Feminism and Friendship in the Academy: An Interview with Maggie Doherty

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Maggie Doherty earned her Ph.D. in English at Harvard University, where she currently teaches first-year writing. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, n+1, and The Nation, amongst others. Her first book, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, was published by Knopf in May 2020.

Lotte Houwink ten Cate is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her dissertation is an intellectual history of the classification and criminalization of domestic and sexual violence across western Europe between 1970 and 2000. Her work on Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem has appeared in New German Critique.


Lotte Houwink ten Cate: As an undergraduate in 1956, Sylvia Plath described to a boyfriend an imagined future life with “babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels.” [1] Married life rarely worked out this way. In the Fall of 1960, Radcliffe College announced a new fellowship which would combat the “climate of unexpectation” that women faced by offering support to women with a doctorate or its “equivalent” in artistic accomplishment. You write that when The New York Times announced the fellowship, “Almost immediately, the phone rang nonstop.” In the Fall of 1961, the inaugural cohort, which included psychologists, poets, scientists, composers, painters and historians, arrived in Cambridge. Each fellow received a stipend of up to $3,000 (roughly $26,000 today). In your wonderful book, you follow a coterie of five women who were a part of the first two cohorts, and described themselves as “the Equivalents”: the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, the sculptor Marianna Pineda, the writer Tillie Olsen and the visual artist Barbara Swan. I would like to start by asking when and how you first came across these women?

Maggie Doherty: I’m going to sound like a typical historian here—and I didn’t even do a PhD in history!—but the book started with a serendipitous discovery in an archive. Sometime in 2010 or 2011, I was researching the first chapter of my dissertation, which was about the writer Tillie Olsen. I’d read in Panthea Reid’s biography that Olsen had spent time at Radcliffe, in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, and since I was local, I decided to walk over to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe and see what I could learn about Olsen’s years in Cambridge. I pulled out the files from the early years of the Institute, and I realized I hadn’t understood what this earlier version of the Institute represented: it was a pretty bold project, a “messy experiment,” founded by Mary Ingraham Bunting. It was designed to help female academics and artists who had put their careers on pause, usually to marry and raise children, get back on track. This origin story intrigued me—I was surprised I hadn’t heard it before—and I was even more intrigued by the names I saw on the list of fellows: the poets Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, and Anne Sexton; the writers Kay Boyle, Tillie Olsen, and Alice Walker; the psychologist Carol Gilligan; and other familiar names. I couldn’t believe that all these women I admired had overlapped here in Cambridge, where I was now, years and years ago. I started wondering what it had been like for these women to encounter other likeminded women at the Institute, particularly in the early 1960s, when so few spaces like it existed. Did they socialize, collaborate, compete? How did the relationships they forged at the Institute shape their writing and art? How did they relate to the women’s liberation movement?

These weren’t exactly the kinds of questions I was prepared to ask as a graduate student in English. Or rather, they were the kinds of questions my adviser, Luke Menand, was trying to teach me how to ask, but I was a very slow learner and it would take me a long time to figure out how to deploy his methodology in my own work. It takes the form it does, which I guess we could call narrative history or group biography or some combination of both, for a few different reasons. First, I was really interested in the lives of the women at the Institute, not just in their work. How did they navigate the competing pressures upon them, as women and artists and mothers? What was their experience of community? How do these experiences manifest in their art? I also soon found that one of the main points I wanted to make was the importance of community—for all artists, and particularly for women artists at this historical moment. I needed a form that could illustrate their interconnectedness. That’s why the book is organized as a linear narrative, one that intertwines the lives of these five people, rather than as separate chapters, or sections, each focusing on one woman. Also, and this is a more practical reason, at the time I conceived of the book I’d started to write more journalism and criticism, which right away felt more intuitive to me than scholarship ever had, and I didn’t think I was going to stay on an academic “track” (though I loved teaching and still do). Pitching the book for a general audience felt both like the right move career-wise and like the best way to get this story to reach as many readers as possible.

Anne Sexton. Photograph: Virago.

LHtC: You note that the painter Barbara Swan has explained that “The scholar with a Ph.D. can study this world, analyze it, criticize it, even try to recreate it in biography, but the scholar can never really know the crazy, intuitive nonsense that whirls around in the mind of an artist.” Barring a satisfying supporting role for the Greek historian Lily Macrakis, your focus has been on the artists much more than on the academics in the Institute. I wonder why you’ve made that decision as well as what it’s been like to write about the creative work done by these women across disciplines?

MD: I had the luck to come across a kind of pre-formed group that gave me a clear structure, or focus, for the book. Middlebrook writes of “The Equivalents” in her biography of Sexton, and it seemed to me that this group would be an ideal way to focus the book: it was limited enough for me to dig relatively deep into the backstory of each woman, but it had enough internal variety and diversity to allow me to investigate different dimensions of the Institute experience—for example, Olsen’s class background allowed me to talk about money and class and privilege, as well as politics in a more overt way. The fact that these were all artists appealed to my critic’s sensibility: I felt much more confident analyzing and discussing a piece of visual art than I do, say, a scientific paper. Although as you suggest, it was definitely a challenge to discuss art across different media! I read up on German Expressionism in order to understand Barbara Swan’s influences, and I learned how sculptors make the kind of life-size pieces that Pineda made (it’s an incredibly long and hard process!). I felt most at home writing about fiction and poetry, though even poetry was a challenge for me, since I review far more prose than poetry. (Helen Vendler once said that poetry is organized radially, and narrative is organized linearly, and my linear mind far prefers narrative.) I especially enjoyed writing about the collaborations among the artists, particularly between Swan and Sexton. I hadn’t encountered anything like it before and was thrilled to see how these two artists found inspiration in each other’s work. I also liked that these artists were a bit unusual at the Institute. Many of the first class of fellows were academics married to Harvard professors, so they were more at home in elite academic spaces. The Equivalents had different relationships to academic life: three of them hadn’t graduated from college and one of the other two (Swan) had been disenchanted with her liberal arts education and far preferred her vocational training. In focusing on the artists, I wanted to push back on some of the ways that universities shape and communicate value. Olsen was helpful to me in this regard: she accepted teaching posts at various universities, but she often used her position to work against traditional ways of teaching and studying literature. She crafted a syllabus on the literature of poverty—this was a radical class then and would still be a radical class now. She encouraged her students to respond affectively to literature, to think about how it communicates what she would call the human experience, rather than to study it critically and dispassionately. I think it’s important to recognize that though artists and writers may depend on universities for resources and infrastructure and support, they also usually counterbalance or even oppose a university’s mission in important ways.

LHtC: Bunting collaborated with Betty Friedan on the first ideas for The Feminine Mystique. In her eulogy for Sexton, Adrienne Rich described her poetry as a “guide to the ruins.” “Her head was often patriarchal, but in her blood and her bones, Anne Sexton knew.”[2] It strikes me that an underlying argument of your book is a warranted critique of the periodization that clasps the history of feminism, as defined in “waves” bookended by classic texts or legal and political developments. Your book makes a fabulous case for the stirrings of thought about female experience and structural inequality as unbeholden to both genre and period. How has this impacted your design of its structure?

MD: I think I am maybe less resistant to the “waves” periodization than some! Or rather, I think there can be something useful about periodizing a movement, even if it inevitably oversimplifies its development and risks presenting a movement as a monolith. One of the valuable things about doing historical research is that it reveals variety and heterogeneity and complexity—at any given moment in feminist history, thinkers and writers and activists existed in a space of contestation. There were working-class women and labor activists present throughout the long history of feminist organizing. There were women of color involved in the feminist movement at all points in its history, doing anti-racist organizing and pushing back on women who didn’t work to combat racism. I know it can be tempting to point out the failures and blind spots of past feminists or feminist cohorts, but if we paint with too broad of a brush, if we conclude, “second-wave feminism was for heterosexual middle-class white women” or something like that, we erase the contributions of working-class women and queer women and women of color.

One of the fortuitous features of The Equivalents is that the group contained some internal diversity and divergent experiences, mostly along the axis of class. (The Institute didn’t diversify racially until several years after its founding, which I discuss in a chapter on the work Alice Walker did while on an Institute fellowship in the early 1970s.) This allowed debates about the demographics of the Institute and the class politics of second-wave feminism to arise organically, often through critiques made by Olsen. I could talk about conflicts and blind spots without imposing them on the past, from a contemporary perspective. This also allowed me to write the book as an immersive narrative and stay within the story, rather than inserting my own commentary or critiques. 

LHtC: You quote Anne Roiphe, who described women in the New York literary scene as a “Greek chorus, mopping up after the battle was over, emptying ashtrays, carrying the glasses to the sink. The main event was man to man.” In your recent essay on communities of writers, you stated that “when Sexton and Swan displayed their collaborations at a seminar, someone in the audience whispered, ‘it’s like incest.”’ Their display of female intimacy was unusual in a mid-century milieu which revolved around the male genius and was rife with misogyny, heightening competition among women. The friendship between Sexton and Kumin was especially close and involved nearly daily feedback on each other’s poems over the phone. Collaboration remains an anomaly rather than the norm. I wonder what your thoughts are about the academic institution as a fundamentally competitive environment, and the experience of the women at Radcliffe?

Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin
at a creative writing workshop. Photograph: credited to Doris Holmes Eyges.
 

MD: I’m so glad you asked about this because it was one of the main things that drove my research. I started writing this book while I was 1) in a PhD program and 2) living in a house with three other women writers. The contrast between these two different communal environments was striking to me: in grad school, I felt like there was a reluctance to talk about work or ideas because of the competitive nature of the academic market. (“Competitive market” isn’t even the right way to put it: maybe we should call it the “jobs lottery masquerading as a competitive marketplace in order to redirect our collective anger about the adjunctification of higher education and transform it into anxiety about our individual fates.”) At home, by contrast, my roommates and I did nothing but talk about our work. I don’t think I would have written half the things I wrote, or that they would have been half as good, if I’d not had my roommates. I also don’t think I would have been confident in pursuing writing as a career if I weren’t among women who were trying to do the same thing. So I was interested to discover that there had been a version of this kind of collaborative environment—one created more deliberately and in an institutional setting—at Radcliffe in the 1960s.

I’d long had an interest in creative coteries, but I was particularly intrigued by the women at the Institute, because they combined creative collaboration and feminist consciousness-raising, although they might not have used that term. As one of the inaugural members explained to me in an interview, ambitious and creative women often felt alienated in midcentury America, and after college (if they even attended college), they usually didn’t have too many opportunities to meet women who shared their frustrations or their dreams. The Institute brought together women who might not have met otherwise, and it allowed them to see that they weren’t alone in their experiences. This is what radical feminists would later call the “click” of recognition—a new way of thinking about your personal experience in relation to a collective struggle. I don’t think the Institute was necessarily designed to foment this kind of feminist or proto-feminist organizing—that wasn’t quite Bunting’s intention—but I think gathering women together in this way, at this particular historical moment, couldn’t help but generate radical or potentially radical connections.

Tillie Olsen (second from left) at a Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study meeting. Photograph: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

LHtC: Olsen’s Radcliffe talk, “Death of the Creative Process,” served as the basis for her 1978 book Silences, a scrapbook which in argument and form attends to the blank pages of lives that never came to writing. Olsen argued, drawing on Paul Valéry, for the need of a “receptive waiting.” You write that being considered “a woman of talent” meant being able to hire domestic work. (It still does.) Fascinating is how differently the stipend was spent. Sexton, who in a letter to her analyst described herself as a “caged tiger,” had a swimming pool installed. Mackrakis, meanwhile, used part of her institute stipend to pay the parking tickets she accrued while working in Widener Library. Could you elaborate on the interplay between privilege and creative and intellectual labor?

MD: Sexton’s pool is such a great example because it was understood quite differently by different people. (I should note that she also used the stipend to build her study and to hire additional childcare; in this way, she was similar to many of the Institute fellows.) To some, the pool was a luxury and thus a scandal; I learned that Polly Bunting in particular was disappointed in this use of funds. But to others who knew Sexton and who understood her struggles with mental illness and her intense social anxiety, the pool seemed like a therapeutic aid. Of course, as you suggest, some things are basic material necessities, and these resources are unevenly distributed, and achievement—scholastic or creative or professional—is often an expression of material advantage. Olsen knew this, both from her research and from her own life, and her articulation of the relationship between inequality and creativity was groundbreaking. I think there’s something ironic about her generating this theory in an institutional setting that built itself on a different theory of creativity and intellectual capacity, or “talent” as Bunting put it. Bunting was expressly interested in high-achieving women who had already demonstrated their talent in an academic or professional setting; she thought these were the women most worthy of assistance because they were the most likely to make some kind of groundbreaking discovery or write a lasting book. It’s fitting, then, that one of the lasting books her Institute enabled was Silences, which is a book that argues for a different conception of talent, that locates it in all people and that argues that it should be nurtured more equally and deliberately. The relationship between Bunting’s ideas and Olsen’s is one of my favorite parts of this book.

The Bunting fellows in conversation. Photograph: Olive Pierce.

LHtC: You write that “Educated women were up against walls of self-assured men.” In your book, a number of these men constitute the wallpaper. Wallace Stegner discouraged Kumin from writing fiction when she was seventeen years old. She later called the poet John Holmes, who had helped secure her first teaching position, her “academic daddy.” In your contribution to a 2018 forum of The Chronicle Review, you argued that women have no power in the academy. How do you understand the politics of the relationship of women in the academy to their work as being mediated by men?

MD: If I were to write that CHE contribution again today, I think I would put things differently. That forum was organized at a moment of great anger and excitement, as what we’ve called the MeToo movement began changing the way we talked about gender and power and harassment in various industries. In that piece, I was pretty ambitious and also pretty vague about what needed to change. It’s not that I don’t think broad change is needed in academia—I do—but I think it’s probably more helpful to approach problems of inequality through specific and concrete interventions. A few that come to mind as I write now:

-Universities could do more to help counterbalance the burden of childcare and other reproductive labor, which usually falls on women. At the university where I teach, childcare subsidies are inadequate and childcare offered by the university itself is limited and incredibly expensive. This put those without childcare responsibilities at a distinct advantage in the workplace. And as I noted, childcare isn’t the only form of care work that usually falls to women: while I was in graduate school, I had to take a semester off to care for my younger sister as she recovered from a traumatic event. I was lucky to have some faculty members help me arrange a leave and keep my funding, but I think transparent policies and accommodations, as well as financial assistance for family care, could go a long way to empowering women in the university.

-Job security and financial security for contingent faculty: About three-quarters of college instructors today are off the tenure-track; many of them are adjuncts who are paid by the course. According to the New Faculty Majority, the majority of contingent faculty are women. There are several reasons for this: one is the implicit bias that favors male scholars at the tenure-track and tenure levels. Another is the domestic responsibilities that force many women to look for “flexible” working conditions (which are usually underpaid or precarious). In addition to opening more tenure lines, universities could offer job security and a living wage to their non-tenure-track faculty. This would address an inconsistency between much university rhetoric, which often values teaching and learning, and university policy, which systematically devalues it.

-Recognize graduate student unions and negotiate with them in good faith: Graduate student organizing at both public and private universities has surged in recent years. These unions have been instrumental in winning protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as healthcare benefits and parental leave for graduate students. These gains can be important for young female scholars, whose childbearing years often overlap with their years in a PhD program. Intervening early in a young scholar’s career to offer her material support and workplace protection can empower her to keep pursuing her academic work.

There are more changes needed—and I hope this conversation continues! If writing this book taught me anything, it’s that educational institutions can and should try different things to combat inequality. Not every institute or intervention will work forever, but that’s no reason not to experiment.


[1] Sylvia Plath in Karen V. Kukil (ed). The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. p. 221

[2] Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1995. pp. 122-123

 

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