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Writing a Woman's Life

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  825 Ratings  ·  68 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
Mar 06, 2016 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 14, 2014 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
Laura Tanenbaum
Jun 23, 2014 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
Aug 27, 2013 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
Nov 22, 2011 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Adrian Brown
Sep 14, 2015 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
Jun 09, 2015 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
Jan 10, 2016 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
Jan 10, 2008 rated it liked it
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.
Dec 19, 2013 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)
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
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.
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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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“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.” 88 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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