Credit: Joe Piniero
Throughout her five decade-long career as a professor, writer of detective novels and feminist scholar and theorist, Carolyn Heilbrun, GSAS'59, became an inspiration to many women, as well as a mentor and friend. Whether teaching at Columbia or challenging conventional thinking and the power of academic institutions, Heilbrun attracted a wide and devoted audience both inside and beyond academia.
Fittingly, when the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWAG) and the Department of English and Comparative Literature held a daylong conference on Feb. 11 titled, "Writing a Feminist's Life: Academics and Memoirs," the event was convened in honor of Heilbrun's life and work. The conference brought together eight noted feminists in the field of literary and cultural studies to read from their memoirs and to speak about the relationship between their personal narratives and feminist issues.
In opening remarks about Heilbrun and her influence on women who write memoirs, Jean Howard, vice provost for diversity initiatives and William E. Ransford Professor of English, noted how "Carolyn was perpetually interested in the cultural narratives of women's lives."
Heilbrun was born in New Jersey but lived most of her life in New York City. She joined the Department of English and Comparative Literature in 1960 as an instructor, rising to full professor in 1972, and became the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities in 1986. Over the years, she amassed a large body of work, from scholarly examinations of feminist theory to a biography of Gloria Steinem and mystery novels (using the pseudonym Amanda Cross).
In 2003, when she was 77, Heilbrun committed suicide, an option she had advocated as a rational way to approach old age, and her preferred way to die. She left behind a "rich legacy, for no feminist has provided us with a more detailed record of her intellectual journey," wrote Susan Kress, in a 1997 book about Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Feminist in a Tenured Position.
Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, opened the conference by recalling a conversation with Heilbrun about "how a Southern woman could be a feminist." In their many discussions, often during long walks in Central Park that usually ended at the Loeb Boathouse overlooking the Lake between 74th and 75th Streets, the two women discussed the role of memoir writing in the evolution of feminist thinking. A memoir written by a feminist, Caws explained to the overflow crowd in Philosophy Hall, "is about what you value about yourself and finding your voice."
Reading from her memoir, To the Boathouse, Caws recalled growing up in the South, family gatherings and her personal evolution from a wife and mother who promised to do the "mopping and cleaning" through a painful divorce and an academic career -- as well as her constant friendship with Heilbrun. Many times, Caws' walks around New York brought her back to the Boathouse, where she found her voice and which she came to know as home. Concluding her remarks, Caws said, "You are wherever you can speak from, and I think I have found the right address."
Another speaker, Deborah McDowell, the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Virginia , read from her book Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin, an evocative and moving account of growing up in Alabama . The characters include her father, a steelworker, and a beloved "Auntie," who is constantly telling her to "come home and settle down and be amongst your own people." While McDowell pursued an academic career that took her to places far from Alabama (such as Purdue University , Colby College and the University of Virginia ), her Auntie "clung to the hope that I would wend my way home."
In a sense, McDowell did come home during the writing of her memoir, she said, because it took her back to memories, people and events of her past. The book, McDowell explained, satisfied a compulsion to revisit her past. "This book wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote it," she said. "The topic seized me and wouldn't let me go."
During a question and answer session, McDowell said that suspicion still exists in academic circles about the memoir as a literary form. But McDowell said she had come to realize, as she was writing the book, that she wanted to provide readers a glimpse of her life and also of history, in particular, the Civil Rights movement. "I wanted to make readers aware of the casualties and losses of that period as I experienced them," she said. All writing, McDowell added, assumes its own form. "Writing is writing."