Before the Feminist Revolution, This "Messy Experiment" Nurtured Female Talent

The New York Times
May 19, 2020
By Claire Messud

A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s
By Maggie Doherty

In the age of fourth-wave feminism, intersectionality and #MeToo, it’s easy to forget how recently acute gender imbalance seemed all but intractable. Milestones of feminism’s second wave — the publication of seminal books like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” (1970) and Toni Cade Bambara’s anthology “The Black Woman” (1970), along with the founding of the National Organization for Women (1966) and Ms. magazine (1971) — are less than 60 years behind us. It can be difficult for younger people fully to imagine the world that preceded these advances, a time when women in politics and business were exceedingly rare, and when literary women served chiefly as adornments at male gatherings, or tried to stifle any aspect of their work that might be considered “feminine.”

As Maggie Doherty writes of “the heyday of the American university” in the postwar era, “one might stumble upon women, in clusters of twos and threes, learning from magnetic men and clinging to the chances they’d been given. They evaluated the competition, they kept tabs on their rivals; occasionally, they found confidantes; rarely, they made friends.” Among Boston area poets of the late 1950s, two such women forged an important friendship in the workshop of John Holmes, a Tufts professor: Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. Both were literarily ambitious, both married with small children. (Sylvia Plath and Sexton met in another workshop, Robert Lowell’s master class at Boston University, at around the same time; they became friends and corresponded after Plath returned to Britain with her English husband, the poet Ted Hughes.)

Sexton and Kumin’s long friendship proved artistically important to them both. For years, Doherty writes, they had “a little mini-workshop of their own, using the same method: One of them would call up the other one on her rotary telephone, read out a line or two, then wait for feedback.”

This literary bond is at the heart of Maggie Doherty’s engaging work of cultural biography, “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s.” Her account opens with Kumin and Sexton, and as a scholar of English literature — Doherty has a doctorate from Harvard — she gives closest attention to these writers, including readings of a number of their poems. But the book is more broadly centered on the establishment, in 1960, of the Radcliffe Institute at the university. The brainchild of Mary Ingraham Bunting, then the president of Radcliffe College, her “messy experiment” quickly became known as the Bunting Institute (it continues today as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study). “In September 1961, the institute offered an inaugural group of 24 remarkable women — including Sexton and Kumin — the resources they needed to succeed: fellowship money, office space and most important, membership in a professional and creative female community, the likes of which had never been seen before in the country’s history.”

The book’s title refers to the fellowship’s requirement that applicants should have a doctorate or equivalent. Not being academics, the artists were thus “the Equivalents,” and, in the fellowship’s second year, a group including Sexton, Kumin, the visual artist Barbara Swan, the sculptor Marianna Pineda and the writer Tillie Olsen gave themselves this name: “These five women knit themselves together into a friend group, a sort of institute within the institute. They collaborated and debated and celebrated each other’s work.”

Doherty, who teaches writing at Harvard, provides lively glimpses of the individual trajectories and projects of these artists, both in the years leading up to and after their time at Radcliffe. Olsen’s complicated relationship with the academy is well evoked, as are Sexton’s volatility (she struggled for many years with depression, and attempted suicide numerous times, successfully in 1974) and Kumin’s stable, more introverted temperament. Doherty may be less interested in the visual artists; or perhaps there exists less documentation of their thoughts and experiences.

All had already enjoyed some success by the time they received their fellowships; but in the years that followed, they rose to greater prominence — the writers in particular. Sexton won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, Kumin in 1973 (she would accumulate many more accolades, including serving as poet laureate in 1981); and Olsen, whose fictional output was small but influential, became best known as an activist and educator, “a revered feminist scholar and critic at a time when feminist criticism was sweeping through the academy.”

Doherty’s attention to these early Radcliffe fellows is tempered by her awareness of the institute’s homogeneity at the time with respect to race and, for the most part, class. Later chapters are devoted to Radcliffe’s evolution, following the 1968 protests by black undergraduates: Early African-American fellows included the playwright and novelist Alice Childress, the environmental psychologist Florence Ladd (later a director of the Bunting Institute) and the novelist Alice Walker, whose famous essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South” was first delivered as a talk at a Radcliffe symposium on “The Black Woman.” Doherty also touches on the wider feminist wave, from Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and her cofounding of NOW to the radical writings of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, the editors of “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.”

This endeavor simultaneously to offer a broader context for the Radcliffe Institute and to cover a large period of time — from 1957 to the mid-1970s — ultimately renders “The Equivalents” somewhat diffuse, and in places it can feel skimpy. While Sexton’s and Kumin’s lives are thoroughly documented (and have been told elsewhere), Swan’s and Pineda’s in particular are only briefly handled. Doherty isn’t notably a stylist, and her descriptions can be perfunctory: One woman at the institute has “dark hair, bright green eyes and a broad smile,” while of Bunting herself, we are told that she is “a humanist, a happy wife and a descendant of a Quaker.” It’s hard to tell whether the book’s primary interest lies in portraying the complicated and demanding friendships among Kumin, Sexton and Olsen in the context of what is now the Radcliffe Institute, or in representing, at speed, the diverse strands of feminist activism and scholarship in the late ’60s and ’70s. Doherty tries to address all of these, in part, one suspects, because the subjects of her title — the five “Equivalents” — seem, from a contemporary intersectional perspective, potentially problematic: They were white, and, with the exception of Olsen, educated and largely well-off.

But they are not therefore less important to the unfolding of the women’s movement in the United States. Theirs was an uneasy generation, caught between two historical moments: As Doherty wisely observes, they “were women born too early; by the time the women’s movement gained full steam, each of them was well established in her life and ways.” After 1968, they grew in some ways obsolete even as they came into their prime as artists. But it’s important to recognize that for them to become artists at all required uncommon courage, commitment and perhaps even guile: Doherty cites Janet Malcolm saying, “We were an uneasy, shifty-eyed generation. We lied to our parents and we lied to each other and we lied to ourselves, so addicted to deception had we become.”

My mother was of their generation: Born in 1933, she was, by 1968, the mother of two small children, a wife repeatedly uprooted on account of her husband’s career. A feminist in her reading and her thought, she found herself trapped in practice by family circumstances, slightly too old, too constrained and perhaps insufficiently courageous to effect radical change. The frank and emotionally intense poetry of Anne Sexton was enormously important to her; she introduced me to Sexton and Plath when I was barely a teenager. The ferocity with which these poets laid claim to their female experiences was formative for me, as for many women I know. Their accomplishments — and that they persisted — constitute a vital chapter in the narrative of the women’s movement. While we may observe, in retrospect, their limitations, Mary Ingraham Bunting and her artistic fellows were groundbreaking and remarkable. Maggie Doherty’s account, too, may have its flaws, but “The Equivalents” is nevertheless an illuminating contribution to our history.

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