book – I must say, I cannot write reviews anymore – arrogant really – very arrogant that I even put on my website “review.” From now on I can only write my impressions of books.
My impression...more
When I was in college many years ago, I took only one women’s study course, but it made me rethink the way women’s history had been written, or should I say distorted, and certainly ignored, by patriarchal biases and discrimination.

Essentially, the book’s premise is that women of the 20’s and 30’s (a generation author Carolyn Heilbrun focused on) were very much confined by conventional expectations. A few writers either chose, or felt forced, to adopt different identities to pursue their passion...more
A fabulous study of Virginia Woolf, George Sand, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte (among others), illustrating why women, especially women writers, need a feminist perspective and a new paradigm for their lives, devoting themselves to the quest instead of being captured and confined. Excellent.
Good book but didn't live up to my expectations. For my full review click here.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I first read this book--maybe twenty years ago. When I saw a copy for sale at a used book sale I grabbed it because I remembered it had been important for me. I was thrilled to discover that is was even better than I had remembered! There are so many important insights about what counts as a woman's story--what narratives and models does our culture offer? Has that changed? I certainly hope so--although I sometimes despair when I realize the battles I fought back in the sixties and seventies hav...more
Found it interesting but felt slightly fragmented to read. I was especially interested in the discussion of Dorothy L. Sayers and Virginia Woolf as they are two of my favourite authors. Contains loads of references to women authors that it will be worth following up and I will definitely be looking out for Heilbrun's dectective stories.
"Time and trouble will tame an advanced
Young woman, but an advanced old woman is
Uncontrollable by any earthly force" (Dorothy L. Sayers)
In this watershed work, Heilbrun examines how women's true life histories and realities have been submerged or distorted to conform with external expectations. She also provides suggestions for new frameworks in which to examine women's lives.

Unfortunately, Writing a Woman's Life has not aged well. However, I would still recommend it as a way to start examining how life histories and narratives are constructed, and how they should be interpreted.
While the book is still relevant -- how women hide themselves to conform to ideals that don't ultimately benefit them -- my favorite chapter is the last, discussing being authentic and powerful after 50. While I'm not there yet (close though), the chapter includes both a promise of finally not being a "female impersonator" and a caution of what will be lost if you cling to supposed security and ends up just sitting and listening to your arteries harden.
May 29, 2014 Tope rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Tope by: Conevery
Originally finished this book in June 2008. Reread it in May 2014. Not as impressive the second time around, and I've docked my rating of it by a star. I'll be writing more about it, but the short version of why: whooooo boy there is a whole lot of white second wave feminism all up in this book and it is a PROBLEM. One maybe shouldn't title a book "Writing a Woman's Life" if it's only about white middle and upper class women. A thought.

More to come.
Becky Jo Gesteland
I read this while writing my dissertation and wanted to re-read it for my latest writing project. The second time was even better than the first. Heilbrun's book is a classic feminist text. Although she discusses literary works, it's a book for anyone who's ever wondered how women come to write about their lives (autobiographies, biographies, letters, journals, etc.).
Olga Zilberbourg
A fascinating study of the tropes in writing women's biographies and women's lives. The author analyses her own decision to write a series of detective novels under a pseudonym that she kept secret for two decades.
Aug 03, 2009 Mauras added it
Extremely interesting, very readable look at how little or nothing of the full scope of women's lives, feelings, aspirations, was included in journals, autobiographies, biographies, until the mid-70's. Makes you think about your own life, what you share, or don't, how we decide what can be thought or said about ourselves as women by what we hear from other women.
So thoughtful and thought-provoking
Joan Winnek
My women's memoirs class is reading this one chapter per week, except that we skipped Chapter Three.

Our class finished the book today. Thought-provoking, although I quibble with some of Heilbrun's generalizations--maybe because more than twenty years have passed since it was written
Great book about women's biography and autobiography. From the title it sounds scholarly, and it is, but in a style that is easy to read and understand. If you don't know anything about feminism, or why women write the way they do, this is a good place to start.
Julie H.
Both writer's how-to and autobiography, this book shared advice about surviving a life in academia that I have seen proven true time and time again. A gift from Dr Heilbrun to the rest of us. Any woman entering the maze should definitely read this book.
Catherine Siemann
This book was really formative for me when I was first seriously thinking about feminism in connection with various academic disciplines (literature, law). It's no longer quite so relevant to my concerns, but I will always think of it fondly.
Marwa Arafa
Feminist, Womanist, Call yourself whatever you wanna call your self! Carolyn hits home with literature spun in a web of stories with meanings rooted so deep in our subconscious you wouldn't know it even existed till you read on paper! #MustRead
Jennifer Rolfe
This book has changed the way I view biography and autobiography. How much is left out when writing it? How the writer's viewpoint is so interspersed in the interpretation of life. I hope objectivity is a thing of the past.
Very worthwhile read. I still grieve that Dr. Heilbrun made the decisions she did about writing her own life -- as one of my friends said, we felt almost a sense of betrayal. But, in all fairness, she had warned us.
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500 Great Books B...: Writing a Woman's Life - Carolyn G. Heilbrun 4 8 Aug 03, 2014 08:41AM  
  • Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft
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  • Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at All
  • A Literature Of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë To Lessing
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  • Nora
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  • One Writer's Beginnings (William E.Massey Senior Lectures in the History of American Civilization) (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization)
  • Journal of a Solitude
  • A Writer's Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life
  • Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind
  • Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
  • Making a Literary Life
  • Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places
  • Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing
  • Road Song: A Memoir
  • Writing the Natural Way
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (January 13, 1926 – October 9, 2003) was an American academic and prolific feminist author of both important academic studies and popular mystery novels under the pen name of Amanda Cross.

Heilbrun attended graduate school in English literature at Columbia University, receiving her M.A. in 1951 and Ph.D in 1959. Among her most important mentors were Columbia professors Jacques...more
More about Carolyn G. Heilbrun...
The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem Hamlet's Mother and Other Women: With a New Preface by the Author Reinventing Womanhood Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: A Search Into Myth and Literature to Trace Manifestations of Androgyny and to Assess Their Implications for Today

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“We women have lived too much with closure: "If he notices me, if I marry him, if I get into college, if I get this work accepted, if I get this job" -- there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin.” 74 likes
“I have spoken of reinventing marriage, of marriages achieving their rebirth in the middle age of the partners. This phenomenon has been called the 'comedy of remarriage' by Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness, a film book, is perhaps the best marriage manual ever published. One must, however, translate his formulation from the language of Hollywood, in which he developed it, into the language of middle age: less glamour, less supple youth, less fantasyland. Cavell writes specifically of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s in which couples -- one partner is often the dazzling Cary Grant -- learn to value each other, to educate themselves in equality, to remarry. Cavell recognizes that the actresses in these movie -- often the dazzling Katherine Hepburn -- are what made them possible. If read not as an account of beautiful people in hilarious situations, but as a deeply philosophical discussion of marriage, his book contains what are almost aphorisms of marital achievement. For example: ....'[The romance of remarriage] poses a structure in which we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or female who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom.'

Cary grant & Katherine Hepburn "Above all, despite the sexual attractiveness of the actors in the movies he discusses, Cavell knows that sexuality is not the ultimate secret in these marriage: 'in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. Here is the reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us.'

"He is wise enough, moreover, to emphasize 'the mystery of marriage by finding that neither law nor sexuality (nor, by implication, progeny) is sufficient to ensure true marriage and suggesting that what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage, for a sort of continuous affirmation. Remarriage, hence marriage, is, whatever else it is, an intellectual undertaking.”
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