Carolyn Heilbrun had two careers: as a university professor and feminist critic and, under the pen name Amanda Cross, as the author of 14 detective novels. Writing a Woman’s Life tells us a bit about both, as Heilbrun (in 1988) reflects on the difficulties of writing a woman’s life.
I take the title in two senses. The first, and most obvious, is the matter of biographies of successful women, writers especially. A woman without a man is too often presented as someone who “failed” and thus was driven to the expediencies of intellectual effort and career ambitions. After Eleanor Roosevelt died, her longtime friend and confident Joseph Lash wrote a book about her life after FDR died entitled Eleanor: The Years Alone. Eleanor Roosevelt called her own book about that same period On My Own. Lash did not understand that one person’s loneliness may be another person’s freedom to express and to achieve. Heibrun’s comment on this setting free:
The true representation of power is not of a big man beating a smaller man or woman. Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter. This is true in the Pentagon, in marriage, in friendship, and in politics.
A woman whose primary assignment is to provide emotional support for another person (male or female) rarely has the power necessary to achieve in her own right.
The second sense of writing a life is how women see the narrative of their own lives. Independence and ambition are not in the stories with which they are familiar.
Had they done so [read Freud's work], they would have recognized his clear assertion that women daydream erotic scripts, men ambitious ones. Freud saw men as able to combine the erotic and the ambitious–there may be a woman in the dream for whom the tasks are undertaken–but for women, the ambitious is not considered as an alternative.
Those who want to tell a different story with their lives may be seen as damaged or even socially dangerous. In my own childhood the parental ideal was the “well-adjusted child”. For girls, that ideal meant the one who conformed.
Misfits are often our most gifted children and, for girls, those most likely to require a different story by which to write their lives.