In America in the 1950s and early 1960s, women (white middle-class women, that is) were told the best way to serve their country was to make a perfect home for their families. The right kind of woman would derive her deepest fulfillment from getting her children’s clothes as white as new.

It was a man’s world in academia, as elsewhere: The first woman hired by the English Department at Tufts, Maxine Kumin, was “allowed to teach only physical education majors and dental technicians.”

Into this milieu came Mary Ingraham (Polly) Bunting, newly appointed president of Radcliffe College, who proposed a bold educational program to combat what she diagnosed as the “climate of unexpectation” that surrounded American women. Her experiment, the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, would offer selected women, and particularly the “ubiquitous and yet marginalized class of Americans: mothers,” an unheard-of opportunity: fellowship money, office space and “membership in a professional and creative female community.”

For the women selected, this was a life-changing experience, not the least because it allowed them to take themselves and their work seriously. In “The Equivalents,” Maggie Doherty narrates the mix of anguish and exultation — and especially friendship — experienced by five of the first scholars at the institute: writers Anne Sexton, Kumin and Tillie Olsen, sculptor Marianna Pineda and painter Barbara Swan. (Fellowship applicants were expected to have a doctorate or “the equivalent in creative achievement”; these five friends, with nary a Ph.D. among them, thus took to calling themselves “the Equivalents.”)

At center stage in the narrative is the complex symbiotic “dance of sameness and separateness” between Sexton and Kumin, who were each other’s confidantes and at times (particularly for Sexton) lifelines until Sexton’s suicide in 1974.

Creatively, they were “each other’s superegos, their critical selves,” sharing their work with each other virtually line by line in daily phone calls. Prior to their fellowships, the two kept their working methods secret, sure no one would understand; at the institute they “found an audience for their friendship,” a supportive community of women who “encouraged each other to represent female experience in all its difficulty and complexity,” a heady and liberating experience at a time when “you write like a man” was the highest praise a woman writer could get in the outside world.

Of course, it was a very privileged form of liberation; the Equivalents were all white, and all, aside from Olsen, from privileged backgrounds. All (including Olsen) had supportive husbands, perhaps a necessary precondition in an era when Kumin, having had a poem accepted by the Saturday Evening Post, was required to provide a letter signed by her husband and his employer certifying that the poem was original. Olsen, the outlier — a working class, Marxist labor organizer — was the most overtly political, introducing economics, class and race into her critique of the literary canon (and indeed the institute itself).

Doherty, herself a writer and teacher of writing, is admirably suited to narrate this historical moment, “a hinge between the 1950s and 1960s,” as a “way of describing how and why the feminist movement reemerged in 1960s America.”

“The Equivalents” is an important, illuminating work. Fortunately, it is also a splendidly written page-turner to read for joy rather than from a sense of obligation.

 

Patricia L. Hagen is professor emerita at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Equivalents
By: Maggie Doherty.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $28.95.