Copyright 1992 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
November 8, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

Rage in a Tenured Position

BYLINE: By Anne Matthews; Anne Matthews teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University. She writes frequently for this magazine on higher education.

Twice a week for the past 32 years, her classes done, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun would leave Columbia University's department of English and comparative literature and walk past the classical facades of the main campus, past the bronze statue of Alma Mater, past the security guards at the wrought-iron west gate, out onto crowded Broadway. Often she would tow along a group of English majors for an open-air conference, arguing imagery and interpretation as they walked the streets of Morningside Heights, finally presenting them with a bus or subway token each, to get them safely home.

In May, Heilbrun walked Columbia's campus for the last time, alone. The 66-year-old professor of English, holder of an endowed chair, past president of the Modern Language Association, a leading feminist literary scholar and, not incidentally, the elusive mystery writer known as Amanda Cross had recently informed the administration of her sudden decision to retire early.

"When I spoke up for women's issues, I was made to feel unwelcome in my own department, kept off crucial committees, ridiculed, ignored," says Heilbrun a month or so later, perched on a sofa in her large, light Central Park West apartment, an elderly Maine coon cat in her lap. "Ironically, my name in the catalogue gave Columbia a reputation for encouraging feminist studies in modernism. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Except for brief stints at various schools, including Princeton, Yale Law School and the University of California at Santa Cruz, Heilbrun had taught at Columbia her entire career. "It's like a marriage ending," she says. "Sad, exhausting -- and infuriating, because Columbia will continue to be run by male professors who behave like little boys saying, 'This is our secret treehouse club, no girls allowed.' Well, I'm sick of the treehouse gang."

In this era of fed-up women, with a record 11 major-party female candidates running for the Senate and 106 for the House of Representatives, a strenuous seminar in gender issues has occupied headlines and sound bites: the Hill-Thomas hearings, the Roe v. Wade challenges, the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials, "Thelma and Louise," "Backlash," the Tailhook Association. In the male-run world of American colleges and universities -- where 88 percent of presidents, provosts and chancellors are men, 87 percent of full professors, 77 percent of trustees -- Heilbrun's defiant departure alarms and fascinates. Is she an ingrate and malcontent -- a grandstanding whistle-blower -- or a courageous speaker of the truth?

"In life, as in fiction, women who speak out usually end up punished or dead," says Heilbrun dryly. "I'm lucky to escape with my pension and a year of leave."

EVEN AS ITS MOST FAMOUS FEMINIST walked out, Columbia was not having a good year. Michael I. Sovern announced in June that he would step down as president of the university. Severe budget problems have led to cutbacks in administrative staff, the dismantling of the School of Library Service and -- thanks to a combination of increased enrollment and a deliberate lag in filling faculty vacancies -- heavier teaching loads. In addition, a continuing federal audit of research spending has been complicated by the university's questionable disposal of 150 cartons of financial records.

Columbia's once-stellar literature program is struggling, too. Long proud of a tradition of well-known intellectuals, set by humanist scholars like Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun and Mark Van Doren, the department, as of last year, could boast only two superstars -- the Middle East expert Edward Said, whose academic field is modern comparative literature, and Heilbrun. Whatever their public roles, their in-house prestige could be measured, Manhattan-style, in square footage. Said occupies a suite, complete with fax, computer system and two assistants; Heilbrun spent her tenure in a standard faculty office, licking her own stamps.

The English department is famously inbred: more than a third of the senior literature faculty have one or more Columbia degrees. Many attribute their loyalty to the vigorous life of the mind the program encourages and the faculty's fondness for principled disagreement. Peers at other Ivy League colleges, tracking Columbia's factional warfare in awe, favor terms like "shark pit" and "street brawl for Ph.D.'s." The 1991-92 tenure season was especially combative. "When the budget pie gets smaller, territoriality gets more intense," says the current department chairman, David S. Kastan, 45. "We had as candidates one white man doing Shakespeare, one white woman doing feminist perspectives on the novel and one black man in African-American poetry and gender studies. Later a white woman in 18th-century drama came up for tenure, too."

All received lifetime employment offers except the feminist -- the third time in six years a feminist scholar backed by Heilbrun was kept off Columbia's faculty. After the fourth graduate student who wanted to work with Heilbrun was rejected by the department's doctoral program this year (three were later admitted), she decided she could no longer make a difference on the issues of women's studies, funding and feminist hiring -- and left. "Hardly anyone was speaking to me anyway," she says glumly.

In books like "Reinventing Womanhood" (1979) and "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny" (1973), Heilbrun helped pioneer the field of women's biography and autobiography with tart, elegant essays written, she says (paraphrasing Marianne Moore), "in language cats and dogs could read." She specializes in British Modernism (roughly 1880 to 1950, the era of Yeats, Conrad and Eliot), and argues that to understand this age of giants, scholars must closely question great writers on their attitudes toward gender, as well as recognize the countermodernist or outsider voices so persistently present in the era's literary conversations: for every D. H. Lawrence a Gertrude Stein, for every James Joyce a Virginia Woolf.

This brand of literary "he said, she said" is now shaking the dim, quiet English offices in Philosophy Hall. Though Heilbrun had been on or around campus since the Truman Administration (when she was a graduate student), some senior male colleagues still seem unsure of her first name, referring to her as "Carol," "Karla" and "Caroline." But many point out that 7 of 31 tenured professors are now female. ("Female doesn't mean feminist," retorts Heilbrun. ) Some also add that Heilbrun has a solvent, amiable husband and thus never needed to work at all (hearing this, Heilbrun growls), and still others note that she violated academic decorum by revealing tenure-committee procedure to the popular press -- meaning The Chronicle of Higher Education, a staid periodical for academic administrators.

"That tenure committee had not a single woman on it," says Heilbrun, unrepentant, "and in my experience, confidentiality means complicity, useful chiefly for protecting old-boy secrets." Heilbrun has always had other lives, rare in a top-class academic. She has been married for 47 years to James Heilbrun, a Manhattan-born urban economist at Fordham University. They met when he was a Harvard undergraduate and she a student at Wellesley, and wed on the eve of his departure for Pacific service in World War II. Their three children are now grown and respectably employed. Much about Heilbrun's off-campus world makes her academic colleagues openly testy. The genteel Central Park West address. The summer house in the Berkshires. The first-name ease with celebrities like Gloria Steinem, whose authorized biography Heilbrun is writing.

And, of course, her publishing record. In 30 years on Columbia's faculty, some literature professors have published only one scholarly book; Heilbrun has written or edited eight. In the crowded universe of mystery fiction, Heilbrun is a star: the 10 exploits of her hyperarticulate amateur sleuth Kate Fansler, Ph.D., a woman "unconstrained by the opinions of others, rich and beautiful," have been translated into Japanese, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish and Italian, selling in total nearly a million copies worldwide.

That Heilbrun is famous, even beloved, outside Columbia's gates but frequently dismissed or ignored on her home ground baffles some colleagues, angers others. Her departure has sent the department's many factions scrambling for the moral high ground, backbiting and spin-doctoring as they go: Heilbrun is a selfless martyr, Heilbrun is an opinionated victimizer, she is a major mind, a major loss, a major nuisance.

Of seven tenured women, most of whom claim feminism as an area of interest, five, apparently from professional caution, would not discuss Heilbrun. A sixth, the American literature specialist Ann Douglas, waxed indignant in The Chronicle of Higher Education over Heilbrun's criticisms of Columbia, saying "the belief that whatever one sees or chooses to see out one's own window is ipso facto the world, that there is no intelligent dissent or opposition, just (at best) misguided persons in flagrant error, that any one person can speak ex cathedra for a diverse group -- is a pernicious doctrine."

On the other hand, Joan Ferrante, head of Columbia's literature program from 1988 to 1991, feels Heilbrun's complaints are far too modest. "Chairing was hell, but I got my hands on some numbers," Ferrante says. "Over the last 20 years, two or three men have been tenured for every woman. A list of female talent let go from here would make a brilliant department anywhere. Columbia is liberal in everything except the company it keeps; just hint at letting in more women and blacks, and the old boys envision the end of civilization as they know it."

The current departmental chairman, David Kastan, wishes the whole distressing wrangle would go away. "I truly respect Carolyn," he says plaintively. "I found her a very maternal figure. Most of my buddies in the business are feminists. When I was hired, I rushed out and bought all the Amanda Cross murder mysteries, just to get a feel for the Columbia atmosphere."

Only eight bodies turn up in the 10 Cross books, but lacerations to academic egos are severe in these astringent novels of manners. Heilbrun began writing Kate's initial case, "In the Last Analysis" (1964), while an assistant professor at Columbia, living in a crowded New York City apartment with three children under 8, a large dog and a husband in graduate school. She began rising at 5 A.M. to type her way into an alternate existence where epigram, aphorism and cultured badinage about art and life make up nine-tenths of the action.

Unlike P. D. James, Heilbrun does not outline an entire mystery beforehand ("plots are not my strong point," she says cheerfully), but works fast and without notes on her Epson personal computer, using the academic's favorite computer program, Nota Bene. Her competitors receive careful readings: she intensely dislikes Ruth Rendell's work, but enjoys John LeCarre, Michael Gilbert, Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman ("I was on a panel with him -- a truly nice man"). She greatly likes the novels of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, whose creations -- V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone -- like Kate Fansler, are unabashedly feminist detectives.

Afraid that writing murder mysteries would kill her chances for tenure, Heilbrun took a pseudonym, "Amanda Cross." Gradually she let the mask slip, particularly after one enterprising scholar searched the copyright records. She soon learned that mystery buffs are natural deconstructionists. Did Heilbrun realize, crime fans have demanded, that her pen name reproduces Agatha Christie's initials, that Amanda is the name of Katharine Hepburn's character in "Adam's Rib," that the very syllables of A-man-da-cross are loaded with multiple meaning? Heilbrun -Cross analyses are even a thriving scholarly genre, from master's theses to symposia to learned articles ("Murder in the Canon: The Dual Personality of Carolyn Heilbrun" ).

Kate Fansler is an enduring presence in Heilbrun's life, though not always a tractable one: she insisted on marrying the dashing lawyer Reed Amhearst halfway through the series, to Heilbrun's annoyance, and remains loyal to Freudian interpretation ( Heilbrun, though a fervid Manhattanite, has never been analyzed) and to frequent restorative martinis and cigarettes.

"She started out terribly brittle and skittish, like the women in movies I watched constantly in college," Heilbrun says. "She's become braver, and more real, as she's aged." If the early Cross books milk the comedy, high, low and dark, of any great research university, middle Cross is a sharp -- some reviewers say bitter -- gloss on academe's moral riddles and shortfalls, so much so that "Death in a Tenured Position" carried a blanket disclaimer. In later books, like "The Players Come Again," the deaths chronicled are mostly of the spirit, and sleuthing an excuse for meditations on resilience and renewal in women's lives in middle age and beyond.

Heilbrun is not the first Columbia professor to moonlight as a mystery writer -- in the 40's, the Shakespearean expert Alfred Harbage also depicted Ivy League crime. Even colleagues who insist they've never read an Amanda Cross book ("well, maybe skimmed") still know their criminal geography, confidently pointing out the hallway where the bull terrier Jocasta considers losing her lunch in "Death in a Tenured Position," or the window from which a professor of Middle Eastern studies is tossed, to widespread rejoicing, in "A Trap for Fools." ("No, the victim is not Edward Said," says Heilbrun, with the patience of one who has fielded the question many times.)

And everyone at Columbia seems to know the creaking Philosophy Hall elevator where, in "Poetic Justice," a professor meets a gory end at the hands of a fellow faculty member. The suave murderer is a dead ringer for the late Lionel Trilling, Heilbrun's professional nemesis, who dominated Columbia's literature department for generations and still (it is nervously joked) does the hiring. Robert Hanning, a Columbia professor who specializes in medieval literature, remembers Trilling's agitation in the late 1960's when women were finally allowed to teach English at Columbia College itself, as opposed to the graduate school or the lowly School of General Studies. "This is not at all a good idea," he remembers Trilling saying often. "Older men should teach younger men, and younger men should then go out and encounter women as the Other."

Founded in 1754, Columbia University (current enrollment: 19,300) is America's fifth-oldest degree-granting institution. In 1983, Columbia College became the last Ivy school to turn coed. Says Hanning: "Columbia has always been very, very, very male. If you were the good son, you got ahead, you received the mantle of power. The model allows no room for women, and to suggest it might has always elicited varying degrees of Olympian disdain and scorn. Yes, feminism threatens all that. Allowing many voices on campus may not be comfortable, but it's certainly educational. Right now, in New York, in the U.S., in the world, in 1992, it's very important that Columbia not opt for comfort."

Heilbrun is a generational anomaly at Columbia because she arrived before the era of open feminist debate yet after the heyday of formidable "lady" scholars like Marjorie Hope Nicolson. ("The best man this department ever had," declares one nostalgic professor.)

"I've always been alone," Heilbrun says. Born in East Orange, N.J., in 1926, she is the daughter of Estelle Roemer and Archibald Gold. He was an accountant who lost his money in the Great Depression and moved his family to the Upper West Side of Manhattan when Heilbrun was 6. Heilbrun remembers her mother as a woman who "never had the courage to do anything herself in life but saw everything, and saw through everything, very clearly." An only child, Heilbrun grew up solitary in 1930's Manhattan, roller-skating for hours or devouring biographies (in strict alphabetical order) in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. Her childhood was, she says, good training for future decades as the only woman in the room. Heilbrun wrote her landmark article "The Character of Hamlet's Mother" (its argument: Gertrude may be lustful, but she's not stupid) in 1957, when feminist scholars and consciousness-raising advocates of the 70's were still playing with Barbie dolls. When they came of age, she welcomed them. "Suddenly I looked up and found I had company in the silent room where I had sat, alone and scribbling, for so very long."

How much her lonely climb has embittered Heilbrun, or clouded her judgment, is openly debated by friends and foes. "To my generation, she has been wise leader, facilitator, mentor, muse -- the feminist-critical mother of us all," exclaims the prominent feminist scholar Sandra M. Gilbert, professor of English at the University of California at Davis. Says a current Columbia (female) graduate student: "I've seen her thump a book in seminar and yell, 'Tom Eliot, how can you say that, you utter jerk?' but I found Heilbrun smart, principled and funny. Naturally, that makes her an object of fear and loathing in the academy."

Jonathan Smith, a recent Columbia Ph.D. now teaching at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, feels most English-department senior faculty mambers "placed little or no value on teaching and mentoring of graduate students." When he was preparing for his orals, he recalls, the senior faculty member who had agreed to serve as his major field examiner told him he didn't have the time to meet for an hour once a month. Heilbrun, he says, "was one of the few people at Columbia who made me feel I was being trained to enter a profession. Perhaps this shouldn't count as exemplary behavior in one of the country's leading graduate programs. But it did."

Many of Heilbrun's senior male colleagues insist the department's attitudes toward women have greatly improved in recent years, and whisper that from her Columbia graduate-school days onward, Heilbrun has stubbornly resisted socialization, never acquiring or appreciating basic academic skills like reverence for tradition, teamwork and lying low. Some insist they feel "astonished," "hurt" or "betrayed" at her abrupt exit, offering courteous valedictories -- "a sad, sad end to a distinguished career." Many then go on to add, "but of course you must remember that she is -- " (insert one of the following phrases): "a bit uncollegial," "getting on in years, you know," "quite out of control, where women's issues are concerned," "rather frustrated," "terribly frustrated," "deeply frustrated." ( Heilbrun makes an awful face. "Of course I'm frustrated, dealing with such idiocy. If I hadn't been married for 47 years, with three kids, you can imagine what else they'd be whispering.")

Says George Stade, the department's vice chairman, a Columbia faculty member since 1962: "It's hard for her to make a case for gross injustice. If we all have some deep anti-female prejudice, I can't see it, myself. Professor Heilbrun has always been aggrieved, always."

TRACKING POWER struggles in higher education, especially in a rich, private, prestigious school like Columbia, can be like watching sumo wrestlers under a rug. Yet recently, across the country, academic women -- scholars, administrators, staff and students -- have begun formally confronting policies or behavior they consider sexist. Some go public, like the University of Minnesota at Duluth vice chancellor who received repeated death threats after instituting mandatory faculty workshops designed to improve the campus climate for women. Some resign, like the neurosurgeon Frances K. Conley, who charged Stanford Medical School with pervasive sexism, only rejoining the teaching staff after the school seemed to take her allegations seriously.

Others get a lawyer. A former assistant professor of Asian history is suing Georgetown University for sex discrimination and defamation in an $8 million Federal court case. An accounting professor was denied tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee because, she claimed, she was female and pregnant; her suit helped inspire a new state law creating independent appeals committees for contested tenure cases involving "impermissible factors," including race and gender.

Sometimes issues of sexism are exposed but not resolved. At the University of Virginia last spring, a committee of five outside academics appointed by the provost to investigate longstanding problems in tenure, sexual harassment and discrimination concluded that a "hostile" and "unacceptable" climate for women faculty exists at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. A 1988 study, not made public, had found similar problems in treatment of women and minorites. In 1992, as they had in 1988, university administrators promised change.

Feminism has become an academic industry since the 1970's. More than 600 women's studies programs or departments exist at American colleges and from art history and anthropology to history, literature, religion, law, politics, sociology and biology. Carolyn Heilbrun helped found academic feminism, but she has always remained slightly apart, allied to no camp, entirely pleasing no one with her insistence that literature and life are linked, that we are the stories we tell.

Some critics feel Heilbrun's belief in female community is outdated, given the crisis of the mid-1980's, when feminists of color challenged the entire movement as too white and middle class. "Feminisms plural" are now the mode, whether political, literary or cultural. Like the even newer fields of gender and popular-culture studies, today's feminism enthusiastically investigates issues of suppression and oppression, and views gender itself as a fiction, a pose, a performance. Younger scholars' reactions to the Heilbrun affair range from dismayed (if Heilbrun couldn't make a dent, what chance have I?) to dismissive. Says one 28-year-old, briskly, "Carolyn and the old boys are dinosaurs battling in a tar pit."

Increasingly, Heilbrun's audience lies beyond the faculty lounge. On Columbia's main library, names of great men are chiseled in stone -- Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, all the somber masters of Western thought. During Columbia's 1989 graduation, a small group of students unfurled a 140-foot banner from the library roof displaying a far different roster of literary luminaries: Sappho, Juana Inez de la Cruz, Bronte, Dickinson, Woolf. The protesters were removed, but their gesture spurred a two-week university-approved exhibition and lecture series on women's literature. "I always hated seeing only men's names up there, and decided to do something about it," says the group's leader, Laura Hotchkiss Brown, now a San Francisco designer and writer. "I learned the importance of women's voices by reading Carolyn Heilbrun."

Heilbrun's books "Writing A Woman's Life" (1989) and "Hamlet's Mother and Other Women" (1990) sell extremely well outside academe, in hard-cover and trade paperback. At a June 1992 literary conference at Westbrook College in Portland, Me., honoring the 80th birthday of the poet, novelist and memoirist May Sarton, Heilbrun was a keynote speaker. The audience included dozens of academics trolling for material (Sarton at 80 is a growth industry), but most attendees were civilians -- nurses from Alaska, psychologists from Florida, office managers from Hawaii, many clutching well-thumbed Heilbrun editions. Pre-lecture chatter was of lobster rolls, continuing-education budget cuts and the goddess Ishtar.

In her metallic, emphatic voice, Heilbrun told them of the obligations of women everywhere to, in the words of Ursula Le Guin, "subvert as much as possible without hurting anyone's feelings," and of the lifelong struggles of Sarton, the female artist, alone in a house, wrestling with meaning. When Heilbrun sat down, the men in the packed hall looked wary, the women exalted, shouting and applauding, flushed with emotion. "She's no Kate Fansler," said a high-school history teacher from Bangor, watching the plump ("I used to be thin, but after 55, I said, Oh, the hell with it") and slightly disheveled Heilbrun greet the receiving line, "but I drove all night so I could say I'd seen the person whose essays made sense of my life."

Heilbrun continues to field letters and calls from academic women she has never met, most on two themes: "No one where I work will talk to me either," and "I'd quit too, if I dared." Offers have arrived from across the country to teach and lecture, and last month a symposium titled "Out of the Academy and Into the World With Carolyn G. Heilbrun" was held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Watched gravely by the family cat, Heilbrun spends her days at the computer, drafting the Steinem biography and planning Kate Fansler's 11th adventure. At Columbia, 30 blocks north, a new batch of students is in class, and Heilbrun's office reassigned. Self-exiled on Central Park West, Heilbrun quotes Dorothy L. Sayers: "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."

There are many old men in academe, but very few old women. Margaret W. Ferguson, a former professor at Columbia now teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says ruefully: "As always, we were planning to watch Carolyn to learn what steps came next in a successful woman scholar's career. Now we'll never know the end of the story." For Carolyn Heilbrun is once again, not entirely willingly, back where she began: a woman alone in a room,writing. Exactly why remains an academic mystery fit for Amanda Cross.