Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Carolyn Heilbrun

Carolyn Heilbrun

"Ideas move rapidly when their time comes."

Carolyn Heilbrun (1926–2003)
PhD 1959
Faculty 1960–92

Best known in academic circles as a pioneering feminist literary scholar and a specialist in British modernist literature with emphasis on the Bloomsbury group, Carolyn Heilbrun also wrote a series of erudite detective novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Heilbrun first came to prominence in 1973 with the publication of Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature, which the New York Times called a "frank, passionate plea to move away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender" and "a lively and valuable general introduction to a new way of perceiving our Western cultural tradition." She wrote scores of articles that interpreted women's literature from a feminist perspective, and eight other scholarly books, including Reinventing Womanhood (1979) and Writing a Woman's Life (1988). Along the way Heilbrun let it be known that she intended to end her own life at age 70, lest her quality of life be unacceptably diminished; in October 2003 , aged 77, she followed through. In the words of her son, Robert, Heilbrun "felt that her life was a journey that had concluded."

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1947, Heilbrun enrolled at Columbia, earning her master's degree in 1951 and her doctorate in 1959. Early in her career, she began writing mystery novels whose protagonist, Kate Fensler, was, like Heilbrun, a professor of literature and a feminist. Fearing that such work would jeopardize her chances of gaining tenure, Heilbrun kept her identity hidden. The ruse began to unravel with the 1970 publication of Poetic Justice, as readers and friends recognized depictions of Columbia's atmosphere after the 1968 student riots and realized that Fensler's academic colleagues may have been modeled on actual Columbia professors of the time. Heilbrun became an assistant professor in 1962, an associate professor in 1967, a full professor (finally tenured) in 1972, and the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities in 1985. In 1986, she became the first director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which promotes feminist scholarship. After more than four decades as a student or professor at Columbia, Heilbrun retired in May 1992, becoming a professor emerita. A 2002 memoir, When Men Were the Only Models We Had, recalls her studies at Columbia in the 1950s under professors such as Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling.

Nominated by Vanessa Carr, Columbia College 2005


From the Columbia Record.

2005 Conference at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

C250 Celebrates | C250 Perspectives | C250 Forum | C250 Events | C250 To Go |
Contact C250 | Privacy Policy | About This Web Site | © Copyright 2004 Columbia University