Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold


111 pages
ISBN 0-8020-8228-9
DDC 820.9'287




Reviewed by Patricia Whitney

Patricia Whitney, former coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program at
the University of Prince Edward Island, is the Bank of Montreal Visiting
Scholar in Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa.


Carolyn Heilbrun is a distinguished feminist scholar; in this book
presents the Alexander Lectures she delivered at the University of
Toronto in 1997.

Heilbrun explores liminality—that state of being, chiefly experienced
by women, in which the self stands on a threshold of change.
Liminality’s most salient sign, Heilbrun tells us, is “its
unsteadiness, its lack of clarity about exactly where one belongs and
what one should be doing or wants to be doing.” The author approaches
this theme through the lenses of feminism as experienced in the
“second wave,” a time of bold feminist activism and theorizing that
stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s, and through her long career
professing literature.

The subject of the female memoir is central to the lectures, taking as
a starting point the liminal state as paradoxical and probably essential
to female autobiography. To dissent was not women’s right; to dissent
alone is close to impossible, even given the example of a Joan of Arc.
In embracing the memoir, women are demanding their right to dissent in
public. The author explicates the memoirs of women who have written not
to record the events of a triumphant life, but to inscribe themselves as
full persons in spite of barriers of class, gender, and race. Maxine
Hong Kingston’s Asian-American knowledge, Beatrice Webb’s socialist
experience, Annette Kuhn’s struggle to become a scholar are but three
of the women whose lives Heilbrun discusses. Sadly, with the exception
of African-American women, she finds her other writers separate
themselves heartlessly from their mothers, as if they feel compelled to
discard the “unenlightened” women who bore them along with the
steamy laundries of Chinatown and the down-at-heel kitchens of the
English underclass.

In concluding, Heilbrun quotes Margaret Atwood: “[T]he goals of the
feminist movement have not been achieved and those who claim we’re
living in a postfeminist era are either sadly mistaken or tired of
thinking about the whole subject.” Women’s lives and their
biographical writings are still on the threshold.


Heilbrun, Carolyn G., “Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30439.