The Equivalents

The Equivalents coverThe Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s
Maggie Doherty
Vintage (May 19, 2020), 359 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $15.87

In the fall of 1960 Radcliffe College announced the formation of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, a place for “intellectually displaced women.” This was the creation of Radcliffe president Mary Bunting. The idea was to offer office space, study or research time, and a financial stipend to women with a PhD or “the equivalent” in artistic achievement.

This caught the attention of poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, good friends who supported each other both personally and in their writing. They decided to apply, but to apply separately, not letting the institute know they knew each other. The institute accepted both for the 1961-1962 academic year. Also accepted was painter Barbara Swan. All three continued their fellowship for the 1962-1963 academic year. Joining them for that year were sculptor Marianna Pineda and Tillie Olsen, the writer and social activist.

What the five women had in common was that none of them had a PhD, and all were accepted for their “equivalent” artistic achievement. The five became friends and called themselves “the equivalents.”

While Author Maggie Doherty extensively documents the women’s time at the institute, she recounts the lives of the women in the years immediately before their time there and discusses their lives after their time on campus. Sexton and Kumin get the bulk of the attention in the book, but we learn a lot about the struggles of the other three women as well.

Doherty also documents other women who were active in the era. She discusses Betty Friedan and the impact of her book The Feminine Mystique. She points out that Friedan one time referred to lesbians as a “lavender menace,” and prevented them from participating in the first convention that her National Organization of Women (NOW) organized.

The author also discusses Alice Walker, who was also a fellow at the institute. Doherty offers insight into the Black experience, and how many Black women had no use for Friedan’s brand of feminism. She notes that many Black women didn’t see men as the enemy but believed that Black men could help empower them. Doherty also explains that many Black women didn’t share the same perspective on abortion as white feminists. They were aware of the historic overlap between birth control and eugenics, and knew that Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic, had some eugenicist beliefs.

The Equivalents is Maggie Doherty’s first book, but it is thorough, well-researched, and highly readable. The book offers useful insight into some the lives of some of the creative women in the sixties and seventies.

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