We Think Back Through Carolyn Heilbrun If We Are Women

Molly Hite, Cornell University
Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2005), 269-274.

This essay rethinks the image of Heilbrun as a foremother or founding mother and Virginia Woolf’s assertions of tradition, arguing against mentorship even of a feminist kind. Facing squarely not just the good but also the ill of the influence Heilbrun’s writing has had, much that was forgotten in Heilbrun’s writing is rediscovered, especially a complexity of thought and counsel that rewards rereading. Heilbrun herself critiqued “the idea of precursors and models as mothers” and was especially emphatic that the effect of female professors on students should not be experienced or conceptualized as maternal. The female precursor is someone who must be overthrown by her daughter-feminist successor. Hence, since the late 1960s, second-wave feminism has taken shape in a series of generational battles, battles that were invited by earlier generations of feminists and that are intellectually invigorating, but that have done little for political activism. Not concluding with any easy redress to these problems, the essay ends instead by returning to Heilbrun, who set forth a model for reading her writing, not in fact as that of a hovering motherhood to be satisfied or resisted, but as that of a peer approachable on level turf: an unmet friend.

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]