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Review: Where Anne Sexton and other women found a fellowship of their own

Maggie Doherty, author of "The Equivalents."
(Max Larkin)

When my son had just turned 1, I sold my first book. I had been attending music classes with him down the street from our apartment in Brooklyn. I had no childcare. After the class, one of the moms approached me. “How’s the book going?” she asked. Then she laughed in my face.

She had laughed at the implausibility of my getting any writing done while taking care of my son full-time. While everyone paid the music teacher, she walked back over to me. “I’m sorry,” she said, touching my arm. “I don’t know why I said that.” I assured her that I understood.

Why was it so difficult for me to relate to other moms at these kinds of baby classes? Didn’t I have friends that were also moms? Eventually, I realized they were all at work. My being a writer and working “from home” meant I was surrounded mostly by stay-at-home moms. All moms are “working moms” in a sense, but not all are made to feel that way.

In 1960, the Radcliffe Institute hoped to bring women hindered by domestic labor back into professional life. To women with a PhD “or equivalent” in artistic achievement, it offered paid fellowships, office space, access to Harvard and Radcliffe libraries (except the male-only Lamont Library) and, of course, precious time to work. Maggie Doherty’s brilliant new book, “The Equivalents,” tells the story of the institute by focusing on the five fellows who called themselves “The Equivalents”: Poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, painter Barbara Swan and sculptor Marianna Pineda.

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Olsen had for many years struggled to write what she hoped would be “the great proletarian novel.” Years before she applied to the institute, she wrote in her journal: “I don’t even know if I could still write . . . Life (the job that takes so much of me, the family that takes so much of me) has its own anesthesia. I am so weary physically at night I sleep well and dreamlessly.”

Though this was written in 1954, it could just as easily be a passage from my journal. I too often feel, as Kumin wrote, like I’m “playing the triple role of part-time writer, part-time teacher and part-time homemaker,” especially now that thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, I — like many other parents — am without childcare.

"The Equivalents," by Maggie Doherty.
(Knopf)

Radcliffe’s announcement was followed by hundreds of messages from women all over the country. “Most of the callers had a baby crying in the background,” Doherty writes. Sexton and Kumin were among the first applicants. The friends had been running their own writers group over the phone for years — “a workshop for mothers,” Doherty writes. “They could be at home tending to children and simultaneously receiving edits.”

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“The Equivalents” is bookended by their working partnership and intimate friendship. Kumin often took on the role of caregiver for Sexton, who suffered many breakdowns and suicide attempts over the years. It’s a fitting frame for the book, an example of what can be accomplished when women (even in direct competition) support one another.

The Radcliffe Institute did not provide childcare, and obviously, that work wasn’t likely to be done by these women’s husbands. “Almost all the Institute women spent their stipends on help with housework,” Doherty writes, adding that the burden shifted to nannies, babysitters, house cleaners and cooks — overwhelmingly women of color. Almost all of the “Equivalents,” with the exception of Olsen, had employed domestic help before they were admitted to the institute.

It was yet another example of the benefits of feminism (in those years but also today) being largely reserved for white women. Not until 1966 did Radcliffe award a fellowship to a woman of color, playwright Alice Childress. Alice Walker followed in 1971. Doherty devotes a chapter to these women and inclusionary feminism.

Readers will likely be familiar with Sexton and Kumin. In this group biography, Swan and Pineda are fascinating but supporting characters, while Olsen comes to the forefront. As a working-class writer who believed that under capitalism, “most people are denied a society in which they can be valuable,” Olsen is perhaps the most relevant today. Her family didn’t come from wealth; she worked in factories, did physical and menial labor — whatever she could to keep her family afloat. Between working and mothering, there was little time for writing.

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That disparity between Olsen and the other fellows came through in an awkward public lecture she gave in front of them, in which she “suggested that caring for children might be incompatible with creative life.” Doherty describes the silence in the room as the attendees, mostly white women from upper-class backgrounds, shift uncomfortably in their seats.

At the time, second-wave feminism was just beginning its ascent. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published just eight days after Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963. Years before “having it all” became a stock phrase, most of these women did not consider themselves feminists. Doherty relays a story Sexton told in the early ’60s about being the first person ever to check out a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” which had been gifted to the library in 1929.

Olsen never did write the great proletarian novel. But the Radcliffe Institute gave her the time away from her family to write about the obstacles in front of women (and particularly mothers) who hope to pursue a professional career in the arts. Her lecture at the institute became a Harper’s essay and then a book, “Silences,” published in 1978. She was given appointments to teach at Amherst and other universities, and her thoughts on the lack of support for women and workers of any color led to major changes in college curricula, contributing to the creation of “women’s literature.” Similarly, after her time at the institute, Walker taught a course on Black female writers at Wellesley College, “the first of its kind.”

Sexton committed suicide in 1974. Kumin was devastated. “I carried Anne’s death in my pocket,” she wrote to Swan. Poet Adrienne Rich, writing of Sexton, argued that suicide wasn’t the only way women destroyed themselves: “Self-trivialization is one. Believing the lie that women are not capable of major creations.” The Radcliffe Institute legitimized work by women even when the fellows themselves didn’t have the means to recognize its value.

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When Rich won the National Book Award in the year of Sexton’s death, she declined to accept it as an individual, bringing the two other poets nominated, Walker and Audre Lorde, with her to the podium, to accept it on behalf of all women “whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world.”

It has been 60 years since the institute started its “messy experiment,” which continues today and is open to “people of all identities,” even as most of the obstacles faced by the Equivalents persist. “It is thus hard to imagine how a single policy solution could serve all women equally,” Doherty writes in her epilogue, “(though state-sponsored child care comes close).” Why hasn’t more been accomplished? One might ask today’s protesters against racial violence. Doherty’s rigorous history is an empowering reminder that to change ourselves, we must have systemic support outside ourselves — institutional structures that reinforce the belief that all people are created equal, not just equivalent.

Ferri is a writer based in Berkeley and the author of “Silent Cities: New York.”

The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s
Maggie Doherty
Knopf: 400 pages, $29.95


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