Book Reviews

Feminism's First Think Tank

The very different women of the Radcliffe Institute’s inaugural class

By Sandra M. Gilbert | May 27, 2020
Ed Uthman, Flickr/euthman
Ed Uthman, Flickr/euthman

The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s by Maggie Doherty; Knopf; 416 pp., $28.95

In the early 1970s, just as the second wave of feminism began its surge, I was teaching at Indiana University. There I met a brilliant 57-year-old writer. A red-haired, wild and witty poet, she was visiting our English department for a year, accompanied by a teenaged hippie daughter who strummed a guitar and liked to call herself Blue Jay. Ruth Stone, widowed in her 40s by her husband’s suicide, published more than a dozen collections of verse in her lifetime, and became a close friend. After I left Indiana to teach in California, she visited me often in Berkeley. The first time she came, she introduced me to Tillie Olsen, already an icon of feminism. The two had met in the early ’60s at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when the three of us went out to lunch, they reminisced about their years there like college classmates thinking back to golden days on campus.

Stone and Olsen were middle-aged writers when they landed in Cambridge, and despite their accomplishments, had become marginalized outsiders because their connections to literary power sources were fragile. Over lunch a decade later, they dressed a bit like elderly beatniks in jeans, battered jackets, and worn shoes. Yet both of them remained beautiful: Tillie with her fine, luminous face and halo of curly gray hair, Ruth with her classic features and piled-up, 40s-style long red (well, henna-colored) hair. The two women were very different Radcliffe “graduates” (the Institute didn’t grant degrees) from most of the group that Maggie Doherty extolls in The Equivalents, her new exploration of the early years of “Polly” Bunting’s famous think tank for ladies.

To be sure, Olsen is one of the five women whose Institute connections Doherty examines most closely, but in relation to the other “equivalents”—women who gained fellowships because they had aesthetic accomplishments that the admissions committee regarded as equivalent to advanced degrees—Olsen was a West Coast alien. The other four—Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Barbara Swan, and Marianna Pineda—were financially secure easterners, and in the cases of Sexton and Pineda, were quite well to do. All four were middle-class “ladies,” though some,  notably Sexton, were on occasion capable of quite unladylike behavior. They were younger than Stone and Olsen, with Sexton and Kumin being the most physically alluring. When the two poets arrived together for a first meeting of the fellows, one of the attendees, Brita Stendhal, commented that they looked “like exotic birds … both dressed in red, with black hair and shining eyes.”

Doherty is well aware of the class bias that was built into the foundational concept of the Radcliffe Institute. Bunting—like Betty Friedan, who had once invited her to collaborate on the book that became The Feminine Mystique—was anxious to give opportunities to “intellectually displaced” women like the frustrated but highly educated middle-class housewives whose sense of domestic imprisonment Friedan had studied. As Doherty notes, none of the administrators had a sense of racial consciousness, and not much of a sense of the economic displacement suffered by working-class women like Olsen or widowed women like Stone. At least initially, Bunting designed her “messy experiment” for “haves” rather than “have nots.” What did the first recipients of the Institute stipends do with their money? Well, Sexton turned her sun porch into a study and installed a swimming pool, while Kumin, later on, bought a farm in New Hampshire. Swan and Pineda used their grants for artistic materials—Pineda, in particular, needed money for her ambitious sculptures, although her wealthy mother often picked up the tab for her materials. Olsen subsisted on the stipend while she wrote, and Stone used it to support her children.

Doherty devotes much of her book to the relationship between Kumin and Sexton, and between the two poets and the Institute, where they made their mark as charismatic glamour girls. Indeed, her investigations into their relationship, which she considers the “backbone” of her volume, are always interesting, focusing on their long and rich friendship in ways that Diane Middlebrook’s classic biography of Sexton, with its emphasis on the poet’s therapists and breakdowns, does not. But sometimes Doherty’s story of the two suburban Boston poets seems gossipy, and she occasionally buys into the same old PoBiz reputations that, she maintains, the two poets scorned. As for Olsen, she becomes a whiny outsider, noted for reminding the bourgeois Radcliffe fellows of grinding economic truths (lousy jobs, unassisted child-rearing, encroaching poverty), only to be ignored for complaining so much. And Stone—in my own view, a far stronger poet than either Sexton or Kumin (much as I admire them)—is utterly omitted from this crucial narrative, though in a photograph included in the book, she appears, unidentified, in earnest conversation with Olsen.

For, despite its omission of Stone,  it is a crucial narrative. The Radcliffe Institute began as a think tank for feminism at a time when hardly anyone would have used the word. But as Doherty shrewdly notes, the place “operated as a hinge between the 1950s and the 1960s, between a decade of women’s confinement and a decade of women’s liberation.” Snobbish though it undoubtedly was, the Institute became a woman’s place, offering lucky aspirants just the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf imagined.

Doherty clearly grasps the history of feminism from Woolf onward, especially its roots in the academic ’60s. Toward the end of her book, she factors in the elevated consciousness of a later fellow—Alice Walker—whose contributions enriched the thinking of a generation very different from that of Kumin and Sexton. Still, The Equivalents would gain in scope if Doherty had situated her tale of a protofeminist place in the long history of women’s utopian dreams—for instance, Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies (1405) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). Nevertheless, she has done a meticulous job in recording the origins and history of what, for several decades, was known as the Bunting Institute, in honor of its visionary creator.

Alas, when Radcliffe merged with Harvard at the end of the 20th century—or rather, when Radcliffe was submerged into Harvard—the Institute went coed, a fact Doherty rightly laments. No longer was it the Bunting Institute but the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Even Linda Wilson, the Radcliffe president who managed this transition, felt something was lost. The all-female community had been “almost like magic,” she admitted.

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