Carolyn G. Heilbrun is a writer who influenced me tremendously. I read her book Writing a Woman’s Life in my late twenties and it made such an impact on me that I determined to keep its tenets in mind in all my future writing endeavors: Write what has not been written about women’s lives. Give them different plot lines and endings other than death or marriage. Dare to imagine what has not been imagined for women or what has been left out. Describe sex from the woman’s point of view, create self-identified female characters; ambitious, powerful women who still have friends and family. Dare to kill the angel in the house* and express anger. Tell the “truth of women’s lives and help them imagine and reimagine their own.

Writing a Woman’s Life details the lives and work of women writers through time, the texts that women write and live, the lives they lived and wrote. Heilbrun speaks to how women must write new narratives that women can live and then go on to write this liberation into their texts and lives, that other women may write and live such texts as well.

“What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read and heard. 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 have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives”(WWL 37).

In the section of the book about George Sand, the infamous 19th century French writer who dressed as a man and lived according to her own desires, she writes:

“No careful study of nineteenth-century literature can overlook Sand’s tremendous effect on the writers of her time. Hers is the work that explains the Brontës, whose passionate novels lay outside the English tradition, and the work of Dostoyevski, Whitman, Hawthorne, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot and many others…” and yet, “She and her tremendous influence have disappeared from the canons of French and American literature classes with scarcely a trace. Had she not been a woman, such a disappearance would be inconceivable. But what is most important, the story of her life has not become an available narrative for women to use making fictions of their lives” (WWL 38).

Heilbrun’s work is irreplaceable for the information she gathered about women writers before us—as well as contemporary—and her belief that the stories we tell are the stories we live and that this conundrum has played a part in the repression of, discrimination against, continued silencing of women’s voices and diminished our capacity to even imagine and re-imagine our lives. Her urging of women writers to consider how they portray women in their stories,  outside of the “male gaze” and male expectations, outside of the small boxes left to us by the patriarchy and the dominant worldview, and to even consider our own beliefs and conditioning as they appear on the page, as we ourselves write them—that we not perpetuate these myths and stunted realities, that we write a new world into being.

“How are they [women] to imagine forms and language they have never heard? How are they to live to write, and to write that other women may live?”(WWL39)

Feminist Literary Criticism was something I never knew existed until I found hers. Her essays are groundbreaking and remarkable in the way she is able to reframe subjects and texts from a feminist point of view. With her laser-like intelligence and crisp writing style, she opened texts to me that were before inaccessible, enabled me to look at future texts I read through a feminist eye and reevaluate them in this way, my own texts included.  Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, includes essays about Virginia Woolf, May Sarton, Louisa May Alcott, Vera Brittain, the character of Hamlet’s mother and more. In my favorite essay in this book “What Was Penelope Unweaving?”, she discusses the character of Penelope from the Odysseus Myth and the subject of women and weaving as portrayed in myth and story through time.

“In the old myths, weaving was women’s speech, women’s language, women’s story. Of all human accomplishment, Freud granted woman only the invention of weaving: an art, he conjectured, they had devised to conceal their genital deficiencies. But the old stories confirm that women wove, not to conceal, but to reveal, to engage, to counter male violence. For this they are punished, but not before “the voice of the shuttle” has been heard, if only to be silenced again. Women’s weaving was women’s answer to their enforced silence about their own condition, their own mutilation”(HM 120).

In the famous tale, Penelope, the wife that Odysseus has left behind as he goes on his grand adventure, weaves by day and then unweaves what she has woven by night. She is often thought to do this nighttime, secret unweaving to put off the suitors who have come in the absence of her husband, whom she has promised she would choose amongst once she has completed her weaving. Heilbrun suggests that Penelope is weaving and unweaving different possible narratives for herself and her life, and women in general and their lives.

“Penelope is faced, not with one story, or even two, but with an as-yet-unwritten story: how a woman may manage her own destiny when she has no plot, no narrative, no tale to guide her, Imagining, inventing, she weaves and unweaves and knows, when the stranger appears, that the time for the enacting of her new story has come”(HM 126).

The stranger is her husband returned in disguise to test his wife on her loyalty in his absence. Penelope knows right away who he is and she has worked out the future for herself, the choice she will make upon his return, in this clandestine act of weaving and unweaving.

“I have mentioned that we do not see Penelope between Books 4 and 16. What is happening to her in that time is that she is writing her own story, one that has never been written before. During the years between the end of the Trojan War and the suitors’ discovery of her unweaving, Penelope has been trying out stories on her loom. She unravels each night what she has woven that day, not only for delay, but also, metaphorically, because unlike the other weavers, she is not writing a story of male violence, but the story of a woman’s free choice, and there is no narrative to guide her”(HM 126).

Carolyn Heilbrun is a feminist icon. An obituary in New York Magazine refers to her as “one of the mothers—perhaps the mother—of academic feminism, laying the groundwork for women’s struggle over the past decades with what they called the “patriarchy”(

She was also a scholar of Virginia Woolf. Her essays about her are intimate and personal, deliciously allowing the reader into Woolf’s private life. She is the author of numerous books including Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1973) “in which she pleaded for a modification of conventional notions of masculinity in the direction of feminine traits, in order to stem the self-brutalization and destructiveness experienced by an American society unable to extricate itself from the Vietnam War”( 

From her classic, Reinventing Womanhood (1979):

 “Men have monopolized human experience, leaving women unable to imagine themselves as both ambitious and female. If I imagine myself (woman has always asked) whole, active, a self, will I not cease, in some profound way, to be a woman? The answer must be: imagine, and the old idea of womanhood be damned. . . . Let us imagine ourselves as selves, as at once striving and female. Womanhood can be what we say it is, not what they have always told us it was” (34).

Heilbrun was a recipient of numerous awards. She also wrote mystery novels under a pseudonym, Amanda Cross. She was the first woman to receive tenure in the English department of Columbia University. One of her later works was a biography of Gloria Steinem, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (1995).

I was unaware until recently that Heilbrun took her own life at age 77 when she decided she’d had enough. She was determined to own the narrative of her life and that she did in living and in death.

“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 that job”—there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of the passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin”(WWL 131).

Carolyn G. Heilbrun is a #NastyWomanWriter.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2018

*The angel in the house is a reference to Virginia Woolf who spoke about an having an angel in the house who whispered in her ear, “don’t write such unladylike things” when she expressed her anger or true feelings on the page.

Works Cited

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, New York: Ballantine Books, N.Y. 1990.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Reinventing Womanhood, New York, W.W. Norton, 1979.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman’s Life, New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Jewish Women’s Archive, ( 

New York Magazine: A Death of One’s Own, (