The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s by Maggie Doherty

“What kills the creative instinct—what blunts the axe?” When the poet Anne Sexton—singularly gifted, beautiful, tortured—posed the question, she was giving voice to the many talented, disaffected women of her time. Hers was a questing that implicitly demanded not just an answer but a cure. In 1960, that cure was the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, the first of its kind anywhere in the country, a place where a woman could “simply be a mind among other minds.” It was also a liberation unlike anything before it in academia.

For nearly 40 years, from 1960 to 1999, poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, scientists, lawyers, philosophers, and playwrights found a receptive environment for study at Radcliffe. Here women such as Denise Levertov, Nan Rosenthal, and Anna Deavere Smith became resident scholars, each having a room of her own for a full year, along with a cash fellowship, to encourage and enable creativity. As Maggie Doherty, professor of English at Harvard University, writes in her new book, The Equivalents, “What had started as a ‘messy experiment’ with twenty-four mostly local women had become an established institution of national renown.”

Men Need Not Apply

Doherty has done formidable spadework in bringing back to life this “messy experiment.” Conceived as a postgraduate program, the Radcliffe Institute was the prescient vision of its founder, Mary Ingraham Bunting, a 1950s do-gooder and reformer who wanted educated homemakers to have a resource for intellectual pursuits. (Or, as Doherty writes, cutting to the point, the ideal candidate belonged to a “marginalized class of Americans: mothers.”)

As president of Radcliffe, Bunting lamented that after graduation most women weren’t fast-tracked for a professional career but for matrimony and motherhood. Instead of writing books or making paintings, they were cooking meals and making babies. And they were mostly marooned in suburban isolation. The institute offered a lifeline, a work-around for the “climate of unexpectations” that Bunting observed. Now one of the country’s most prestigious colleges was declaring a creative initiative exclusively for women. It was an irony that the future feminist could appreciate: at nearly 100 years old, Radcliffe, the “sister” college of the all-male Harvard, was being heralded as a pioneer in The New York Times. Men need not apply.

“Equivalents,” clockwise from top left: Barbara Swan; Marianna Pineda; Maxine Kumin; Tillie Olsen.

Five women who had become close friends in the program’s first couple of years form the core of Doherty’s story: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer-activist Tillie Olsen, painter Barbara Swan, and sculptor Marianna Pineda. They are the “Equivalents” of the title, a name they amusingly gave themselves back in 1960s Cambridge. (The Radcliffe program required that applicants have a graduate degree or “the equivalent.”) All were married, with children, mostly living in the Boston suburbs.

Literary life in Boston around that time was a man’s world, lorded over by poets such as Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass, men whose dicta on what made for good writing pretty much fell into two canons—the great (male) and the less than great (everyone else: female). For Sexton, already fearful of being regarded as “a reincarnation of Edna St. Vincent,” or simply writing like a woman, their dominance was impenetrable. Support fell to a couple of friendships—Maxine Kumin, foremost—and Radcliffe, where the community of women was literally a lifesaver. (By the time Sexton entered Radcliffe, in 1961, she had already attempted suicide twice.)

Literary life in Boston was a man’s world, lorded over by poets such as Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass.

Doherty deftly unspools these early days, before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and before Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes’s Ms. magazine (1963, 1968, and 1971, respectively). This was still a world in which writers like Sexton and Kumin had to write “in quiet houses with sleeping children,” one in which Kumin had to have her husband certify that a poem of hers was original before The Saturday Evening Post would publish it.

By focusing on the five Equivalents, Doherty makes the Radcliffe Institute real. It becomes a place whose strengths are many, beginning with a generous cash grant (money for babysitters, or, for Sexton, a pool), community, and time alone to work. Doherty’s a natural storyteller, especially in her descriptions of Sexton and Kumin, the emotional heart of the story. Like lovers, though always friends, they completed one another’s sentences, trading drafts by mail, over the phone, in person. Like a married couple, they pledged to honor and cherish one another, despite occasional competition, until they were parted in death. We get to know the outspoken Tillie Olsen, who wanted to channel activism into fiction (the F.B.I. kept a file on her until 1970), and who had complicated relationships with each of the women. Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda are less center stage, though each achieved noteworthy exhibitions and commissions, and meaningful friendships within the group of five. The story of these women widens and deepens as it intersects with other women on the East Coast, especially Sylvia Plath (her jealousy of other female writers is chilling), Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alice Walker.

Sadly, there is no group photograph of the Equivalents, whose last time together was in 1963. But they, and the hundreds of women who followed them over the decades, have in Maggie Doherty a dedicated biographer. The Equivalents is a story long overdue. In this age of #MeToo and a president who brags about groping women, it’s important to look at the moment when modern, talented women saw in Radcliffe an open door, and walked right in.

Ruth Peltason is a writer and editor based in New York City