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Writing a Woman's Life

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  899 ratings  ·  78 reviews
"Astute and provocative....Blends the sophistication of recent feminist theory with highly textured details fro the lives of independent and ambitious women."
Drawing on the experience of celebrated women, from George Sand and Virginia Woolf to Dorothy Sayers and Adrienne Rich, Heilbrun examines the struggle these writers undertook when their d
paperback, 144 pages
Published September 2nd 1989 by Ballantine Books (first published 1988)
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Mar 14, 2012 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 06, 2009 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 12, 2009 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 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.
Keely Hyslop
Jul 15, 2009 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
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
Jul 01, 2013 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.
Jen Blau
Apr 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-read
It took a bit for my contemporary mind to get in line with the writing of Heilbrun. Very happy I stuck it out. It’s so intriguing what a woman writer—in the early to mid 20th Century— did or didn’t do, what she did and didn’t write about.
I was most enamored with Chapter Six:

“Marilyn Monroe was a female impersonator. We are all trained to be female impersonators.” — Gloria Steinem

While much of the chapter (and the entire book) is underlined by me, these are some of the passages that stand out:
Beth Browne
Jan 27, 2014 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
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.
Nov 09, 2018 rated it liked it
The beginning was highly interesting and still very relevant. The later chapters were less so, and more dependent on the reader's knowledge of female writers well-known in the Western cannon as well as feminism, to some extent. I'd be very interested in reading a response to this book written from a modern feminist perspective.
Oct 14, 2014 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.
James Askari
Jun 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
As a form of literary criticism, Heilbrun's book is both exploration and exhortation: noting how few available narratives there are of adventurous, self-determining lives for women, she gives permission to her younger women readers to outgo conventional expectations. The book is open, moving easily from subject to subject, from personal recollection and memoir to the concerns of feminist poststructuralism; it is warm and generous, and calm in tenor. Heilbrun suggests that women may only come int ...more
Hollie Rose
Quite enjoyable actually. She says there are four ways to write a woman's life - the woman may do it as autobiography, she may do it as fiction, a biographer may tell her story, or that she may write it long before she lives it. Then she explores these ways and the very limited stories that women are allowed to live. How, in fiction, women's stories ended after the courting - in most early works, the woman essentially ended with the marriage. She talks about how society treated any woman who liv ...more
Renita Weems
Dec 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read this book over 20 years ago and while it may be less true today, it was certainly true back when it was written and when I read it that women's biographies follow certain conventions. That women are prevented from talking openly and bluntly about their lives. Society frowns on women who talk openly about the unconventional areas of their pasts. Ambition is frowned on in women. So is a certain amount of wildness. But let's not fool ourselves, it was true back then and it's today as well. W ...more
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it
I really enjoyed this book and at the same time found it a dense read aimed more at academics or writers. It had me turning over a lot of corners of pages (to come back to) and better appreciating women's autobiographies I've read - and that's my favourite genre. Caused me to think about what was missing from those narratives, appreciate the rule-breaking of societal norms that some represented in content and/or style and even think about what I'm self censoring from my own life story.
Apr 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book told me exactly what I needed to hear at an uncertain time in my life. If you were raised to be a woman (although anyone struggling with identity in the face of a dehumanizing over culture could benefit from this) this book may help you shift your sense of self from that of passive bystander to active seeker.

Women need internal stories of themselves as the heroine, the adventurer, the one who strives, in order to have positive self worth. Without it we may see ourselves as victims and
Jun 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: feminist
Been a long time but I kept the book so it must have been good. Maybe time to reread.
Abbie Chem
Sep 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Not perfect; but a book to make you think, to make you examine your life and then narratives that you've experienced in your life. Exciting and muscular!
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a delight to return to this book after so many years- still so powerful and it resonates for me now more than ever!
Mar 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Pam Keevil
Mar 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating insight into the life of female writers. The description of women's position in 1854 and how she belonged to her husband should be compulsory reading for any gender.
Kelly Danahy
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting, thought-provoking...
Lisa Brantly
Read 30+ years after everyone else... Wish I'd had a reading buddy to discuss it with!
May 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most important books I have ever read. It was pivotal in my life.
Jun 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
A wonderful read, though the books content necessarily stands on the shoulders of giants. Without an understanding of the numerous authors Heilbrun references, the potency of the book is diluted.
Sep 02, 2011 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
mis fit
Mar 03, 2016 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
Nov 10, 2011 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
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500 Great Books B...: Writing a Woman's Life - Carolyn G. Heilbrun 4 11 Aug 03, 2014 08:41AM  

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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

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