Performing Age, Performing Gender: The Legacy of Carolyn Heilbrun

Kathleen WoodwardUniversity of Washington
Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2005), 283-290.

This essay views Carolyn Heilbrun’s death in the sociocultural context of women’s aging in the United States. Reading Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time (1997), this essay gives a full, sympathetic, yet also analytic account of what Heilbrun found rewarding in retirement, what she regretted, and what constituted for her the “double bind” of trying to sustain meaningful continuity with one’s intrinsic self and searching out the new. This essay plumbs the crucially animating role of anger in this process, an emotion that Heilbrun had nurtured as a political and public emotion but then turned against in the effort to free herself from the seemingly endless sexism of the university. The essay distinguishes effectively between animating political anger and toxic chronic anger, going to the crux of Heilbrun’s emotional dilemma. Following Nancy Miller’s statement that Heilbrun “deliberately aged herself” when she was in her fifties, the essay argues that, Heilbrun, who had so persuasively criticized the masquerade of femininity, impersonated our culture’s conventional view of an old woman, refusing a feminist consciousness of aging. Heilbrun’s choice of age was not a choice but a surrender to convention. It is crucial that we question the ageist conventions of our culture, for like sexism they have real and damaging effects. Yet with the interwoven insight and compassion that knit this essay from the start, it stops short of judgment, futile and reductive as that would be.

This article is part of a special issue of personal and scholarly reflections on the life of Carolyn Heilbrun.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]