Author Q&A: Maggie Doherty

Elena Bowes caught up with author Maggie Doherty to discuss The EquivalentsA Story of Art, Female Friendship and Liberation in the 1960s.

In 1960 Harvard’s sister college Radcliffe announced the launch of an exciting new programme – the Institute for Independent Study. As author Maggie Doherty writes in her introduction, “The study was aimed at a marginalised class of Americans: mothers.” A Newsday headline reads: “Radcliffe Launching Plan to Get Brainy Women out of the Kitchen”.

Twenty-four gifted women were selected from across the US to participate in this “messy experiment” conceived by Radcliffe President, Polly Bunting. Radcliffe’s phones were ringing off the hook and letters of interest poured in. The Institute offered frustrated, bored, talented housewives, those with a doctorate or “the equivalent’, something that was inconceivable at the time – a generous stipend, office space and membership to a professional, like-minded female community.  The women who attended the Institute didn’t think of themselves as feminists – the word barely existed – but they flourished creatively at the Institute and wanted that life to continue.

Can you explain how revolutionary the Institute was for that time?

I know we’re saying “unprecedented” a lot these days—but the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study was truly unprecedented. The Institute was for women who were scholars. It took as its founding premise that there were highly educated, talented, accomplished women out there, who weren’t realising their full potential because of domestic responsibilities and a general “climate of unexpectation” (Bunting’s phrase). Just this idea—that women had talent, that they were being underserved, and that they could do great things with just a little material support—was revolutionary.

The Institute was revolutionary too in the sense that it recognised the material and institutional resources needed to create art and scholarship and provided them to the women who were admitted. At the time, and to some degree even now, the model of the great thinker or writer was male: he created art and thought, while an invisible cast of domestic helpers fluttered around him, taking care of all his quotidian needs.

The Institute recognised that if the women it admitted were on campus working, then someone needed to take care of the kids and wash the dishes. The stipends they granted to their fellows, up to $3,000 each (roughly $28,000 today) could be spent on childcare, household help, even dishwashers and laundry machines. This was also revolutionary in a way: by funding this kind of domestic help, the Institute implicitly suggested that a woman’s place was not—or not only—in the home, and that it was OK, and maybe even preferable, for women to be out in the public sphere. The ideal of the family home, manufactured and maintained by women, was so strong in the 1950s that Bunting’s willingness to disrupt it was provocative and significant.

Your book reads like a fast-paced novel chronicling the lives and deep bonds forged between five of these talented women – all young mothers who strived for something more than being the perfect housewife. Poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda and writer Tillie Olsen. They called themselves ‘the Equivalents.’ Of the five, only Kumin had a master’s degree and Sexton didn’t even go to college.

My favourite parts of the book are your descriptions of the lifelong friendship, collaboration and struggles between Sexton and Kumin. When asked by fellow scholars at the Institute how Sexton knew when she’d finished a poem, she answered “Oh, that’s a most complicated process. I call up Maxine and I ask her.”

Can you describe how Sexton and Kumin’s unique friendship stimulated their creative process, and do you think they both would have won Pulitzers without this bond?

Sexton and Kumin were friends and collaborators from the beginning of their respective poetic careers. They met in 1957, when they both took a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. They didn’t take to each other immediately, but after they bumped into each other in Newton, where they both lived, they began commuting to class together and to poetry readings in the Boston area. They found that they balanced each other in various ways: Kumin had a literary education (she had a BA as well as an MA in comparative literature) and she could share some of her knowledge and expertise with Sexton. For her part, Sexton had more natural feeling, a kind of flair for poetic expression, and she could encourage Kumin to be more experimental. Kumin was more reserved—though still very charming—and more stable than her friend; Sexton was more mercurial, passionate.

They shared their works-in-progress almost daily. They developed a memorable method of collaborating: each day, one of them would ring the other and they’d chat until one of them insisted on getting down to work. Then they’d either write for a bit, leaving the phone line open, or they’d promise to ring back in 20 minutes to share something. Sexton said that she loved the time pressure of those 20-minute writing spells. On the phone, each would read what she had aloud to the other, who might suggest a different image, or a change in tone or rhythm. Something about hearing the other’s voice aloud enabled the listener to recall that she was hearing someone else’s poem; neither poet ever tried to imitate the other or to revise the other’s poem so that it was more like something she would’ve written. They preserved each other’s individuality. Eventually, after being awarded stipends by the Institute, Sexton and Kumin put in a second phone line so they could do this kind of joint composition all day.

I think their constant collaboration certainly improved each writer’s work. Having a trusted reader is invaluable. Sexton once said that she and Kumin were each other’s poetic superegos; each knew that the other would be honest about what worked or didn’t work in a draft. It’s hard for me to imagine either of them achieving what she did without the other being there along the way.

Can you expand on the collaboration between Polly Bunting, founder of the Institute, and Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique rocked America and stayed on the NY Time’s bestseller list for six weeks and sold 1.4 million copies?

Bunting and Friedan were actually collaborators in the 1950s; they were working on The Feminine Mystique together for a time, before they decided to part ways (Bunting thought Friedan was “too angry”). I think there are a lot of similarities between Bunting’s institutional project, which presupposed the necessity of women’s intellectual development and professional fulfillment, and Friedan’s book, which argued that women needed to work outside the home to feel fully human. The two also had the same blind spots: neither woman was particularly attentive to race or class. Neither understood how her arguments about the necessity of work wouldn’t scan for women who had always worked outside the home, or how their prescriptions depended on the labour of other women who would take care of children and houses while professional women worked. This isn’t to take away from the accomplishment of either woman, but it is to note how “feminism” or “women’s rights” were thought of in some spaces at the time, and why and how that had to change in future decades.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood gives your book a big thumb’s up in this article. She was a graduate student at Harvard: Radcliffe in 1961. She writes “The past is always another country, but we can visit it as tourists, and it’s useful to have such a thorough guide (as you).”

When researching this other ‘country’ what nuggets did the archives provide that really brought the past to life?

I was so lucky to have so many great archivists help me with research for this book. I’m especially grateful to the librarians and archivists at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America here in Cambridge. That’s where I did most of my research for the book; I also visited archives at the Harry Ransom Center, Stanford, Yale, and the Smithsonian, and was greatly helped by archivists there at well. At Schlesinger, the librarians introduced me to the taped recordings of the seminar talks the women in my book (and other fellows) gave during those early years of the Institute. These recordings were amazing resources: I could hear the clink of glasses, the sound of women’s laughter; I could get a better sense of a woman’s personality (or persona) based on the tone and timbre of her voice. These sound recordings really made the Institute come alive for me; I felt more capable of representing the atmosphere these women generated among themselves.

Many of the lively details in the book came from interviews with family members; I’m so grateful to them for speaking with me. Tillie Olsen’s daughters told me about their mother’s preference for wash-and-wear slacks, her habit of storing balls of paper in her pockets for note-taking, her use of the labor-intensive hand-crank washing machine. Marianna Pineda’s daughter told me that her parents used to have pillow fights, a lovely image of their strong and playful marriage. Barbara Swan’s daughter, who now runs the gallery founded by Swan’s husband Allan, showed me many of her mother’s paintings and described what it was like to sit for a portrait. These little anecdotes complimented the details I found in letters, notebooks, and the like.

And as a follow-up to that question, can you describe your way into this book? How did it all get started?

Tillie Olsen is the writer who led me to this book. I was researching her life and work for my dissertation in English, and I was surprised to learn that she’d spent time in Cambridge, at something called the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. Since I was local, I walked over to the Schlesinger library to see what more I could learn about Olsen’s time at Radcliffe. I found lists in the archives of all these amazing writers and artists I knew—Sexton, Denise Levertov, Alice Walker—who had also been at the Institute in the early 1960s. I became curious: why and how did this Institute for women come about? And, what was it like there?

Can you discuss the challenges you faced tracing five very different women’s lives, what to include and what to omit, one omission being Sexton’s physical and sexual abuse of her daughter Linda. Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 with her book Live or Die where she alludes to her battle with depression and writes intimately about her husband and children.

The Equivalents is sort of a strange book in terms of genre. It’s part group biography, part institutional history, and part narrative history. I don’t think I fully realised, when I conceived of it, how challenging it would be to merge these genres. After some false starts (such as opening with capsule biographies of each individual character), I landed on my preferred method for structuring the book: thinking about the book as a musical composition. I started to think about each woman as a voice, or a musical motif, and I thought about moments when they all harmonised, and then movements when a few faded into the background and one or two were prominent, and moments when I had to bring back or reprise a motif from earlier. I hope that the end result was harmonious!

But I wasn’t telling the complete story of any of the five women. Instead, I was telling a story about their relationships with each other. I was primarily concerned with how they related to each other and how they understood each other; the perspective I adopted, as a writer, was essentially the perspective of a friend. This is why, though I take Linda Sexton’s allegations very seriously, I did not include them in the book—they were not part of the story of these friendships, for better or for worse. For readers who want a better understanding of the Sexton mother-daughter relationship, I would recommend Diane Middlebrook’s biography as well as Linda Sexton’s memoir Searching for Mercy Street.

Do you have a favourite line or two from a Sexton poem? And, if so, can you share why?

My favorite Sexton poem is one I don’t discuss at length in the book, “With Mercy for the Greedy.” It’s a poem written to a friend, Ruth Stone, who sent Sexton a cross following Sexton’s illegal abortion and advised her to seek spiritual counsel. I think of it as a quintessentially Sexton poem: is has her strong stresses and characteristic use of repetition. It explains how poetry offers her solace:

“My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
with mercy
for the greedy,”

It also explains what Sexton means by “confession,” something that was a sacrament for Stone but an art for Sexton. It even refers to her favourite palindrome, “rats live on no evil star.” If someone asked me for an example of Sexton’s work, this is the poem to which I’d point them.

The same question goes for a Kumin poem…

Like the Pulitzer committee, I love the poems in Up Country and think it’s by far Kumin’s strongest work. My favourite in the collection is “September 22nd,” a poem that began as a letter to Sexton when Sexton went to Europe on a traveling fellowship. I particularly love the image of the “mink hills between us” as well as

“the fuzzheads of ripe butternuts
dropping tonight in Joppa like
the yellow oval tears of some rare dinosaur”

I like these images because they demonstrate Kumin’s sensitivity: she observes something and then describes it in several surprising ways in just a few lines. I think you can see here what a different poet she is from Sexton, though very powerful in her own way.

What’s next? This was your first book. Do you think there might be a second?  I hope for all of us readers, the answer is yes.

Thank you—I hope there will be another book too! I have some ideas but I haven’t settled on anything just yet. In the meantime, I’ll be teaching writing to first-year undergraduates as well as a course on book reviewing to journalism students. And I’ll keep writing essays and reviews; this form of writing often helps me develop ideas for longer projects.

– Maggie Doherty interviewed by Elena Bowes

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