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

In the fall of 1960, Radcliffe College — the women’s college counterpart to Harvard, which has since been absorbed — launched “an unprecedented fellowship program… designed to combat the ‘climate of expectation’ facing women.” Radcliffe’s new Institute for Independent Study hoped to provide a path for gifted, educated women to return from motherhood to academia — or, for a select few artists whose promise seemed “equivalent” to a PhD, to set aside domestic duties and concentrate on their creative work. Maggie Doherty’s first book, The Equivalents, focuses loosely on the institute’s first five artists: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, fiction writer and critic Tillie Olsen, painter Barbara Swan, and sculptor Marianna Pineda.

But Doherty is more interested in intellectual history than in personal trajectories. She presents the institute as a crucial bridge between first- and second-wave feminism — between, roughly, Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan. Through examining the five “Equivalents,” she illustrates the institute’s role in midcentury feminism and explores the ways in which both fell short. The result is a vivid, captivating, and excellently argued work that makes a compelling case for the importance of “intellectual communit[ies]… made up entirely of female minds.”

Doherty’s choice to center social over personal history is very much in keeping with Tillie Olsen’s work. Olsen, a communist humanist who spent decades as a labor organizer before arriving at Radcliffe, emerges swiftly as The Equivalents’s intellectual lodestar. During her time at the institute, Olsen set fiction aside to conduct the research that became Silences, a hugely important set of essays describing “how creativity arises from material circumstances, how power is wielded against the vulnerable, and — crucially — how class, gender and race intersect” to suppress poor, female, and nonwhite artists’ creative growth. In 2020, we should know these ideas well; in the early 1960s, they were revolutionary. They also made Olsen unique among the otherwise-privileged Equivalents, who came from white, upper-class backgrounds and whose work — like the institute itself — was preoccupied mainly with gender.

Doherty does not hold this singularity of perspective against any individual artist, but she treats it as the institute’s central flaw. This is a remarkable balancing act, and one she achieves through her respect for her subjects’ art. She devotes full chapters to Sexton and Kumin’s friendship, which defied the poetry world’s misogynistic conventions and liberated Sexton to describe female experiences such as abortion and menstruation with previously unknown directness. She also writes in depth about Pineda’s dignified, earthy sculptures of women in labor, flagging the radical nature of her “turn[ing] pregnancy — an experience that her male art teachers had seen as a problem for artists — into art,” then noting that Pineda could “raise children and make art simultaneously” thanks to three factors: her work ethic, her emotionally and financially supportive spouse, and her access to family money. Doherty makes clear that the institute was designed for women like Pineda, not Olsen. While at Radcliffe, Olsen often had to borrow money; meanwhile, many of her peers “used their stipends to hire domestic workers [which] tells us something about how Radcliffe imagined… ‘women of talent.’”

Thanks partly to Olsen’s advocacy and partly to Radcliffe student protest, the institute expanded its concept of talent through the 1960s and ’70s. Still, Doherty is clear that Radcliffe, a fundamentally elite institution, did not share Olsen’s Marxist dream of creating “a world in which all people could explore their creative capacities and fulfill their ambitions without fear of going broke.” The institute — like the feminist movement, which fractured in the 1970s over questions of race, sexuality, and class — remained unable to fully imagine artists who did not look and live roughly like Kumin, Sexton, Pineda, and Swan.

To Doherty, this limitation is not “a reason to repudiate institutions like the institute; it is instead a reason to understand them and to adapt their ideas and approaches to our own time.” In 1960, the mere idea that five female artists might receive money and office space from a prestigious school rather than fit work around motherhood was groundbreaking. Now, Doherty argues, it’s past time to break new ground: to look for artists as marginalized as female writers, painters, and sculptors were in postwar America, and create new ways to offer these artists unprecedented community and support.

The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s (Knopf, 2020) by Maggie Doherty is available on Bookshop starting May 19.

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Lily Meyer

Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington, DC. Her work appears in the Atlantic, NPR Books, Public Books, the Sewanee Review, and more, and her translation of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s...