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Tracing an institute of one’s own in ‘The Equivalents’

A group biography at the dawn of second-wave feminism

The poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin were already best friends when they applied for fellowships in the inaugural year of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. Their relationship, never mentioned in their applications, was intense and loving, a source of creativity and constructive critique. At its best, it was a template for what women sought, and many would find, at the pioneering institute.

During a bracing two-year stint at Radcliffe in the early 1960s, Sexton and Kumin bonded with three other women: Tillie Olsen, a California-based writer of working-class origins and radical politics, and the visual artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda. Because the institute’s application requested a PhD or “the equivalent” in achievement, the five friends, all lacking a doctorate, jestingly dubbed themselves “the Equivalents.”


Harvard lecturer and literary critic Maggie Doherty’s elegantly composed account of this circle, with its camaraderie and occasional rivalries, doubles as an affectionate — if not entirely uncritical — homage to the institute itself. “The Equivalents” also serves as something of a prehistory of second-wave feminism. Doherty describes the writers and artists she profiles as “a hinge between the 1950s and the 1960s, between a decade of female confinement and a decade of female liberation.” They were women in transition, in a similarly transitional time.

Emerging from the same currents that fostered the women’s movement, the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study had some of the same biases and blind spots. The brainchild of Mary Ingraham Bunting, president of Radcliffe College, the institute offered an elite group of “intellectually displaced women” a modest stipend, office space — and one another. It coupled Virginia Woolf’s proverbial room of one’s own with community and access to Harvard’s rich academic resources. The point was to help women waylaid by domestic responsibilities get back on track as artists and scholars.


Initially, Doherty notes disapprovingly, the institute benefited mostly white women of at least middle-class means. Olsen, accepted into the institute’s second class, was an early exception, a once-acclaimed writer whose literary career had been derailed, in part, by financial exigencies. She was able to relocate with her family to Massachusetts because of a more generous-than-usual institute grant, supplemented by loans (not always paid back) from friends. Later, as the institute evolved, women of color, such as the writer Alice Walker, would begin to receive fellowships.

As Doherty emphasizes, Bunting, the institute’s founder, was herself a remarkable figure, having combined family life with a career in microbiology and educational administration. But she recognized that other gifted women had been hampered by constricting gender norms. With the right supports, she believed that homemaking and child-rearing could be compatible with scholarship and artistic creation.

It’s fascinating to learn that Bunting, more reformer than revolutionary, was an early collaborator with Betty Friedan on “The Feminine Mystique,” the 1963 polemic that jump-started the women’s movement. The collaboration fractured over their differing views. But Friedan’s espousal of a life plan combining marriage and motherhood with a “lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession” prompts Doherty to wonder whether some of Bunting’s notes “might have made their way into Friedan’s final draft.”

In any case, the institute fellows passed the book around, and Kumin­­—like many American women — declared herself “mad for [Friedan’s] message.”

While sketching the historical context, Doherty writes most passionately about the texture of the women’s friendships — above all, the well-documented intimacy between the flamboyant, needy Sexton and the more formal and reserved Kumin. Both would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize, with Sexton, the earlier winner, helping to argue Kumin’s case. Kumin more than repaid the favor: She would rescue Sexton from her suicidal impulses as long as she could.


The institute deepened the ties between Sexton and Olsen, whose application Sexton had encouraged. Swan, a painter, and Pineda, a sculptor — Brookline residents and friends from the local art scene — became closer there, too. Swan and Sexton discovered a shared sensibility that led to the artist designing cover illustrations for Sexton’s poetry. Collectively, Doherty writes, the women “encouraged each other to represent female experience in all its difficulty and complexity.”

After their Radcliffe idyll ended, the friendships were attenuated by time, distance, and other strains. So, too, Doherty’s narrative — merging history, group biography, and literary criticism — becomes more diffuse, ranging quickly over the turbulent terrain of the late 1960s and beyond.

The Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study was renamed the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute in 1978. When Radcliffe merged with Harvard, in 1999, the institute was reborn as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, an incubator for cutting-edge, multidisciplinary scholarship by both men and women.

That evolution may have been inevitable, Doherty concedes. But, in a nod to Bunting’s phraseology, Doherty ends with an amorphous challenge: What about “another messy experiment,” geared to the distinct problems women face today?


THE EQUIVALENTS: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s

By Maggie Doherty

Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pp., $28.95

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.