The poet appears at the top of the stairs, holding a highball glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s 1966, and the filmmaker Richard Moore is with Anne Sexton in her suburban Massachusetts home for his television documentary series USA: Poetry. Sexton is the subject of Moore’s seventh episode; he’s already read tarot cards with Robert Duncan and played finger cymbals with Allen Ginsberg. Now he is trying to capture on film what readers of Sexton have already come to know about her: that she started writing poetry at the prompting of her psychiatrist after suffering a nervous breakdown, that she’d been in and out of mental hospitals ever since, and that she still chased her demons with pills, whose amber bottles get a slow panoramic shot later in the episode. But the opening frame, of the poet descending her staircase, is more metaphorical. Moore is shooting Sexton from beneath but has lit her from behind, so as she descends, shadows slide from her feet to her face. With each step, her white caftan turns black. By the time she’s close enough to touch the camera, she’s nothing but a silhouette.
Sexton wrote openly about mental illness, sex, and motherhood. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, published in 1960, depicted her time spent in psychiatric institutions. “I am queen of this summer hotel / or the laughing bee on a stalk / of death,” she wrote in the collection’s opening poem. Sexton’s openness about these topics earned her the title of “confessionalist,” and the biographical work that’s been done on her since her death in 1974 has fixated on these themes. Two works from the early 1990s—Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography (1991) and Linda Gray Sexton’s Searching for Mercy Street: A Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton (1994)—caused great controversy, the first because Middlebrook used audio recordings from Sexton’s therapy sessions, and the second because Sexton’s daughter described being abused by her mother. Both writers stated that they were not endeavoring to write “pathographies,” a term coined by Joyce Carol Oates to describe a genre of biography whose “motifs are dysfunction and disaster.” But these motifs were nonetheless their focus. Reviewing Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton, Michiko Kakutani wrote that it focused “relentlessly on Sexton’s breakdowns, suicidal fantasies and incestuous and adulterous sexual involvements.”
The Anne Sexton that takes shape in Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s (Knopf) is not the madwoman descending into darkness of Moore’s film, or the pathological person of biographers—or not exclusively so. Doherty has organized her book around Sexton’s experience as an inaugural member of an experimental institute at Radcliffe College designed for women who had been pulled away from their careers by the demands of raising children and keeping house—what the institute, in its advertising materials, called “intellectually displaced women.” At Radcliffe from 1961 to ’63, Sexton bonded with a group of women artists—the poet Maxine Kumin, the writer Tillie Olsen, the painter Barbara Swan, and the sculptor Marianna Pineda—who fundamentally shaped each other’s creative work and altered each other’s lives. They formed an “institute within the institute,” Doherty writes, and playfully referred to themselves as “the Equivalents,” after Radcliffe’s requirement that applicants have an advanced scholarly degree or “the equivalent” in a creative field.
Doherty has replaced the image of the lonesome, anguished poet with one of a vibrant community of women. She tells of Sexton’s first letter to Tillie Olsen, for example, sent from Newton, Mass., to San Francisco in 1960. Sexton had just read Olsen’s short story “Tell Me a Riddle.” She was awestruck and humbled by the piece. “My eyes are still crying and I cannot possibly tell you how much your story has moved me,” she wrote. Olsen felt the kinship, too. In her letter back, she addressed Sexton as her “dear related to me” and told her she’d hung a picture of Sexton on her writing desk next to portraits of Tolstoy, Hardy, and Whitman. Doherty also tells the story of Sexton’s poem “To Lose the Earth,” which was inspired by one of Barbara Swan’s lithographs. Sexton called Swan when she was composing it. She was looking for the kind of feedback Kumin, a fellow poet, often gave her; the two spent so many hours workshopping poems over the phone that they eventually installed second phone lines. Swan, a visual artist, couldn’t help her much. Yet after Sexton read the poem to a room full of Radcliffe women in 1962, Swan revealed that the unfinished lines Sexton had read over the phone had sparked a new drawing called The Sorcerers. “This is the music I’ve waited for,” the poem went, as if in reference to the women’s collaboration. Doherty’s shift in focus implies a different answer to the question of what is useful for understanding a life. Here it is not the pills, the affairs, and the suicide. It is the work, the friendships, and the sense of community.
The institute that brought these women together was the brainchild of Mary Ingraham Bunting, a microbiologist and education reformer who became the president of Radcliffe in 1960. In the 1950s, Bunting had served on a National Science Foundation committee to study the nation’s schools, and she had turned up a striking fact: Of the nation’s most promising high school students who didn’t go on to college, 90 percent were women. All the more striking was the fact that none of the men on the committee were bothered by what Bunting considered to be a woeful loss of national brainpower. In her article “A Huge Waste: Educated Womanpower,” Bunting asked, “Why haven’t we been more concerned with the higher education and later utilization of the married woman? What does this neglect signify?” For Bunting, it signified that women were “never really expected to use their talents and education or to make significant intellectual or social advancements.” Women lived in a “climate of unexpectation,” she wrote. And it wasn’t just women who suffered within this climate, addled by what Bunting’s friend Betty Friedan would call the “problem that had no name.” It was the Cold War nation itself.
Education had a role to play in the “utilization” of women for national progress. As it stood, the structure of education didn’t “fit the pattern of women’s lives,” Bunting wrote. Bunting likened women to drivers on the nation’s new interstate highway system, merging onto careers when domestic life allowed and exiting off when they were needed at home. Their professional lives did not look like the long, uninterrupted road trips of men. Education “needed to provide women with on-ramps and off-ramps that they could use at will,” Doherty writes. Bunting’s institute, the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, was designed to provide such an on-ramp.
And indeed it did. The institute gave each member of its inaugural class a stipend, an office, and access to Harvard’s library. Most important, it offered her a community of fascinating women—chemists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, poets—each of whom found herself in some version of what Tillie Olsen, a member of the institute’s second cohort, described as her life’s central conflict: “to reconcile work with life.” For Olsen, the demands of raising a family and aspiring to a career in the arts meant that she had “to keep on dividing” herself when all she wanted was to “run in one river and become great.” The institute provided the material support to let the river run, and the Equivalents produced some of their best work there. Sexton wrote her luminous All My Pretty Ones and started drafting her next collection, Live or Die, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. Kumin also went on to win the Pulitzer, in 1973, for her collection Up Country. Olsen started on Silences, her revolutionary study of literary history that fundamentally changed what was taught in college classrooms and spurred the creation of women’s studies departments across the country.
Olsen’s work on literary history also made clear the profound limitations of programs like the one that enabled it. Silences began as a presentation Olsen gave at the institute called “The Death of the Creative Process.” Olsen was supposed to be using her time at the institute to write the great proletarian novel she’d spent decades dreaming of, having been kept from the task by needing to earn a wage to keep her family of five afloat. But she’d done something else instead: She’d holed up in the Harvard library and read the literary canon. She was especially focused on those who had been prolific, the Honoré de Balzacs and Henry Jameses of literary history. As much as Olsen wanted to write her own novel, she also wanted to figure out why she’d never been able to, and why some had been able to write so much. Why weren’t there more people like her—working-class women—in the literary record?
It couldn’t be chalked up to talent alone, or lack thereof, she reasoned. Surely “genius of a sort must have existed” in all social classes. Olsen argued that material conditions had made it impossible for working-class women to foster the comfort and concentration necessary to produce art. Doherty listened to the recording of Olsen’s presentation, and in it she could hear the increasing agitation of Olsen’s listeners—the shifting of sore bodies, the rustling of skirts, the lighting of cigarettes—as Olsen stretched an hour past her allotted time. But as Doherty points out, perhaps their discomfort also stemmed from Olsen’s implicit indictment of the way the Radcliffe institute defined talent and doled out opportunity. Who wasn’t in the room? What sort of genius was Radcliffe overlooking?
The first class of fellows was entirely white and well-off, and Doherty confronts the racism and classism of the institute that some, like Olsen, were already criticizing from within. While Bunting sought “intellectually displaced women,” she was also looking for women who had already achieved a great deal, and “such women tended to have many things already working in their favor: money, racial privilege, some degree of social support,” Doherty observes. The stipends given out that first year ($3,000, or $25,000 today) were designed not to replace a family’s income but to supplement it. Fellows could use their money any way they pleased, and most of them used it to hire domestic workers—overwhelmingly women of color—to clean their homes and take care of their children so they could study or make art. As Radcliffe came under pressure for its racism—in 1968, a group of black undergraduates occupied the administrative building—and began increasing the admission of black students, so too did the institute start to recruit and admit black fellows. Doherty traces this evolution in an outstanding chapter on Alice Walker, who began her indispensable work on Zora Neale Hurston during her time at the institute from 1971 to ’73.
The story of the institute’s inaugural class in 1961 is nonetheless a story of white women who may have been intellectually displaced by gender expectations (or “unexpectations”) but who carried privilege along the other lines of their identities. Why tell this story now? Doherty’s narrative depicts what displacement felt like for this small group of women in the 1960s, the fight against the “brutal impulse to shove [her daughter] away from [her] typewriter,” in Olsen’s words, or the feeling that her love for her children did not always “surpass [her] desire to be free of their demands,” in Sexton’s. But it also prompts us to consider the systems of marginalization that continue to reproduce the psychic division that agonized these women, as well as the material conditions that made it hard for some, like Olsen, to “reconcile work with life.” The book encourages us to consider how we might update Bunting’s metaphor of the highway. Maybe displacement doesn’t look like entering and exiting a highway but rather being stopped at a gate or a border. Maybe these aren’t metaphors at all. Doherty asks us to consider how the structure of education might not only be tailored to “fit the pattern” of people’s lives, as Bunting wrote in 1961, but be mobilized to change the very patterning of society.
Doherty has written the first full account of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, having done some prodigious research in the institute’s archives along the way. But The Equivalents is not, at heart, the story of a beneficent institution that launched the careers of some of the century’s most important artists and scholars. It is the story of what these women needed from and gave to one another. Much of this evades the archival record, like the summer day in 1963 when the five Equivalents, knowing their time at the institute was drawing to a close, drove up to the seaside town of Rockport to go swimming. Perhaps the outing was Sexton’s idea. She had, after all, used her Radcliffe money to build a swimming pool in her backyard because swimming laps in the morning sun was therapy for her overactive nerves. In Moore’s film, Sexton walks languidly around her pool alone, but in Doherty’s reimagining, we see five women venturing into the ocean together. There’s no real record of the day, not even a photo. But in the mind’s eye, light is coming from everywhere, and there are no shadows at noon.