Women’s fight for equality is an old song. From Susan B. Anthony to Margaret Sanger to the #MeToo era, the struggle for equal gender opportunity and recognition is as American as a June Clever baked apple pie. Progress takes innovation, though, and innovation takes nerve. It also takes time and patience.
This kind of feminist catalyst fuels Maggie Doherty’s debut The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. The book’s engine is the Institute for Independent Study at Radcliffe College. Founded in 1960 by Mary Bunting the intent behind the Institute was to offer money and space for women of creative ambition. Accepted women must have a Ph.D., or “equivalent success,” for admission.
The concept behind Radcliffe’s program was to give women who may not be satisfied with the domestic role a chance to practice their gifts. Exceptional women took part in the program right from the start. The book’s premise leans on the camaraderie that developed between five different artists who attended during the first two years of the institute: Anne Sexton, a poet, Maxine Kumin, also a poet, Tillie Olson, a fiction writer, Barbara Swan, a painter, and Mariana Pineda, a sculptor. These five women dubbed themselves “The Equivalents.” A collaborative relationship formed between the women. Each artist eventually sprang to success after their time at Radcliffe, proving that Bunting’s “messy experiment” was a valid need.
The book begins by laying the groundwork for each of the women, some getting much more story (Sexton and Kumin) than others (Swan and Pineda). But once creative careers are introduced and the artists accepted into Radcliffe, oddly, very little time is devoted to the Equivalents’ work at the institute itself. Readers are left to wonder what exactly happened to create such a beautiful bond between these women. An anecdote that does make it into Doherty’s account is a collaboration between Swan and Sexton. The pair bounce ideas back and forth in creating both a poem and a painting linked in conception and completion.
But the main event as it relates to the artists’ impact on one another is the career-long collaboration between Kumin and Sexton, which proved to be an intriguing relationship. The women met before attending Radcliffe, and they maintained a confident working creative exchange through the ebbs and flows of their writing careers. However, Sexton’s shaky mental health is told in a distant manner, such that understanding what was so hard for Sexton was difficult to grasp. To sympathetically portray a woman with suicidal tendencies who “has it all,” as was the case for Sexton, is a challenge, but essential. One gets used to Sexton’s suicide attempts that frequently dot the pages. The episodes lose their weight.
The writer-turned-academic, Tillie Olsen, also had a close relationship with Sexton. Olsen’s revamped career takes new turns and bends throughout the book, and when she returns to the west coast after Radcliffe, she loses touch with The Equivalents, who all stay in the Boston area. Olsen has a fascinating career, but it’s hers alone, without her cohort. The women’s lives before and after attending the Institute are separate, and even Kumin and Sexton distance themselves as their lives progress. The idea, perhaps, being that the Institute changed these women as individuals and made them strong contenders in the creative community.
This work is extensively researched. By delving into America’s changes from the 1950s to the millennium, Doherty shines a light on the evolution of women in society, both in the work that’s been done, and the work that remains. She discusses white feminism and black womanism; she dissects the work of Betty Friedan, and the creation of Ms magazine. She zeros in on Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker—of the three, Walker was the only one who attended the Institute, but this was many years after The Equivalents.
All of Doherty’s research is fascinating, and it’s clear her passion is really about feminism and the potential future of women, not so much The Equivalents themselves. You can feel it in the way the text always meanders to the politics of the time. But this isn’t the promise of the book—the premise is about The Equivalents and how their creative works at Radcliffe motivated one another to change the artistic landscape for women. Perhaps Doherty is aware of her conflicting agendas. The structure hops from a section on politics, or important women of the time (outside the Institute). Then she snaps back to feature one of The Equivalents, say, Swan, who gets very ill and gives an overview of Swan’s life after the institute, which felt too shallow for a woman set up as a complex character. The effect of this bouncing around and ambitious undertaking is that there isn’t enough depth with The Equivalents, the era, or the evolution of feminism. Doherty has tried to write two or three books (all worthy of attention) into one.
Towards the end of the narrative, Doherty makes a bold move—she breaks the wall and enters the text. While this feels disorienting, she meets with a former member of the inaugural class at Radcliffe, Lily Macrakis, who was not an official member of The Equivalents, but a character from earlier in the book. It’s a scene with two women having tea and talking about women today versus the sixties, but it’s here we find the work’s intention. The uniting of women, the power of speech, and sharing ideas about womanhood, is what Doherty is getting after. Women can make a difference by coming together. It’s an example of emotional scene work that, when included in the narrative, makes the book worthy.
By Maggie Doherty
Knopf Publishing Group
Published May 19, 2020
Sara Webster is a freelance writer and educator living in Denver, Colorado.