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The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s

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An important debut work of narrative nonfiction: the timely, never-before-told story of five brilliant, passionate women who, in the early 1960s, converged at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, stepping outside the domestic sphere and shaping the course of feminism in ways that still resonate today. In 1960, at the height of an era that expected wo An important debut work of narrative nonfiction: the timely, never-before-told story of five brilliant, passionate women who, in the early 1960s, converged at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, stepping outside the domestic sphere and shaping the course of feminism in ways that still resonate today. In 1960, at the height of an era that expected women to focus solely on raising families, Radcliffe College announced the founding of an Institute for Independent Study, offering fellowships to women with a PhD or "the equivalent" in artistic success. Acclaimed writer and Harvard lecturer Maggie Doherty introduces us to five brilliant friends--poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen--who came together at the Institute and would go on to make history. Drawing from their notebooks, letters, lecture recordings, journals, and finished works, Doherty weaves from these women's own voices a moving narrative of friendship, ambition, activism, and art. Beautifully written and urgently told, The Equivalents shows us where we've been--and inspires us to go forward.


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An important debut work of narrative nonfiction: the timely, never-before-told story of five brilliant, passionate women who, in the early 1960s, converged at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, stepping outside the domestic sphere and shaping the course of feminism in ways that still resonate today. In 1960, at the height of an era that expected wo An important debut work of narrative nonfiction: the timely, never-before-told story of five brilliant, passionate women who, in the early 1960s, converged at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, stepping outside the domestic sphere and shaping the course of feminism in ways that still resonate today. In 1960, at the height of an era that expected women to focus solely on raising families, Radcliffe College announced the founding of an Institute for Independent Study, offering fellowships to women with a PhD or "the equivalent" in artistic success. Acclaimed writer and Harvard lecturer Maggie Doherty introduces us to five brilliant friends--poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen--who came together at the Institute and would go on to make history. Drawing from their notebooks, letters, lecture recordings, journals, and finished works, Doherty weaves from these women's own voices a moving narrative of friendship, ambition, activism, and art. Beautifully written and urgently told, The Equivalents shows us where we've been--and inspires us to go forward.

30 review for The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s

  1. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    In 1960, Radcliffe College launched a pioneer program , the Institute of Independent studies. It's goal was to foster the talent of those women who were stuck at home, raising children, without a space to call their own. It offered these women a stipend for childcare or household help, a office of their own at the institution and free access to the library. These five women, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, posts, Barbara Swan a painter, a sculptor, Mariana Pineda and Tillie Olsen, a writer. Althou In 1960, Radcliffe College launched a pioneer program , the Institute of Independent studies. It's goal was to foster the talent of those women who were stuck at home, raising children, without a space to call their own. It offered these women a stipend for childcare or household help, a office of their own at the institution and free access to the library. These five women, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, posts, Barbara Swan a painter, a sculptor, Mariana Pineda and Tillie Olsen, a writer. Although it was stated that this program was for women with degrees, it was also stated that the equivalency in work or talent could also apply. These five women were without official college credentials and hence were known as the Equivalents. I loved this book, a cultural biography of the times but also an in-depth look at these women and their lives, prior to the program and after. It focuses quite often on the complicated friendship between Anne Sexton, Kumin and Olsen. There are many different women mentioned in this book, Virginia Woolf of course and her Room of my Own, Sylvia Plath, whose talent was astonishing but not enough to overcome life's obstacles. The groundbreaking Feminine Mystique, trailblazers all, some successful, some not. It is a wonderful look at women who transcended their expected roles and wanted more. Not all would find it, but many did.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lorna

    The Equivalents was a fascinating and extensively researched debut non-fiction work by author Maggie Doherty. The book primarily focused on the groundbreaking program developed by Radcliffe in 1961 offering a small selected group of gifted women artists the opportunity to avail themselves of the resources they needed to succeed, namely, fellowship money, office space and access to a professional and creative female community for two years. It was limited to twenty-four women. However, Doherty pr The Equivalents was a fascinating and extensively researched debut non-fiction work by author Maggie Doherty. The book primarily focused on the groundbreaking program developed by Radcliffe in 1961 offering a small selected group of gifted women artists the opportunity to avail themselves of the resources they needed to succeed, namely, fellowship money, office space and access to a professional and creative female community for two years. It was limited to twenty-four women. However, Doherty primarily focused on the relationship and work of poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin as well as writer Tillie Olsen. She also explored the creative process inherent in the sculptures of Marianna Pineda and the art work and portraits by Barbara Swan. As these women came together in collaboration and support of one another the institute for most was nothing short of life-changing. This was very a well written and compelling work that not only explores the history of that time but all that still needs to be done. "This book is about a small group of women writers and artists who operated as a hinge between the 1950s and 1960s, between a decade of women's confinement and a decade of women's liberation. It tells the story of their careers, their friendships, and their art as a way of describing how and why the feminist movement reemerged in 1960s America. But the book is also about their particularities, their inner lives, their conflicts. It attends to the rich, idiosyncratic, loving, competitive relationships that form between women--the kinds of relationships that so often go unexamined and unrecognized." ----- Maggie Doherty, Introduction to The Equivalents

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    I’ve been mired in thrillers for so long I had forgotten how much I enjoy well written and well researched biographies about the artistic with literary biographies being among my favorites. This group biography of Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, Maxine Kumin, Barbara Swan, and Mariana Pineda checked all of the boxes. Rather than an in-depth biography of each woman, THE EQUIVALENTS mainly focuses on their friendships which developed as fellowship recipients of an inaugural program at Radcliffe College I’ve been mired in thrillers for so long I had forgotten how much I enjoy well written and well researched biographies about the artistic with literary biographies being among my favorites. This group biography of Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, Maxine Kumin, Barbara Swan, and Mariana Pineda checked all of the boxes. Rather than an in-depth biography of each woman, THE EQUIVALENTS mainly focuses on their friendships which developed as fellowship recipients of an inaugural program at Radcliffe College intended to provide a room of one’s own, financial independence, and artistic support to further their scholarly and artistic work during the 60’s when women were expected to be the angels in the home. The candidates were required to possess the equivalent of a PhD. This nonfiction account of brilliant women pursuing their art is fascinating and satisfying. We’ve come a long way baby but there is so much farther to go.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Valerie Campbell Ackroyd

    I truly enjoyed listening to and reading this book. I sometimes kept walking longer in the morning just so I could finish the chapter. I am just slightly younger than the generation of women the book is about; I came of age a decade later, in the 1970s, so I remember a lot about the women's movement but I was more in that "tweeny" kind of generation. Still told by my Edwardian-era parents that college was a waste for women but encouraged by my 10-year-older sister to go to college anyway. I only I truly enjoyed listening to and reading this book. I sometimes kept walking longer in the morning just so I could finish the chapter. I am just slightly younger than the generation of women the book is about; I came of age a decade later, in the 1970s, so I remember a lot about the women's movement but I was more in that "tweeny" kind of generation. Still told by my Edwardian-era parents that college was a waste for women but encouraged by my 10-year-older sister to go to college anyway. I only knew of two of the women profiled in the book--Sexton and Plath--as I am not a great reader of poetry and am not that familiar with American women painters and sculptors. I know them now that and will be reading more. As a writer manqué, I envied the opportunities these creative women--Sexton, Kumin, Swan, Olsen, Pineda--had to be able to work, study, have their writings published and supported. I gobbled up the descriptions of their writings, the examples of their poetry, their "artistic" lives and I actually bought the book (I started this on Audible) so I could see the photos of the women and of Pineda's sculptures and Swan's drawings/paintings. In the end I couldn't find a photo of Pineda's sculptures so looked them up on Google; wonderful. Doherty of course covers the dark side of creativity--Sexton's and Plath's suicides, Olsen's and Kumin's self doubt--and tries to explain as much as possible what might have caused it and how it affected each one's work. One of the ongoing themes throughout the book--Sexton's mental illness--was especially poignant as it was so much more than depression. As a reader, I appreciated Doherty's meticulous research and reflective writing. It seemed whenever I had a question as I read--these women were so "privileged", could I relate to them today? She answered by acknowledging the privilege but then going deep to explore it. She covers the black women's movement with sensitivity, acknowledging it isn't "her" experience to write, explaining historically and logistically the problems that black woman have had with the women's movement, profiling Alice Walker in her time at the Radcliffe Institute, and does it with original sources, letters by or to the people themselves. Articles they wrote, poetry and stories they wrote. I especially liked the quote that Doherty uses from Tillie Olsen--"There's nothing wrong with privilege except that not everybody has it." I think that is really what this book is about. There is nothing wrong with women (or men for that matter) having wonderful experiences, contracts, grants, prizes, awarded to them. The problem is that it isn't an even field because so many people, because of work, family, education, remain hidden even though they are just as talented as the artists portrayed in this book. Truly, Virginia Woolf's comments about women needing money, education, time and a "room of one's one" are just as true today. I am glad that Doherty brings that out in this book. Her writing, although well researched academically, is approachable. No acadspeak: sociological or historical jargon. I think she really did cover the flavor of women's "place" in society in the 1950s and 1960s very well and anyone of my generation (born in the 1950s) would enjoy reading it for that alone. If you wonder about the artist's life and how a modern artist is inspired by/hampered by her environment, this is a great book. I also think it is an important book for younger women (and men) to read so that they can think about their own places--those they inherited and those they want to fight for. A great book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    James

    The book is wonderful: elegantly-written, humane and urgent. For anyone in quarantine, it's a reminder of the joys and struggles of a prior generation of remarkable women.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    On November 19, 1960 the New York Times published an article announcing the creation of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. An experiment unlike anything tried before. The brainchild of Mary Bunting, the Institute was created to foster the creative and intellectual talents of "displaced women." Women who had studied and received college degrees but later settled down into marriage and children. Women who were lacking what Virginia Woolf proposed all women need to succeed: “A woman must On November 19, 1960 the New York Times published an article announcing the creation of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. An experiment unlike anything tried before. The brainchild of Mary Bunting, the Institute was created to foster the creative and intellectual talents of "displaced women." Women who had studied and received college degrees but later settled down into marriage and children. Women who were lacking what Virginia Woolf proposed all women need to succeed: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Or if she is to write poetry, create sculptures, or study history, etc... The women admitted to the Institute would receive the title of "associate scholar," a stipend of "up to $3,000 (nearly $25,000 today) to spend as she pleased," and a room (or office) of her own at 78 Mount Auburn Street. Applications poured in and in September 1961 the Institute had it's first group of 24 women. Maggie Doherty's The Equivalents focuses on five of these women, poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda, and the writer Tillie Olsen. These were the five women who called themselves the Equivalents, because they lacked the PhDs required by the application but "they had "the equivalent" training in artistic craft." They were a cohort of creatives who learned from, depended on, and supported each other. While Doherty outlines the creation and the purpose of the Institute, I think what stands out with this book is that it highlighted the benefits reaped by the five women and how the female friendships they developed, both before, during, and after their time at the Institute affected their respective creative outlets. Doherty shines a light on forming female friendships after college, marriage, and children, focusing specifically on the relationship between Sexton and Kumin, but touching on the friendships developed with and by the other women. Doherty sets the Institute within the context of the growing women's liberation movement that took hold with Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique. Taking the time to highlight the racial inequality that allowed the five women to liberate themselves from household commitments. But also mentioning the growth of places like the Institute and higher education in general that made some effort to include women of color within their programs as students and faculty. Extensively researched but highly accessible, The Equivalents is a feminist and literary history that concludes with a summation that a woman needs more than just money and a space of her own, but also a "female community," a female artist "must not fall into the trap of working, or trying to work, in isolation." A conclusion clearly and beautifully illustrated by Doherty. thesoundofpaper

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    They were "The Equivalents" not because they were equal to men, but because to earn a Radcliffe quasi "genius grant" in the 1960s, women had to have "the equivalent" of a PhD. The book focuses on five women, including familiar poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. But you also get to meet painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda, perhaps, like me, for the first time. Pineda, especially, seems a model of how doing your own thing can make you very content. But it is the writer Tillie Olsen, who They were "The Equivalents" not because they were equal to men, but because to earn a Radcliffe quasi "genius grant" in the 1960s, women had to have "the equivalent" of a PhD. The book focuses on five women, including familiar poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. But you also get to meet painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda, perhaps, like me, for the first time. Pineda, especially, seems a model of how doing your own thing can make you very content. But it is the writer Tillie Olsen, whose short story "Tell Me A Riddle" still haunts me 30 years after reading it, is the real challenge. Olsen had to work for a living most of her life, and this inability to focus on her writing frustrated her academic peers. A good portion of the book is taken up with description of how Olsen procrastinated and doubted herself, which I can read very similar descriptions of in my own diaries. While it is helpful to see this close up, a little more narrative shaping of Olsen's struggles would have made the story more fluid.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Miguel

    Before reading this I knew virtually nothing about Anne Sexton, so it’s always a crapshoot to dive into a biography about someone one has no background on. And after reading it, I’m not sure that I’ll peruse more of Sexton’s work, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed this work by Maggie Doherty. It’s such a well written and engrossing account of what could have been an otherwise dry tale of a depressive poet’s life. The author covers other ground here besides Sexton, namely the women’s rights Before reading this I knew virtually nothing about Anne Sexton, so it’s always a crapshoot to dive into a biography about someone one has no background on. And after reading it, I’m not sure that I’ll peruse more of Sexton’s work, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed this work by Maggie Doherty. It’s such a well written and engrossing account of what could have been an otherwise dry tale of a depressive poet’s life. The author covers other ground here besides Sexton, namely the women’s rights movement in the 60’s and quite a bit of background on Radcliffe. The parts on Betty Friedan were quite interesting and did not realize the schisms that developed in the movement and the different factions within it. Sexton was weaved in and out of all of this, and it was sad to read of her tribulations and demise. However, I very much hope to see a new work from Doherty in the future, definitely an author on my “to-read” list for sure.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alan Asnen

    This was an immediate must-read for me. As soon as I saw Anne Sexton’s name mentioned. When I was a freshman in high school a friend read to me her poem, “Cinderella,” and I was forever changed. Indeed, he didn’t read it so much as he acted it out. We started our own poetry magazine on the spot. It was a momentous occasion in many ways. Sexton is one of several figures in this history of friends who met through fate before the women’s movement took shape, as Radcliffe decided to offer a program f This was an immediate must-read for me. As soon as I saw Anne Sexton’s name mentioned. When I was a freshman in high school a friend read to me her poem, “Cinderella,” and I was forever changed. Indeed, he didn’t read it so much as he acted it out. We started our own poetry magazine on the spot. It was a momentous occasion in many ways. Sexton is one of several figures in this history of friends who met through fate before the women’s movement took shape, as Radcliffe decided to offer a program for “cultured” women who had the “equivalent” through their work of a PhD. Of course, Sexton qualified, as did Maxine Kumin and Tillie Olsen, as well as artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda. At times it seems absurd how undramatic some of the stories play out until you remember this was sixty years ago when, despite being a “women’s college,” such things were almost unheard of.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Aurelie

    Rating: 4.5 stars. The book is about the first few years of a new Radcliffe fellowship program for creative women (writers, mathematicians, etc) who had been sidetracked from fulfilling their potential due to family duties and just plain life in those days. The inaugural cohort included Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. By now those are well-researched literary figures but the Radcliffe angle allowed fresh insights. My favorite chapters were those about writer Tillie Olsen, whom I had never heard ab Rating: 4.5 stars. The book is about the first few years of a new Radcliffe fellowship program for creative women (writers, mathematicians, etc) who had been sidetracked from fulfilling their potential due to family duties and just plain life in those days. The inaugural cohort included Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. By now those are well-researched literary figures but the Radcliffe angle allowed fresh insights. My favorite chapters were those about writer Tillie Olsen, whom I had never heard about (especially her social activism and her speech about what kills creativity) and, in the last part of the book, Alice Walker. Below is Tillie Olsen's obituary published in the Stanford Report when she died at 2007 at age 94. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/j...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    This is a fascinating, if a bit dry, discussion of an experiment designed to empower women artists by giving them the time and money they needed to pursue their art. Radcliffe decided to offer this program to women - all married - who had left their promising careers in the days when that was what good girls did, in the hope that they could jump start their careers. There were mixed opinions of how the program would do - and mixed results, Maggie Doherty's recounting of 5 of the women in the progr This is a fascinating, if a bit dry, discussion of an experiment designed to empower women artists by giving them the time and money they needed to pursue their art. Radcliffe decided to offer this program to women - all married - who had left their promising careers in the days when that was what good girls did, in the hope that they could jump start their careers. There were mixed opinions of how the program would do - and mixed results, Maggie Doherty's recounting of 5 of the women in the program is enlightening and well worth the time to read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Eli Pollack

    Very exciting... it had me constantly stopping to Google references, poems, people and so much else. I am sure it will take a long time to follow all the interesting leads found here. Which does not mean that the book is not complete, in and of itself. This is the story of (one type of) feminism, from before the word "feminism" existed. The individual lives, how they intertwined, how the various cultural histories shaped each of them and then the group and how they borrowed and supported each oth Very exciting... it had me constantly stopping to Google references, poems, people and so much else. I am sure it will take a long time to follow all the interesting leads found here. Which does not mean that the book is not complete, in and of itself. This is the story of (one type of) feminism, from before the word "feminism" existed. The individual lives, how they intertwined, how the various cultural histories shaped each of them and then the group and how they borrowed and supported each other kept me reading as if it was a novel and not a deeply researched history.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    I expected to read this book a bit slowly, but found I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up. A fascinating look at the importance of female friendships and the importance of female networks. I was drawn to the book because Maxine Kumin is one of my favorite poets and because I was fascinated by Tillie Olsen, but I got to know three other amazing female creatives, and I also learned a lot more about the history of women’s education (a field I thought I knew pretty well.)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Virginia

    The History of these women and the Institute was very interesting. I thought Swan and Pineda got short changed and at times the book felt more a biography of Sexton and Kumin. I had Sexton's complete book of poems beside me which enhanced the information and suppositions of the author. The whole book certainly took me back through those times of the roles of women I experienced as well.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    Inspiring reading especially in terms of the friendships and passion for poetry. Also class and education get interesting attention.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer M. Collins

    Beautifully written history of important artists and a small snapshot of the world and time they inhabited. Great details about feminist history, good and bad. I loved this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Harriet

    Nonfiction book about the women at the Radcliffe Institute, especially Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, women finding their voice in the early 60s.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cristina

    I got a lot out of this one! I’d recommend it to women in the arts, as well as anyone who’s ever applied for a fellowship or has an interest in mid-century American culture. It puts the always timely and tired “can she really have it all?” dilemma in historical context.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ljszaro

  20. 4 out of 5

    janice kryshka

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rain

  22. 5 out of 5

    Holly

  23. 4 out of 5

    Pamela Twa

  24. 4 out of 5

    Phyllis

  25. 5 out of 5

    Petra Newton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Angela

  27. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lu

  29. 5 out of 5

    Peter

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alison

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