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Life After A Tenured Position : Feminist Scholar Carolyn Heilburn's Speaking Her Mind, Quitting Her Job and Acting Her Age. At 66, She Says, Aging's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose.

July 19, 1992|KAY MILLS | Kay Mills is author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer," a biography of the Mississippi civil rights leader, to be published in January by NAL/Dutton.

Shakespeare and Co., at 81st and Broadway in Manhattan, is one of those two-story, book-crammed shops that tempts you from all angles, not only with stacks of the new releases but also with artful displays of paperbacks that you might have been able to leave unbought if they'd been more discreetly shelved. A book season or so ago, feminist writer Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a k a Amanda Cross, wandered in with her friend Nancy K. Miller. Miller, who teaches at City University of New York, wanted to see if the store had her latest book, "Getting Personal." After a bit of searching they found it--tucked away upstairs.

Out on the main sales floor, though, Miller notes with a tone of friendly envy, it was hard to miss Heilbrun's work. "Writing a Woman's Life," her provocative and highly regarded 1988 look at women's autobiography and biography, and the "Hamlet's Mother and Other Women" essays, a solid seller from 1990, were arrayed with the new paperbacks. Up front near the cash registers, tempting impulse buyers, was the latest Amanda Cross mystery. But people brushed unawares by Heilbrun, a gray-haired woman unpretentiously clad in slacks and sneakers.

It's a story that is typical of Heilbrun. She's a pioneering mystery writer, not to mention one of the premier translators of academic feminist concepts into language the rest of us can grasp and use. She's influenced a generation of readers and writers with her belief that it's vital to history to have women telling and honestly analyzing the stories of women. Yet she maintains a low profile. In a hot media age and town, she doesn't do sound bites or Op-Ed pieces, though she has plenty of opinions. She writes books, the latest of which will be a biography of Gloria Steinem, and she teaches.

Or at least she did teach--for more than 30 years at Columbia University. She'd long joked that she would stay on until she was 75, her revenge against what she called the sexism at the university and her English department. But when Columbia decided in December not to grant tenure to a woman who shared her approach to teaching modern British literature, it crystallized all the years of frustration. If she and the university weren't embroiled in a fight over tenure, they were sparring over women's salaries or the content of courses.

She decided that it was unfair to students to mislead them, by her continued presence, into thinking that the university is hospitable to her field of scholarship in particular and to women in general. She decided to retire early.

As women take on the camouflage of age--become invisible to men's stares and less dependent on men's esteem--they gain in freedom to do what they want to do and say what they want to say, she has written. She has watched in frustration as too many older women refuse to take risks in order to avoid problems. "To avoid strain. To watch out. Not to let something bad happen. My God, you live that way--you may succeed but you also never have anything good happen, or exciting," says Heilbrun, sitting in the living room of her spacious, high-ceilinged apartment on Central Park West, where she lives with her husband, Jim, an economics professor at Fordham University, and their cat, Toby, named after Uncle Toby in "Tristram Shandy."

In retiring, then, she was taking her own advice.

Heilbrun, her hair done up in a bun ("to avoid spending time in the beauty parlor"), settles on a couch backed by a wall of books--many of them women's biographies. The shelves used to hold many more biographies of men, but now some of "the men have gone to the country" to the Heilbrun's weekend retreat in the Berkshires. Toby curls up serenely, stirring occasionally to check out my tape recorder.

At 66, Heilbrun increasingly says what she wants to say, and she often speaks about the liberating process of aging. Heilbrun had written essays about women whose literary lives began to flourish only when they were older--like Virginia Woolf or Collette. But it was Amanda Cross, her detective-novel alter ego, who first broached some of Heilbrun's theories on growing older.

Kate Fansler, Cross' heroine, is an amateur sleuth who teaches literature at a university in New York not unlike Columbia, and her adventures bear such titles as "Poetic Justice," "Death in a Tenured Position," or, the latest, "The Players Come Again," after a passage from Woolf's "The Waves." Fansler has not aged as much as mortals do since she appeared in 1963, but she has, over time, dealt with some of the issues of age. In 1984's "Sweet Death, Kind Death," Fansler uncovered a plot that centered on academic jealousy over theories of middle age.

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