In 1954, Tillie Olsen was living in San Francisco’s working-class Mission District, and her hands were full. She was working multiple non-career jobs, leading community organization and activism, and being a mother to four girls on a strict budget. She was also writing, whenever she was able to: she had published widely read reports and short stories in the Partisan Review, and had been solicited by Random House and The New Republic. Much of her writing was not in notebooks but on napkins and receipts and scraps of paper; she longed for space to breathe and think and work. She described that year as particularly suffocating, recalling her “brutal impulse to shove Julie away from typewriter.” Try as she might, she found it usually impossible to “reconcile work with life”—“I keep on dividing myself and flow apart,” she wrote, “I who want to run in one river and become great.”
Three years later, something approaching an antidote to what Olsen was already calling the “death of the creative process” began to formulate in the upper echelons of the country. Mary Ingraham Bunting, a microbiologist, dean of Douglass College, and mother of four, was on a committee assembled by the National Science Foundation to study the nation’s schools: she found that about ninety percent of the brightest young Americans who hadn’t gone to college were women. Bunting lamented this wasted potential, particularly at a time when Soviet women were busy contributing heavily to their country’s research and innovation. American women, by contrast, she said, were living in what she called a “climate of unexpectation,” disappearing into the hearth and drowned out by the sounds of dishwashers and vacuums.
By 1960, Bunting was president of Radcliffe College, and decided to try an experiment: a fellowship for the highly qualified or exceptional women who suffered from this climate of unexpectation—particularly mothers. She created the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study to provide these women with funding for self-directed work, seminars where progress could be shared with other fellows, office space, and crucial stipends to be used for childcare. Women needed to be doing more than making babies and dinner; they needed to be challenged. The Institute particularly was seeking women with PhDs or “the equivalent.”
The intertwined stories of some of these women who came to Radcliffe from their lives of (to varying degrees) homemaking, to study, work, and make art at the turn of the decade, is the subject of Maggie Doherty’s new nonfiction account, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. Doherty examines the slice of history bridging the 1950s and ’60s, and how the Institute, intended, as Doherty writes, as the “messy practice” to the theory of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, laid the foundation for the women’s movement that closely followed.
The Institute came into fruition in the fall of 1961. Over the next few years, dozens of women passed through its doors and produced research and scholarship in the rooms they were provided there, freed from the burdens of the home that had been keeping them trapped and unable to work. Doherty’s focus remains on five artists who arrived in 1961 and 1962: Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin were the two poets of the group and the closest friends (Kumin also became Sexton’s caretaker for much of her life, keeping track of her children and talking her down from her many suicidal attempts). Tillie Olsen, who had become Sexton’s affectionate pen pal in 1960, came with plans to write the great proletarian novel. The painter Barbara Swan, who was praised for the “quivering vitality” in her drawings; the sculptor Marianna Pineda, the great excavator of the female body from clay. All of them, to varying degrees, were defined by the fact of being mothers.
The underlying tension throughout the book is where this project, its philosophy, these women, and this moment fall in feminist history, or perhaps prehistory. Bunting admitted in 1957 that she “had never been interested in women as such,” and it would appear she was more committed to the idea of the Institute out of an oddly patriotic desire for labor efficiency, particularly during the Cold War, rather than any principled suspicion that this climate of unexpectation was in fact much more psychologically harmful and dangerous to women than its mild name indicated.
Bunting was convinced that with the right husband and the right structures and resources, homemaking and scholarship could easily not only coexist but complement each other. The Institute was advertised as the opposite of revolutionary: in the first year of the Institute’s existence, TIME magazine profiled Bunting, praising her for her “moderate, and just slightly outraged stand.” When it sent out its first call for applicants, the Institute tried to get ahead of its critics by insisting that there was nothing to see here: “The great battle for women’s rights is over.”
To what degree the organizers believed this and to what degree this was just a way of maintaining as much freedom as possible is unclear—what is clear from Doherty’s account is that something revolutionary and quietly “unruly” was in fact percolating at Radcliffe: its women were creating work that highlighted the strangeness of motherhood, the sharpness of their sexuality and desires, before there was a template for doing so and without quite realizing what they were doing. In their seminars and their social gatherings they were learning that they were not alone in their frustrations towards their children and their feeling of being “a prisoner.” They were discovering what Betty Friedan had not yet termed the “feminine mystique.”
But for the most part, “they were well-behaved women,” Doherty writes. “They had not yet made history.” The strength of Doherty’s book is that it shows us how they did end up making history, with more of a whisper than the bang that followed—and in doing so serves as a useful reminder that good behavior is usually more interesting than it’s given credit for, and less appreciated than it ought to be. As cultural historian Joanna Scutts notes, the creation of the “rebel” figure as a female aspiration, the woman who becomes a leader, “singular and isolated,” in a male profession, “reflects a fundamentally masculine narrative of genius and exceptionalism.” Even rule-breakers are defined by and at the mercy of the rules—more so than the amicable woman who doesn’t know about and is not interested in playing power games.
To be sure, these women were not ignorant of the power dynamics in their lives, and the influence of sexism. But Anne Sexton—whose poems about menstruation, abortion, her suicidal impulses, her children, and her parents substantially changed the role of personal experience in poetry—once contrasted her desires as a woman with her often very different desires as a fuller being, a “writer-human-woman.” All of the women at the Institute shared the desperate need to study, learn, create; these women’s quiet focus on their private intellectual pursuits, and the sheer joy they derived from it—often in the shadow of neighbors’ murmurs about negligent mothers—seems to be its own kind of radical act of defiance.
Sexton’s psychiatrist had recommended that she watch educational television as a way to combat her depression. As infantilizing as this sounds, it points to how indispensable education has always been, especially for women: not only, and certainly not most importantly, a way to become better Americans (as Bunting originally hinted that the Institute might help achieve), but a way to become happier people. Maxine Kumin, who grew up a tomboy and struggled to fit in at school and in her mother’s home, later recalled that she “took refuge in scholarship.” Marianna Pineda, after having her children, “realized I wouldn’t be a very good… anything, if I didn’t get back to work.” Sexton, too, realized, upon reading A Room of One’s Own, that her work made her a better mother because it freed her children from needing to give her life purpose. Education, work, study: these were not simply a means to an end. They provided courage to face the rest of life; they provided real pleasure that needed no justification. Tillie Olsen’s daughter, visiting her mother once in Cambridge, described the atmosphere of the Institute as one of “absolute seriousness and joy both.”
These women—their quietness and sense of propriety—remind me of my mother, who arrived upon the scene of male-dominated adult society a generation later and many oceans away, but who shares their disinterest in men as an essentializing aspect of a woman’s life, and even more so their strong, not always articulable belief in the importance of work of one’s own. My mother is enormously self-sufficient, not just materially but mentally; she can be so non-confrontational that it might go unnoticed that she has done exactly as she wished. From her I have absorbed the value of amicable silence and focused study as its own kind of radicalism, and I have, unbeknownst to us both, developed an odd appreciation for the woman who did not attend the protest march. (Thinking of my mother’s “good behavior” and her aversion to the sweepingly political I can more easily, and more sympathetically, imagine what such a woman might have done instead while the streets outside raged: drink a cocktail, read a book, make dinner, phone her own mother.) In a social world where it was far from unheard of for people to expect that I go to a good college for the ultimate purpose of meeting an eligible boy, my mother’s furious defense of my education as an inherently essential part of my life, less trivial even than my marriage, strikes me as exceptional.
The individual is always harder to write off than the system. For my mother, these qualities, this almost unthinking reverence for study and education, the belief that these things justify a life, are inextricably tied up with her brahmanism, a system that elevates knowledge and scholarship over all earthly pursuits (except for those whose “duty” on earth is inhumane, menial labor). My mother’s brahmanness is not something I usually weave into my personal narrative, but in my long hours in quarantine I find that I cling with a new vigor to my study and my creative work, these last few things I can call my own, that seem to justify my life. In these new hours I also think more about my mother, from whom I have learned that study and work of one’s own are worthwhile ends in themselves, that education of any kind would go on to enrich my life beyond anything I could have predicted, that the means to seek out knowledge is essential for a woman’s independence.
Brahmanism is poison because it reinforces a system wherein by definition scholarship cannot be accessible to everyone. But even in systems where this is not a requirement, it is accepted as an inevitability. The highly educated in America are disconnected and elite, certainly, but when we use “elite” as the slur that progressives have made of it, we risk implying that every single person should not have the ability to become highly educated. “There’s nothing wrong with privilege,” Olsen would say, “except that everybody doesn’t have it.”
When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she was rightly criticized for concerning herself with the intellectual deprivation specifically of women who were materially fulfilled. “Who were these women, listlessly vacuuming?” Doherty writes of the general disapproval. “For many women, work was the problem, not the solution.” The “quiet” radical, appealing as she is to me, certainly had an easier time when she did not have to be loud, when she was clothed and fed even if she wasn’t truly seen or heard.
Tillie Olsen’s major project at the Institute was not the great American proletarian novel that she wanted to write, but a fierce polemic of how material oppression cratered literature and academia. A month after Friedan’s book was published, Olsen delivered her thesis to the other fellows at the Institute: an indirect critique of and response to Friedan (and, in a sense, Woolf), and a close look at the relationship between poverty, education, motherhood, and the creative process. “My whole writing history has been one of interruption,” she writes, and examines the creative history of dozens of other writers, revealing how their artistic success was to a large degree determined by their material security.
In a follow-up to her thesis, subtitled “One Out of Twelve,” she argued that the statistic she had found, of one woman writer for every twelve men on college English syllabi, obscured underneath it a vast store of “lost writing,” art that never made it to completion because of a broader inequality of circumstance. This was the real cost of poverty for art: eleven women for every twelve men whose work could never be taught to young students because it had been set aside in order to put food on the table; eleven women for every twelve men whose absence deformed the literary canon. She suggested that making art required absolute focus, and that therefore perhaps a motherhood that didn’t come with childcare and shiny home appliances was incompatible with art—within the system that we know.
Of all of the Equivalents, I have the least in common with Olsen. I’ve never known true material insecurity, though my mother has, and my life has been free to be fully invested in loftier matters. In Olsen’s critique of Friedan, I am the otherwise listless vacuuming woman: unoccupied without creative or intellectual work, having spent my life swapping one “non-essential” task for another (in the way that all loftier matters are non-essential) and now engrossed in my writing and my studies while the world around me burns. But Olsen’s feminist vision is marked by something that seems decidedly missing in either Bunting’s or Friedan’s, and perhaps even in that of the other Equivalents: hope.
Olsen’s critique is not just of Friedan’s or Woolf’s exclusion of working-class reality from their diagnosis and prescription for women, but also of the system that places her own priorities, as a working-class woman with more urgent material needs, above those of the bored housewife. Capitalism exacerbates an unhelpful hierarchy of needs, forcing us to relegate things like art to the realm of “non-essential.” “To Olsen, one of the great tragedies of social and economic inequality was that art became inaccessible to many people,” Doherty writes. “Olsen wanted a world in which she wouldn’t have to choose between earning a wage, playing with her daughters, and writing her fiction.” Her Marxism radiated joy. To the familiar communist adage that an ideal society would allow for hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and writing criticism after dinner, Doherty writes, “Olsen added child-rearing to the mix.”
In a powerful essay on the role of literature in the pandemic, philosopher and critic Becca Rothfeld quips that “a book is not a respirator; it is not a relief fund”—it cannot replace grassroots political action or “a concrete can of beans,” but it is not exactly inessential either. Political action and communal empathy are not sustainable without joy. Olsen was better equipped than most of the other women at the Institute, and certainly better equipped than many of Friedan’s subjects, to really see precisely how the material wants of working-class women impoverished all readers; the only real solution, she argued, was a “reverence for life,” for the potential of every single individual to create desperately needed art and stories. Perhaps to achieve economic equality and eliminate material suffering is to finally dispense of the need to elevate the material over the spiritual, or emotional, or intellectual.
The publication of The Feminine Mystique, and the formation of the National Organization for Women three years later, roughly marked the beginning of the women’s movement and, in Doherty’s telling, a distinct feeling of alienation among the Equivalents that they were “out of step.” Anne Sexton revolutionized poetry with her insistence on the personal, a decade before second-wave feminism deemed it not only acceptable in art but also politically necessary. And yet in the late 1960s, as her poetry was being taught in women’s studies classes, Sexton was frustrated at how she was being compartmentalized, curated for “women’s lib anthologies” which she said would “cull out the ‘hate men’ poems and leave nothing else.”
These women were not fully able to participate in the revolution they had ushered into existence. They did not come to the Institute as young women; the freedom they fought for at Radcliffe came after they were already set in their ways. “Wearing a straitjacket is not so different from being swaddled; there is comfort in being constricted and constrained,” Doherty notes. “If the decade of the 1950s didn’t offer women equality, or opportunity, or autonomy, it did offer them a set of rules and a clear life course… In the beginning of the 1960s, the Equivalents and their peers were forced to reckon with problems that they had long felt to be beyond solving.”
But what does it mean to “solve” a problem? After Sexton’s suicide in 1974, Maxine Kumin, who had been her best friend, caretaker, and informal editor, wrote a letter remembering how poignantly Sexton articulated the female experience in her work, “not out of any sense of herself as iconoclast, ground-breaker, exhibitionist, but from a direct need to say them.” The opportunity to study that was granted to women like Sexton at the Institute made its women more expressive, more articulate. The collective strength of second-wave feminism was drawn from the individual matters of the heart that entered the public realm for the first time among these select women. If The Equivalents is to be read prescriptively, its most important takeaway might be a sense of empathy with these women, and all of the women, in any place or moment in history, who every now and then manages to squirm out from under the gaze of a man and find the day’s freedom and happiness not by loudly proclaiming her intentions but simply by eating her vegetables and reading a book.