Writing a Feminist’s Life: The Legacy of Carolyn G. Heilbrun
- All the years I knew Carolyn Heilbrun, beginning in graduate school in 1984, I never heard her utter a single conventional sentiment. Even her more conservative views were unconventional, as though she had formulated them begrudgingly for pragmatic rather than prescriptive reasons. This meant, of course, that she was constantly embroiled in debates and controversies which, I think, alternately exhilarated and exhausted her. Storming the ivory tower continues to animate the intellectual lives of those who follow in her footsteps. But the gift of iconoclastic clarity must have been a burden at times. Nevertheless, she continued to rally, disrupting the smug assumptions of political correctness in the Nineties just as assiduously as she had challenged political reactionaries in the Sixties. Debate and dissent were the source of her pedagogical genius, which seemed to spring from a radicalism more profound than all the generations of graduate students who studied with her, myself included. For all our miniskirts and piercings, poststructuralism and queer theory, we were actually conventional in comparison. Her disarmingly prim bun deceived no one, once Carolyn Heilbrun opened her mouth or put pen to paper.
- Carolyn’s favorite debate with me concerned the relative merits of the marriage of Virginia Stephen and Leonard Woolf versus that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, a topic she felt important enough to include in Writing a Woman’s Life. Faced with my admiration for Gertrude Stein’s avant-gardism, Carolyn invariably expressed her reservations about whether a woman whose wife cooked and typed and all but shined her shoes could really be considered radical, stylistic innovation notwithstanding. She sometimes artfully pretended not to understand obscure writers like Stein, which was probably her way of saying she was interested in the real rather than the theoretical. Theory, Carolyn’s life and letters implicitly argue, may be intellectually stimulating, but it never liberated an actual human being. She did write that, “[w]ithout intellectual and theoretical underpinnings, no movement can succeed,” but she also warned that feminism is “in danger of refining the theory and scholarship at the expense of the lives of the women who need to experience the fruits of this research.” American feminism in particular has been characterized as an activist movement in contrast to more purely theoretical French methodology, and Carolyn has long been considered a pioneer of this more existential approach to women’s rights. After countless debates over the years, she finally convinced me that real women and not just fictional and theoretical constructs were the proper subjects of academic inquiry. She was notorious for prevailing over seemingly indomitable resistance and opposition.