Carolyn Heilbrun, hailed by her contemporaries as “the mother of academic feminism,” graduated from Wellesley in 1947 with a B.A. in English. She earned her master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University, where her academic focus was on the Bloomsbury set, a group of early 20th century modernist writers from London, including Virginia Woolf. In 1957, she published her essay “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” in which she portrayed Queen Gertrude as clever and coherent, not silly: a somewhat radical feminist idea for the time.
Heilbrun was appointed assistant professor at Columbia in 1962, was fully tenured by 1972, and in 1986, was appointed the first director of the university’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Over the course of her academic career, she published many articles and books. Her notable 1973 book, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature, placed Heilbrun at the forefront of the feminist academic movement.
In addition to her scholarly work, Heilbrun authored the highly intellectual Kate Fansler detective series under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross. The award-winning series followed a courageous professor of literature as she solved academically motivated murders with the help of literary clues. The series, which unfolded at a thinly veiled Columbia University, provided an outlet for Heilbrun’s social commentary on women’s position within society and ongoing struggle for independence.
Heilbrun, who had discussed her feelings on suicide in her 1997 book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, killed herself in 2003 at the age of 77. Her suicide was not a result of mental or physical illness, but a testament to her belief in free will. In her obituary in the New York Times her son, Robert, is quoted saying, “She wanted to control her destiny and she felt her life was a journey that had concluded.”
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