Carolyn Gold Heilbrun was an American academic at Columbia University, the first woman to receive tenure in the English department, and a prolific feminist author of important academic studies. Her book, Writing a Woman’s Life, is one of the most important books in Feminist Studies, but she is just as renowned for the mystery novels she wrote under the pseudonym Amanda Cross.
In the Amanda Cross novels, her protagonist Kate Fansler is an English professor at Columbia who solves murders. Fansler is like a smarter, grown up, straight Nancy Drew. (I always wondered about Nancy and her good female friend George.) As a child I devoured those Nancy Drew mysteries as I vicariously enjoyed Nancy’s adventures, her risk-taking behavior, and her yellow roadster. Most of the adventurous characters in the other books I had read were male, and while I could, in a sense, identify with these, it was hard to know where I stood when the hero was charged with rescuing a helpless female. It is only since the advent of the feminist movement that girls have had the pleasure of collections like Jack Zipes’s Don’t Bet on the Prince, with his sturdy female protagonists.
I was delighted with the latest Star Wars film and the strong female character of Rey. I laughed out loud when she directed the male lead to stop grabbing her hand as he chivalerously offered to help her get away from the bad guys. Young girls are hearing the message that females are independent and not in need of rescue. Kate Fansler exemplifies this notion in Heilbrun’s novels.
I had the pleasure of being in a lecture hall listening to Carolyn Heilbrun around the time she turned sixty. She was talking about the issue feminists point to: The Male Gaze. Think of a woman walking by a construction site and the creepy feeling she gets when the men shout and whistle. Think of boys at my former school sitting on a brick wall when Freshman girls walk by, holding up numbered signs judging each girl. Think of Miss America. Women learn that their looks are being judged by men.
Heilbrun surprised us in the audience by saying she was delighted to turn sixty, an age which we young women equated with decrepitude. We wondered how anyone could be so happy to be so old. Her reason: “I no longer feel I have to hold in my stomach!” Her contention was that at her age, she was invisible to men, and as such, she was no longer subject to the male gaze.
I have thought very often about Heilbrun’s thoughts about the male gaze and about becoming invisible when we age. First of all, I have never been the sort of woman who attracted catcalls from construction workers. Sophia Vergara I am not! But I also believe that most women do not dress to attract that kind of attention. If anything, women I know are thrilled when what we are wearing attracts the eye of other women. I dress to please myself (Ron doesn’t care what I wear!) and love it when others, usually female, comment. Last night I was amazed when Rick, the new owner of The Artisan, remarked that he loved the outfit I was wearing the previous day. It had been a Creole Sha up-cycled concoction of old shirts stitched together, worn over turquoise leggings. How interesting that he noticed and complimented me on it! I was delighted.
My point is that nowadays aging women are not content to be invisible. We like who we are and we don’t really care whether we get affirmation from others or not. I don’t dress like my grandmother in faded black shmattahs, but have fun with my appearance. Getting dressed is an art form I enjoy, and with loose, flowing clothing, no one knows if I am holding in my stomach or not.