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Mary Gordon was born in Far Rockaway, New York, to Anna Gagliano Gordon, an Italian-Irish Catholic mother, and David Gordon, a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism. While growing up, she attended Holy Name of Mary School in Valley Stream and for high school attended The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica, N.Y.. She is Catholic.
She received her A.B. from Barnard College in 1971, and her M.A. from Syracuse University in 1973. Gordon lived in New Paltz, New York for a time during the 1980s. She and her husband, Arthur Cash, live in New York City and Hope Valley, Rhode Island. They have two adult children, Anna and David. Gordon is the McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard College. Cash is retired.
In 1981, she wrote the foreword to the Harvest edition of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." In 1984 she was one of 97 theologians and religious persons who signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion, calling for religious pluralism and discussion within the Catholic Church regarding the Church's position on abortion.
Novelist Galaxy Craze has said of Gordon, "She loves to read; she would read us passages in class and start crying, she's so moved by really good writing. And she was the only good writing teacher at Barnard, so I just kept taking her class over and over. She taught me so much." 
Circling My Mother: A Memoir (2007) marked her return to nonfiction after two works of fiction.
In 2009 she published a book called Reading Jesus. It uses Gordon's literary training to read the Gospels.
In 2011, she published The Love of My Youth.
In 1993, Gordon received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her other awards include a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Award, and Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Stories of Mary Gordon won The Story Prize in 2007. In March 2008, Governor Eliot Spitzer named Mary Gordon the official New York State Author and gave her the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction. She was inducted as a member of the inaugural class of the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2010.