Women on the Verge



For many of its participants, the women’s liberation movement represented a saving break with an unremittingly bleak past. A switch flipped at the end of the 1960s, and the culture flooded with light. Where once there had been only darkness—Ladies’ Home Journal, back-alley abortions, MRS degrees—now there was feminism: Kate Millett made the cover of Time, Shirley Chisholm made the ballot, and young women picketed bridal fairs and beauty pageants that they might have attended a year before. In 1971, fiction writer Tillie Olsen remarked with awe that “this movement in three years has accumulated a vast new mass of testimony, of new comprehensions as to what it is to be female.”

The Equivalents, Maggie Doherty’s group portrait of Olsen and four other women artists, is a story of neither collective liberation nor midcentury repression. Doherty has instead recovered a neglected “hinge” between the two, lingering on an early-1960s transitional moment between one stark period and the next. At the dawn of that decade, as gender inequality crept into public consciousness but had not yet entered the political foreground, Radcliffe College began awarding fellowships to women of promise across a range of disciplines. Its Institute for Independent Study was conceived specifically to serve “intellectually displaced women” with “doctorates or ‘the equivalent’ of success in an artistic field,” credentialed but sidetracked by marriage and motherhood, and it offered an appealing bundle of resources: money, office space, and, according to Doherty, “membership in a professional and creative female community, the likes of which had never been seen before in the country’s history.” Among the institute’s inaugural cohort of twenty-four were poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin and painter Barbara Swan, who were joined the following year by Olsen and sculptor Marianna Pineda. In a flush of intimacy, the five women, lacking Ph.D.s, took to calling themselves the “Equivalents.”

Radcliffe’s president and the institute’s architect, a microbiologist named Mary Ingraham Bunting, was an early but uneasy collaborator of Betty Friedan’s on what would become The Feminine Mystique. (“Bunting—a humanist, a happy wife, and the descendent of a Quaker—found Friedan’s polemical style and vitriolic tone unappealing,” writes Doherty.) The two women shared an interest in housewives’ untapped potential, but they gave different names to a problem that famously lacked one. While Friedan went on to herald feminism as a mass project of social change, Bunting designed an institutional counterbalance to the more local factors—motherhood, isolation, and what she called a “climate of unexpectation”—that derailed ambitious women from careers.

Doherty begins by describing her subjects’ lives before their shared idyll at Radcliffe, and these opening chapters are predictably but vividly grim. In the Boston suburb of Newton, Kumin and Sexton both married early, had children, and kept house. They spent their twenties in a cloud of discontent. Their initial apprenticeships were self-directed: One month after her first suicide attempt, Sexton happened upon an educational TV program hosted by the critic I. A. Richards and was immediately rapt; years after a discouraging college writing course, Kumin bought a guide, Writing Light Verse, and started imitating the poems in Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post. Emboldened by loneliness and a budding commitment to their craft, Sexton and Kumin both began attending a local poetry workshop, where they met in 1957. Each woman became the other’s closest friend and most valued reader, and the two spent hours every day writing and revising together.

The Bunting fellows in conversation, ca. 1963–65. Olive R. Pierce
The Bunting fellows in conversation, ca. 1963–65. Olive R. Pierce

Such affection was rare in Boston’s cliquey poetry scene. Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich make cameos as magnetic but guarded competitors for male approval, doled out sparingly by presiding genius Robert Lowell, whose workshop Sexton took in the late 1950s. Lowell’s early advocacy for Sexton’s work may have helped her find an audience, but Kumin and Sexton’s more intimate infrastructure of feedback and support gets primary credit for their artistic development. Friendship between women was a precious resource, and at Radcliffe theirs would find richer soil. As she read the institute’s appeal for applications in 1960, one of Sexton’s first impulses was to call her friend: Here was a new experience to share.

Doherty is a confident, perceptive critic, and her biographical sketches are expertly interwoven with well-deployed—if too infrequent—readings of the poems themselves. Sexton’s frank confessions and striking images swiftly won her fame, while Kumin’s greater reserve on the page, as in life, cast her in the role of caregiver for her erratic friend. (Sexton’s character is easier to dramatize, but Kumin’s tenderness, restraint, and pangs of insecurity make her the more compelling of the two.)

Sexton and Kumin are the real protagonists of The Equivalents—“the backbone of this book,” Doherty admits—and they’re given the most airtime by far. Swan and Pineda get comparatively meager capsule introductions. Like Sexton and Kumin, the two visual artists were already friends and neighbors when they joined the institute, raising children and working from home studios in the nearby Brookline suburb. Olsen’s early life broadens the book’s horizon. Born in Omaha a decade and a half before Sexton to “Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews and avowed socialists,” Olsen was by the 1930s an established journalist, short-story writer, and leftist organizer, at work on an eagerly anticipated novel of working-class life. Then came children, McCarthyism, and a taxing string of day jobs. A perfectionist with no free time, Olsen let her writing stall, until a handful of well-received stories in the late 1950s rekindled her career. Sexton became a fan and a frequent correspondent, encouraging Olsen to apply to the Radcliffe institute when she again found herself struggling.

Though Bunting conceived her institute with middle- and upper-class professionals like herself in mind, the unique fellowship package made it a potential lifeline for women as different as Olsen and Sexton. On first glance, their needs diverged sharply: Sexton had plenty of money and too little structure, while Olsen was constantly broke and desperate for a solitary hour. But at decisive moments in their writing careers, Radcliffe supported them both. The stipend was essential to Olsen but is of secondary interest to Doherty; more important in her telling is how Radcliffe conferred a sense of legitimacy that spurred each woman to prioritize her craft, as well as fostering a “community of the like-minded” among whom to nurture it.

The atmosphere at the institute was warm but not slack—fellows were conscious of the program’s novelty and determined to make full use of it. Unlike in Lowell’s workshop, here women showed real interest in each other’s work, which they took turns presenting at institute seminars. One chapter narrates a collaboration unfolding across these meetings, as a lithograph of Swan’s inspires a poem by Sexton, which in turn helps the artist see something new in her own work.

The institute was a clear boon for each of the Equivalents, though their fortunes vary as Doherty follows them into the 1970s, braiding their lives after Radcliffe with the story of the early years of women’s liberation. Of the five, only Olsen and Pineda embraced feminism, while Sexton, Kumin, and Swan maintained an interested but wary distance from it. But by making work about taboo subjects like sex, menstruation, and pregnancy, each woman both anticipated and made possible some of the cultural upheavals that followed in her wake. In this way Doherty more or less convincingly demonstrates that “the groundwork for feminist revolt was laid, sometimes unwittingly, by women reformers, educators, and artists of the 1950s and early 1960s—a decade that can appear to be a dead zone for liberation politics.” (Though it can only appear so if you ignore the cresting civil rights movement, which deserves at least as much credit for minting future feminists as do this book’s reformers.)

Doherty argues that the institute embodied a “revolutionary” reassessment of women’s intellectual worth, but the “groundwork” it laid for feminist revolution was a happy accident, incidental to the institute’s narrower aims. Bunting did not set out to raise feminist consciousness, much less to overturn social hierarchies, as would the cascading revolutionary movements of the years to come. The institute “wasn’t for the average working woman,” Doherty acknowledges. “It was for a ‘special’ woman,” whose education and early achievements had usually been secured by privilege.

Because women of color were not part of Bunting’s target audience, they enter The Equivalents belatedly, ushered in to the frame against the more radical backdrop of the book’s final years. Alice Walker was a Radcliffe fellow in 1971, and Doherty uses Walker’s time at the institute as an occasion to hastily back-narrate black women’s political evolution across the preceding decade. We also learn in passing that pioneering black playwright and committed leftist Alice Childress received a fellowship in 1966. Tracing her life before the institute might have been another way to more thoroughly mark the institute’s boundaries, especially given the resonances between her career and Olsen’s: Both women contributed to multiple waves of US radicalism, and both made art about what Childress called the “intellectual poor.”

For the most part, differences among women seem to have been left unspoken at the institute, with its first fellows no more interested than Bunting in exploring their community’s exclusions. During the Equivalents’ time there, the one tear in the fabric of sisterly goodwill was made by Olsen, ever the outsider. In a baggy and half-formed lecture that would constitute the basis of her vital nonfiction book Silences (1978), Olsen “pushed back against the premise of the institute.” She insisted that the obstacles standing between most people and the kind of intellectual life modeled at Radcliffe were too great to be bridged by a year’s stipend and some office space. The “strange breadline system” of application-based artists’ grants could not democratize creativity; Olsen called instead for a “reordering [of] our whole society.” The other fellows shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The bonds forged by the institute could not, it seemed, sustain such pressures—with one exception. “Sexton was captivated.” Across all that separated them, her friend reached her.

Sam Huber is a writer and graduate student living in New York.