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To abstract a central thesis from this provocative cluster of ideas: in literature as in life, women have generally shown an amazing incapacity to imagine themselves as autonomous beings. While dozens of male writers ""create women characters who achieve a sense of their own selfhood,"" even the most personally remarkable woman novelists have largely ""projected their ideal of autonomy onto a male character,"" failing to present their own obviously real abilities and achievements as remotely possible for their women characters. Drawing brilliantly on such studies as Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering, Heilbrun attributes this imaginative failure to the relatively untested sense of sexual identity produced, under the present system of child-rearing, by girls' too-facile identification with the mother. From childhood on, she argues, women must have the opportunity to challenge, adopt, and in short prove themselves on role-models of both sexes: ""women must learn to appropriate for their own use the examples of human autonomy and self-fulfillment displayed to us by the male world."" Moving with conviction from autobiography to literary analysis, Oedipal theory, and studies of family patterns among ""achieving"" females, Heilbrun tries to suggest ways in which women can claim supposedly male altitudes and roles as their birthright without simply becoming ""honorary men"" in a club of co-opted insiders. The greatest liability of her effort is a kind of imprecision that leads her, for example, to employ ""conservative"" as an all-purpose pejorative for targets from Phyllis Schlafly to Christopher Lasch, or to undertake a mythic ""reinterpretation"" of the Oresteia without spelling out the standard of validity we should apply to such an effort. Her style veers unpredictably between admirable eloquence and needless jargon. But there is no question about the correctness of her major perception or the implications we should draw from it: ""Woman must learn to call whatever she is or does female.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1979
ISBN: 0393310760
Publisher: Norton