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Writing a Woman's Life

4.06  ·  Rating Details  ·  677 Ratings  ·  61 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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Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn G. HeilbrunHerland by Charlotte Perkins GilmanIntermix Nation by M.P. AttardoPrisons We Choose to Live Inside by Doris LessingSummer by Edith Wharton
Works Mentioned in Spinster
1st out of 24 books — 4 voters
On Writing by Stephen KingThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.Bird by Bird by Anne LamottWriting Down the Bones by Natalie GoldbergEats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Best Books on Writing
267th out of 592 books — 1,063 voters

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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
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
Linda Robinson
Sep 07, 2009 Linda Robinson rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 15, 2009 Janet rated it really liked it
Shelves: womens-studies
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
Theodora Goss
May 08, 2016 Theodora Goss rated it it was amazing
This was such a smart, wonderful book. Recommended for anyone writing a biography of a woman writer, or any woman writer considering her autobiography. A slim volume, but a deep, complex, satisfying read.
mis fit
Apr 10, 2016 mis fit rated it really liked it
Though published nearly 30 years ago, Writing A Woman's Life is a compelling feminist argument that still has value today. Heilbrun argues that there are far fewer narratives of women's lives available to us than there are narratives of men's lives. Why does this matter?

"We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories ha
Keely Hyslop
Jul 26, 2009 Keely Hyslop rated it it was amazing
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
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.
Beth Browne
Jan 27, 2014 Beth Browne rated it it was amazing
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
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
Though not cosigned (for instance, the title might be changed to Writing a White Woman's Life—aside from some engagement with Toni Morrison's fiction and a couple quotations), still the reading of this book has made me both braver and more thoughtful. (Criticism not often capable of such transformation in this reader.) V appreciative for this well-written work.
Laura Tanenbaum
Jun 23, 2014 Laura Tanenbaum rated it really liked it
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
Mar 12, 2016 Robin rated it it was amazing
I forget how I first found out about this book, but I'm glad I got it. The jist of this book is that writing a woman's biography, autobiography, or memoir carries a special burden--women's lives don't necessarily line up with how they're 'supposed' to live. Women who go on adventures and don't get married and don't have children are not just following their dreams, they're freaks (according to the traditional man/woman narrative). We don't necessarily have the right way to talk about these women ...more
Jean Carlton
Dec 23, 2014 Jean Carlton rated it liked it
Shelves: on-writing
It is not surprising that this book, published in 1988 but written in 1983-84, is 'dated' as far as women's roles and feminism. Then again, many things have not really changed or are changing very slowly.
The author, born in 1926, was a strong feminist and college professor who wrote detective stories under the pen name Amanda Cross. Women often wrote under pseudonyms because they would not be taken seriously as a woman.
I was so undecided about how to review this book that I read other reviews; s
Oct 14, 2014 Sandy rated it it was amazing
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.
Anjali R.
Jan 18, 2016 Anjali R. rated it really liked it
"Women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them the power of naming themselves." -Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

That quote was in the epigraph of chapter one, and I think that really represents what I managed to gather from the book. This book is less of a story than a comprehensive account of women in literature and the sexism that follows them. The author uses multiple female writers in history to support her point: a woman's story has yet to be told.

Heilbrun b
Jun 09, 2015 Debby rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
Whether biography or fiction, the way the story of a woman's life is told is important. Our writing reveals how we view women and encourages other people to see women in the same way. Heilbrun is among legions of women deeply touched by Dorothy Sayer's writing, and especially, Sayer's fictional character, Harriet Vane. Heilbrun is, however, one of the few to explain why with such clarity. If you write a female character,'Writing a Woman's Life' will encourage deeper meaning and purpose in your w ...more
Nov 11, 2012 Sandra rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
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
Nov 24, 2011 Debra rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Adrian Brown
Sep 26, 2015 Adrian Brown rated it liked it
Shelves: feminist-reads
I struggled reading this book in 2015. Though much of the information I found interesting, the subject matter felt dated (1980s), sporadic, and cherry-picked. Carolyn Heilbrun writes on a narrow selection of female authors (mostly born between 1920-1940), makes sweeping generalizations about both the women writers and their biographers, and ends the book with a personal journey and justifications for using a pseudonym to write fiction later in life. Disjointed, but references many good works by ...more
Jan 10, 2016 Egonne rated it it was amazing
This was the second time I read this book and I was even more challenged by it than before. It is not simply about how we write other women's lives but about how we write our own lives - how we live them in contrast to how we might have been forced and expected to live them by our still very patriarchal society. Her discussion on subjects such as expressing anger made me look at how I write and live and behave very differently
Jun 25, 2015 yitzy rated it it was amazing
I get folks saying there are elements of this that are dated, and, eh. Are we going to call "Summer Before the Dark" dated and dismiss its usefulness or contemporary applications? The real talk on marriage and marriage-like relationships, friendships, and honesty in storytelling... superb food for discussion. Like I'd be highlighting entire chapters if this weren't a library loan. Bears rereading, waving around the air, etc.
Good book but didn't live up to my expectations. For my full review click here.
Nov 22, 2011 Michelle rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 27, 2013 Carol rated it it was amazing
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
Baxter Trautman
Apr 24, 2015 Baxter Trautman rated it liked it
Dated now,though still a lot of valid points, and an important literary building block in women's history.
Carmen Slaughter
Nov 15, 2014 Carmen Slaughter rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Essential reading, I think. Not sure how I've not read it before now.
Martha Kahn
Feb 15, 2016 Martha Kahn rated it it was amazing
Susanne schreibtwas
this is the second time, I have read this book and I again thoroughly enjoyed it, because it 1. gives you a lot of things to think about, for example: do I live in the delusion of a passive life? Am I a female impersonator? Are women liberated here and now? 2. It gives you many ideas what to read next: Virginia Woolf or May Sarton for example. I also gives me much material for my novel. So 4 *

Here is my review
Dec 22, 2013 Kathrine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: women-s-studies
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)
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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 about Carolyn G. Heilbrun...

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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.” 82 likes
“Unfortunately, power is something that women abjure once they perceive the great difference between the lives possible to men and to women...” 3 likes
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