The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Friendship and Liberation in the 1960s By Maggie Doherty

Reviewed by Susan M. Osborn, Ph.D.

Based on her belief that most women want to find a way to combine professional interests and family life, and her recognition that this often requires having a room of one’s own, Mary Ingraham Bunting undertook what she called “a messy experiment” in 1960. As Radcliffe president, she created the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study to support a marginalized class of Americans: mothers. The institute provided two-year fellowships to “intellectually displaced women with a Ph.D.” or “the equivalent in artistic or scholarly achievement.” Each associate scholar received a stipend, access to Harvard’s resources, office space, and membership in a highly regarded professional and creative community. 

During their tenure, scholars gathered to exchange ideas with each other as well as with other artists and researchers, all of whom were women. They read each other’s work and collaborated on projects. Because they were encouraged to represent the female experience in all its complexity, the institute became a center for dialogue and the development of influential feminist perspectives. 

Five of the twenty-four women who were chosen formed deep bonds of friendship that would sustain and inspire them. They were Anne Sexton, poet; Maxine Kumin, poet; Barbara Swan, artist; Marianne Pineda, sculptor; and Tillie Olsen, writer. They called themselves “The Equivalents” because they lacked the requisite Ph.D. 

Drawing on journals, notebooks, letters, lecture recordings, and finished works, Doherty weaves a narrative of connection and separation, cooperation and competition, affection and resentment, joy and grief. The book focuses on the relationships among the five women with emphasis on the friendship between Sexton and Kumin.. (The photograph of Sexton on the book’s cover is an indicator that more material about her is included than about the other Equivalents.) 

In a departure from examining a two-year slice of history that focuses on the five women, Doherty includes information about Sylvia Plath, Florence Howe, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, and the creation of Ms. magazine. She also tracks the emergence of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. (Bunting helped Betty Friedan develop The Feminine Mystique which was published during the institute’s second academic year.) 

As she explores white feminism and black womanism, Doherty points out the first class was composed exclusively of white women, most of whom had already achieved a great deal. Consequently, they had racial privilege and some degree of recognition working in their favor. An exception was Olsen who criticized from within the institute by confronting its racism and classism and by objecting to the exclusion of working-class reality from the program’s prescription for women. 

In spite of certain drawbacks, the institute served as an incubator where growth and development could take place. At a personal level, the institute provided a life-changing experience for the scholars because it empowered them to take themselves and their work seriously. 

Strengths of this book

– It is extensively researched and easy to read.

– It describes a valuable program for women that once existed.

– It provides examples of the challenges that many artists and writers face.

– It identifies how the institute contributed to the success of the five scholars.

– It demonstrates the supportive and competitive relationships that exist among women.

– It provides intimate glimpses of women’s families and their daily lives.

– It illuminates the evolution of the role of women in society, both in the work that’s been done and the work that remains.

– It richly depicts situations faced by women who are trying to juggle their caregiver/ breadwinner responsibilities with creative endeavors.

– It prompts us to consider the impact of marginalization on the lives of women.

Limitations of this book

– When the author delves into the history of mid- and late-1960s feminism in the latter half of the book, the Equivalents disappear from the narrative. 

– It’s a bit disorienting when the author enters the text toward the end of the narrative.

– It would be nice if the book included a photograph of the five women together.  Apparently, one doesn’t exist.

Personal notes

-I’d never heard of this institute and enjoyed reading about it.

I was shocked at how dependent Sexton was on Kumin and didn’t realize how many times Sexton attempted suicide.

-I’ve always admired Tillie Olsen and appreciated learning more about her.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is motherhood a form of repression?
  2. Do all women, regardless of race or class, need a room of their own?
  3. How can a woman be a responsible family member and have a creative life?
  4. Have your life experiences mirrored any of those that are described in this book?
  5. What kinds of short-term programs could be developed based on the purpose of the institute?                                                                                  

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