(b. 13 January 1926 in East Orange, New Jersey; d. 9 October 2003 in New York City), academic feminist and first tenured woman in the English Department at Columbia University whose 1988 book Writing a Woman’s Life was a seminal work, redefining women’s studies and autobiography.
Heilbrun was the only child of Archibald Gold, an accountant, and Estelle (Roemer) Gold, a secretary and homemaker. She described her parents as “humanistic Jews.” When she was six years old, the family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City. She attended the private Birch Wathen School. In 1943 Heilbrun entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she earned a BA in English (1947). In her junior year she was one of eighteen Durant Scholars, Wellesley’s highest academic honor. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. On 20 February 1945 she married James Heilbrun, an economist studying at Harvard University. When he returned from World War II military service, the couple lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while she completed her studies at Wellesley. They had three children. Heilbrun earned an MA (1951) and a PhD (1959), both in English literature, from Columbia University in New York City and lived on the Upper West Side until her death.
Heilbrun began her academic career in 1959 as an instructor in English at Brooklyn College. In 1960 she became an instructor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. By 1972 she had been promoted to full professor and was granted tenure. From 1986 to 1993 she was the Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita in the Humanities and was founder and first director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia (1987–1989). Heilbrun was a member of the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association (MLA) from 1976 to 1979 and from 1982 to 1984, when she was elected president. Heilbrun was also coeditor of the Columbia University Press Gender and Culture Series. From 1982 to 1984 Heilbrun served on the Executive Board of the Mystery Writers of America.
During her academic career, Heilbrun was visiting lecturer at Union Theological Seminary (1968–1970), Swarthmore College (1970), and Yale University (1974). She was visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (1979); Princeton University (1981); and Yale Law School (1989).
Heilbrun’s focus was British modernism, including the Bloomsbury group, to which the author Virginia Woolf belonged. (From 1977 to 1979 Heilbrun was president of the Virginia Woolf Society in the United States, which she founded in 1971.) In 1957 Heilbrun’s first essay, “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” was published in the Shakespeare Quarterly. It is included in her book of essays Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women (1990), in which Heilbrun argues that women, like Hamlet’s mother, are interesting, intelligent, and sexual characters who had been misunderstood or ignored by scholars.
In 1964, under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, Heilbrun published In the Last Analysis, the first of fourteen Kate Fansler mysteries. Heilbrun wrote anonymously because mysteries would have been frowned upon by her academic colleagues. She did not reveal her true identity until after she was tenured at Columbia. Fansler was in many ways Heilbrun’s opposite: a cool, calm, thin, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, married but childless. Yet Fansler was also Heilbrun’s alter ego—an English teacher at a university and a strong feminist. The mysteries explore feminist concerns and women in academia, and at the time of Heilbrun’s death had been translated into seven languages.
Heilbrun’s first scholarly book was The Garnett Family (1961), followed by Christopher Isherwood (1970). In Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature (1973), Heilbrun posits androgyny as the condition that would free people from gender-dictated roles. Reinventing Womanhood (1979) profiles fictional independent women who could serve as role models. In Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), Heilbrun proposes a new way of reading and writing women’s biographies and autobiographies. Using examples of women writers, including Woolf, Heilbrun explores how these women and their biographers suppressed their true feelings and experiences by following the traditional male patterns of narration and storytelling. The book reexamines the lives of women from a feminist viewpoint, proposing the use of uniquely female experiences that had previously been either disregarded or overlooked. Heilbrun thought that women’s stories must be examined from outside the traditional patriarchal culture. Adding the personal context to literary criticism was her innovative contribution. Writing a Woman’s Life and the mystery A Trap for Fools (1989) were simultaneously on best-seller lists, an unusual accomplishment for an academic.
Heilbrun wrote many scholarly book reviews and articles for journals, including Women’s Review of Books (which she helped found), New York Times Book Review, Saturday Review, Texas Quarterly, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery, and was a contributor to several anthologies. She was also on the editorial boards of Virginia Woolf Newsletter (1971–1972), Virginia Woolf Quarterly (1971–1973), Twentieth Century Literature, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
In 1992 Heilbrun abruptly resigned from Columbia, after a woman she had recommended was denied tenure. Citing years of sexual discrimination, Heilbrun talked of being ridiculed and kept off committees in the “boys club” of Columbia. She claimed she was used by Columbia to suggest that it was a place where the study of feminism was encouraged and supported. A symposium in her honor, “Out of the Academy and into the World with Carolyn Heilbrun,” attended by 500 people, was held at the City University of New York Graduate Center in her honor that fall.
Heilbrun wrote The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (1995), an authorized biography that received mostly unfavorable reviews. In 1997 in Toronto, Canada, she delivered the Alexander lectures, which were published as Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold (1999), a feminist examination of the lives and writings of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Willa Cather.
Heilbrun was a Guggenheim Fellow (1965–1966), a Rockefeller Fellow (1976), a Radcliffe Institute Fellow (1976), and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow (1983). Among her many awards are the Nero Wolfe Award for Mystery Fiction (1981) and the MLA America Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement (1999). Heilbrun committed suicide at her home in Manhattan. She was not ill but wanted to die at a time of her own choosing. She left a note saying, “The journey is over. Love to all.” A memorial service was held on 15 October 2003 at the Fourth Universalist Society, 160 Central Park West, New York City. Her body was cremated.
Heilbrun was an outspoken feminist who was often considered difficult and combative. Although her books, which explore new ways of examining female lives and feminist scholarship, were well known and widely respected, she still had to fight for inclusion during her long tenure at Columbia. Among twentieth-century intellectuals, Heilbrun stands out for being unabashedly feminist and openly and unapologetically angry. Heilbrun was considered the mother of modern feminism by many feminist scholars, yet her books were also geared to nonacademic readers. She wrote in Reinventing Womanhood, “I had been born a feminist, and never wavered from that position.”
Heilbrun’s papers from her Isherwood and Garnett research are in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Heilbrun’s autobiographical works include The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (1997), a book of essays reflecting on the process of aging in which Heilbrun discusses her lifetime contemplation of committing suicide by the age of seventy, and When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, and Trilling (2002), a memoir of her days as a student at Columbia in the 1950s in which she examines her veneration of these teachers in light of the fact that they ignored feminism and feminist scholarship and “took [no] serious notice of women’s new place in their universe.” Susan Kress, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Feminist in a Tenured Position (1997), is the only full-length biography. Vanessa Grigoriadis, “A Death of One’s Own,” New York Magazine (8 Dec. 2003), contains interviews with several of Heilbrun’s colleagues and family. Tributes are in Women’s Review of Books (3 Dec. 2003) and the New York Times Magazine (28 Dec. 2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times (11 Oct. 2003), Chicago Tribune (12 Oct. 2003), Washington Post (14 Oct. 2003), and Los Angeles Times (15 Oct. 2003).
Jane Brodsky Fitzpatrick