The “Messy Experiment”

From “female confinement” to “female liberation” at the Radcliffe Institute
Bunting Fellows in conversation, circa 1964-1972; Tillie Olsen, holding a cup, is at right.  Photograph by Olive Pierce (circa 1964-1972). Copyright (C) the Pierce family. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard UniversityBunting Fellows in conversation, circa 1964-1972; Tillie Olsen, holding a cup, is at right. Photograph by Olive Pierce (circa 1964-1972). Copyright (C) the Pierce family. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Harvard Magazine
April 20, 2020
By Susan Ware

ON NOVEMBER 20, 1960, scientist Mary Ingraham Bunting unveiled her vision for the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. Newly appointed as Radcliffe’s president, she made her announcement just weeks after the country had elected John F. Kennedy ’40, LL.D. ’56, its youngest president. Change was in the air, but Bunting was one of the foresighted few who realized women should be part of that changing equation. To provide an intellectual lifeline to talented women whose careers had been sidetracked by marriage and children, she proposed creating an institute where fellows would receive office space, access to Harvard’s resources, and a part-time stipend to pursue their creative and scholarly work. Nothing like this had ever been proposed before, certainly not at Radcliffe College. Even Bunting referred to it as a “messy experiment.”

Practically as soon as the program was announced, inquiries started to roll in. Prospective applicants were typically Boston-area women in their thirties and forties who were married with small children. After a rigorous selection process which looked both for evidence of past achievement (such as an advanced degree) and the promise of future distinction, 24 women (four more than originally planned) were offered slots in the inaugural class. When they assembled at 78 Mount Auburn Street in September 1961, they were keenly aware of the high expectations placed on them to fulfill Bunting’s expansive mission statement. But mainly they just felt lucky to have been chosen.

In The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, Maggie Doherty, Ph.D. ’15, a literary scholar and critic, and a preceptor in Expository Writing, tells the story of how this small and privileged group “operated as a hinge between the 1950s and 1960s, between a decade of female confinement and a decade of female liberation.” Her chosen vehicle is collective biography, focusing on three women from the inaugural class and two from the second class: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin ’46, A.M. ’48, artist Barbara Swan, writer Tillie Olsen, and sculptor Marianna Pineda. These women formed a friend group which they called “the equivalents”—a humorous but self-conscious reference to the requirement that fellows have an advanced degree or its equivalent. Sexton and Kumin were already close friends and writing collaborators who had met in Boston’s male-dominated poetry circles in the 1950s, a relationship they concealed from the selection committee. Swan and Pineda had also already connected, although not as deeply, as two creative artists living and raising children in Brookline who felt somewhat out of sorts with the general domestic scene in that affluent suburb. The odd person out was Olsen, who relocated from the West Coast to take up her fellowship.

Read the full article at the Harvard Magazine website.

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