Elena Bowes

New York-London travel & design writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

The Equivalents, A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960’s

September 27th, 2020
Lovings: Books, Writers & Film

I loved Maggie Doherty’s book- The Equivalents, because it tells a big story- the birth of feminism- by following a personal story- or rather five personal stories. Doherty (pictured below)

traces  the fascinating detail-rich lives of five ardent, creative women who became friends and artistic supporters and who bonded over wanting to lead a creative life, a life beyond just wife and mother.   In 1960 Harvard’s sister college Radcliffe announced the launch of an exciting new programme – the Institute for Independent Study.

The study was aimed at a marginalised class of Americans: mothers” reads Doherty’s introduction. A Newsday headline said: “Radcliffe Launching Plan to Get Brainy Women out of the Kitchen.

Twenty-four gifted women were selected from across the US to participate in this “messy experiment” conceived by Radcliffe President, Polly Bunting, who believed that American women lived in ‘a climate of unexpectation’.

Doherty follows the lives of poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda and writer Tillie Olsen. Doherty delves the deepest describing the intense friendship between Sexton

and Cumin, both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes after their time at the Institute.

The Institute offered frustrated, bored, talented housewives, those with a doctorate or “the equivalent’, something that was inconceivable at the time – a generous stipend, office space and membership to a professional, like-minded female community.  The women who attended the Institute didn’t think of themselves as feminists – the word barely existed – but they flourished creatively at the Institute and wanted that life to continue.

Doherty’s well-researched book is full of color about the personal and professional lives of The Equivalents, what this group of five friends called themselves, since apart from Kumin, none had a Masters degree. Sexton hadn’t even gone to college.

Doherty’s book struck a personal chord with me, as I am sure it has for many women who remember the early 60’s.  My mother was born in 1933, got married at 23 and by 1962, she had three children under the age of five. She was 28. My mother was both privileged and glamorous. And smart. She belonged to that generation where attending college was unimportant – she never graduated from UC Berkeley and her college notebooks were filled with doodles of dresses and ballgowns – her goal was to marry well, have babies and be the perfect wife.  There was never a thought that she would work.

Here’s my interview with Doherty:

Your book puts a stamp on history showing that the mid-20th century – long considered a barren time for feminism – was not.  The Institute fostered “feminism without the word.”

A few years later, Betty Friedan debunked the suburban myth in her iconoclastic book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan looked at the ads of her time and “thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor.” Can you expand on this?

One of the women I interviewed, the historian Lily Macrakis, called the conversations and consciousness-raising that took place at the Institute “feminism without the word.” I think it’s a great phrase for the incipient political consciousness that was incubating in that space. Often, political movements are growing and developing in private spaces before they burst into public life.

Part of my goal in The Equivalents is to show how feminist thought and activism developed before Friedan published her galvanizing book, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. The Institute fellows didn’t necessarily see themselves as feminists or think that they were doing something “political” by joining this project. That said, as Macrakis noted, they began to grow more conscious of society’s limitations as they talked together at the Institute. As she remembers it, they were so delighted with the Institute and everything it offered that they started to wonder why there were so few programs that offered this kind of support to women, and why there couldn’t be more resources for women in America: “why don’t we push more,” was her thought at the time.

Reading The Equivalents made me feel quite envious for the comradery, the female companionship and collaboration that the Radcliffe Institute fostered – In this interview – part of the Radcliffe Institute’s series of Virtual Summer Book Talks – you touch on how a sense of community helped these women’s productivity. 

Can you comment on that and how we can recreate this “lost utopia” in the time of covid-19 and beyond?

This is a great question and it’s been on my mind a lot these last few months. I keep hearing from female friends who are really struggling with quarantine. Some of them have young children and are finding it hard to do their jobs and watch their kids at the same time. Or they’re feeling lonely and cut off from their friends while being totally overwhelmed by their family. The pandemic has had a disparate effect on women, as well as on people of color and the working class (all intersecting categories). In some ways, it seems like we’ve returned to the 1950s model of the home: women are housebound and responsible for taking care of everyone.

It’s really hard to create and sustain community under these conditions! We have technology of course, but that can be hard to use when many of us are also fatigued from working digitally. And there are mutual aid networks in many neighborhoods that remind people they are not alone.

If I were empowered to do something right now to address these conditions of isolation and domestic overload, I would institute a childcare allowance, something that other nations have under non-pandemic conditions. Material resources really help—this is why the Institute provided its fellows with stipends. I would also fund schools such that they would have the resources to open safely and to be creative with their teaching. I think these two things—well-funded schools and financial assistance for families—would benefit everyone, and they would free up women and allow them to reconnect.

Literary heavyweights Sylvia Path, John Holmes, Alice Walker and Betty Friedan all make appearances in your well-researched book. Can you describe the friendship between Plath and Sexton?

Sexton and Plath met in Robert Lowell’s Boston University workshop in 1959. Plath was fresh off a year teaching at Smith and was eager to capitalize on her early poetic successes. Sexton was gaining confidence in her craft, in part because Lowell, who was one of the most famous poets working at the time, seemed to favor her. Lowell sort of pushed Sexton and Plath together in the hopes they would “rub off on each other,” he later said.

In her journals, Plath recorded her admiration for Sexton’s work and imagined how well a Sexton-type poem would fit in her own manuscript. She was also a bit envious of Sexton, who was glamorous, and older, and who commanded the attention of men like the poet and editor George Starbuck, who accompanied Plath and Sexton on their evenings out. The trio would go drink martinis at the Ritz; Sexton and Plath would compare suicide attempts. Later, it would be Sexton who turned envious, after Plath committed suicide and became posthumously famous for the collection Ariel. Sexton felt that Plath had stolen the spot reserved for “suicidal poetess”, and she wrote a mediocre elegy for Plath that said more about her own death wish and poetic ambitions than it did for the dead poet.

You can read the rest of my interview here in 26, a diverse group of people who believe in the power of words, not just in business, but in life. And, of course, read the book! It’s terrific.

September, 2020