WHAT A SUPREMELY intelligent, uneven and aggravating book this is. Carolyn Heilbrun, feminist, professor of literature at Columbia University and author of Toward a Recognition of Androgyny , is an articulate, smart and angry woman. Hers is neither the anger of female apartheid-she lovingly acknowledges husband and children-nor the anger of youth-she is 50 and glad of it. It is rather the anger of experience and disillusion. She finds it hard to tolerate the fact that women, running so long and so hard in the race for equality, for "selfhood," are running on the spot, raising a cloud of dust but moving not at all.
The reasons for all this sound and fury signifying nothing are threefold: "The failure of women to bond; the failure of women to imagine women as autonomous; and the failure of even achieving women to resist, sooner or later, the protection to be obtained by entering the male mainstream." Women are selfish and shortsighted.Those who gain some measure of success and independence smugly regard themselves as different, and make minimal efforts to encourage fellow women. This is a criticism often made of successful blacks and it has been applied to women before, but rarely as trenchantly. "Women in the world of events," Heilbrun tells us, "whether they be prime ministers, women psychoanalysts, Cabinet members, or otherwise members of a dominantly male profession have bonded with the male world they have joined, and have failed to envision other women at their side. Needless to say, they have not found them there."
Who are they, these women who have gone over to the other side? Who achieve by dissociating themselves from other women rather than by building progress for the whole sex? Heilbrun agrees with Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim, authors of The Managerial Woman , that successful women are on the whole only children or members of all-girl familes; they also tend to be cultural outsiders brought up in foreign countries or by foreign-born parents. Anything that makes a woman an outsider helps-including in Heilbrun's case being Jewish-because her peers are apt to be locked in passive situations, reacting rather than acting. The fact off being a woman immediately puts all but the visible few outside the dwellings of power. Despite noise and legislation, any annual report or board of directors' meeting gives the lie to claims of progress-as does a glance at Congress in session, a White House guest list, or the voice of an airline pilot.
What is to be done? Heilbrun is a professor of literature and she turns to what she knows best. We must reinvent womanhood by reinterpreting the cultural base of our collective thought. We must change our mythology and the way we view our history. She is right, of course, and the many specific examples she gives here are brilliantly reasoned but float somewhat randomly among her reflections on our own era. They seem almost like separate, though fascinating, essays included to produce a volume of respectable girth. In the alternative analysis she offers of the Oresteia , "Orestes himself can be conceived as providing the paradigm for female achievement of the self." It takes pages of detailed explication to fill out her interpretation, while many readers, although convinced by her arguments, are thirsting to hear more about Heilbrun's own experience. Again, Mary Renault's novels may be legitimate examples of women writers' weakness in portraying women, but do we need too examine every work in her canon?
Such caveats may be ungracious. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a writer steeped in literature to step back from her chosen field. But when Heilbrun is developing ideas based on her childhood and professional life at Columbia the book snaps to life, tightens up and speaks with a voice that makes the reader squirm with guilt and fall back before the quiet anger. We want more of this vital, immediate Heilbrun telling us that it is no good just breaking the rules. Who made the rules anyway? Who decided that tough-minded successful women were unfeminine? What is "feminine"? Why are women constantly involved in dissimulation, in the attempt to win a war without using any of the weapons carried by the other side? "Men have monopolized human experience," Heilbrun says flatly, "leaving women unable to imagine themselves as both ambitious and female." Whether in business, literature, psychoanalysis or in the home, the ground rules must be changed and no one will change them but women. Heilbrun believes this can be done without the loss of the qualities of womanhood. She wants to expropriate the strengths of the male world and make them available to humankind. "I believe that women must learn to appropriate for their own use the examples of human autonomy and self-fulfillment displayed to us by the male world." She is not interested indepriving anyone, but in sharing the bounty: "The reinvention of womanhood, I think, requires chiefly an effort to widen its boundaries and enlarge its scope."
Of course, she does not, cannot, tell us how to achieve this massive restructuring of our attitudes. In fact, she does not even supply enough signposts to enable the reader to find her way through this bumpy mixture of personal reflection and textual criticism. But her passionate conviction that women have allowed themselves to be lured into perpetuating the very system that has denied them freedom of choice, stirs real guilt and a sense of pain at both lost opportunity and the specious, glamourous nature of the trap. Although literature makes a two-edged contribution to this book, it is in Homer that Carolyn Heilbrun finds an image that should haunt us all: "Until now woman has not been part of all that she has met. That was Ulysses, while she, Penelope, waited at home. Women must now say: I wait no longer."