Honouring Adrienne Rich, key ‘second-wave’ feminist writer and poet (1926-2012)

Adrienne Cecile Rich, American poet, essayist and feminist, who was born on 16 May 1929 and died over 9 months ago on 27 March 2012, has had several fulsome obituaries in the USA and the UK. This is yet another loss of an early feminist mother and sister. It is important to acknowledge the huge influence that Adrienne Rich had on the developing ideas, theories and practices of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and beyond into feminist political practices, especially around critiques of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and developing arguments for sexual equality.

Of particular importance and influence to the rising British women’s movement and work in the new field of women’s studies were her twin works on lesbianism and her rich and complex poetic polemic about motherhood and childbirth, entitled Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published in 1976 in the USA, when she was in her late 1940s, and she was already an extremely renowned poet and essayist, having won several prestigious prizes when she was a young graduate in the early 1950s.

In the same year, 1976, Rich began her lifelong partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, and she acknowledged that, for her, lesbianism was a political as well as a personal issue, writing in Of Woman Born that: ‘The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.’

She was born into a very privileged upper middle class family in Baltimore, Maryland – her father a Jewish pathologist and her mother a concert pianist – and had an elite education, at Radcliffe College, Cambridge Massachusetts linked to Harvard. She married shortly after college to a Harvard professor and had 3 sons, finally divorcing in 1970. By this time, she had become very involved in the civil rights and women’s movement, and was one of the very early feminist campaigners and leaders arguing for sexual equality.  Her Of Woman Born was published in the aftermath of the various manifestos for radical and socialist feminism such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics; and for example, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives and Nurses: a history of women healers and their 1974 pamphlet Complaints and Disorders: the sexual politics of sickness.

She is now seen as one of the founding mothers of ‘second-wave’ feminism, alongside these women and other such feminists, like Betty Friedan, whose Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, when she too was in her forties. The subsequent work of these early second-wave campaigners diverged considerably, although they all tended to be formed through their civil rights and socialist politics, and perhaps another critical influence was their Jewish family backgrounds.

In addition to her critical and influential writings on lesbianism as well as the extended essay on motherhood and childbirth, was her work on Jewish identity. In her 1982 essay “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity“, Rich stated that: “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” Her book had met with some harsh reviews and she commented that:

“I was seen as ‘bitter’ and ‘personal’; and to be personal was to be disqualified, and that was very shaking because I’d really gone out on a limb … I realized I’d gotten slapped over the wrist, and I didn’t attempt that kind of thing again for a long time.”

But she had been publishing prolifically and some of the essays were republished in a book entitled On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (1979). Eventually, a decade later in 1990, Rich worked with the New Jewish Agenda which led to the founding of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990, a journal of which Rich served as the editor. This work coincided explored the relationship between private and public histories, especially in the case of Jewish women’s rights.

Her homage to lesbian passion was published as an essay in 1980 entitled Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, and it was here that she argued that it was necessary to break down taboos about lesbianism and reject the heterosexuality routinely forced upon women.

Her various writings were influential in the early women’s studies and women’s movement in the UK. Of Woman Born was published in the UK in 1977, and it certainly influenced our developing work for the Bristol Women’s Studies Group and its first reader in the UK Half the Sky: an introduction to women’s studies (1979).  At that time there was very little published material on which to base our courses, and we developed a set of reading across several themes pertinent to women’s lives and bodies, and including marriage, motherhood, education and creativity. The quotations that we used from her in our discussion of motherhood (chapter 5, p.167-8) remain as pertinent today as it did when she first wrote them.

First she wrote passionately about the essence of childbirth and I quote again in full:

‘childbirth is (or may be) one aspect of the entire process of a woman’s life, beginning with her own expulsion from her mother’s body, her own sensual suckling or being held by a woman, through her earliest sensations of clitoral eroticism and of the vulva as a source of pleasure, her growing sense of her own body and its strengths, her masturbation, her menses, her physical relationship to nature and to other human beings, her first and subsequent orgasmic experiences with another’s body, her conception, pregnancy, to the moment of first holding her child. But that moment is still only a point in the process if we conceive it not according to patriarchal ideas of childbirth as a kind of production, but as part of female experience’ (1977, p.182).

Secondly, she wrote about the problems of being a writer at the same time as caring for children, and the contradictory emotions aroused. Again, I use the quote from Half the Sky in full:

‘From the fifties and early sixties, I remember a cycle. It began when I had picked up a book or began trying to write a letter, or even found myself on the telephone with someone toward whom my voice betrayed eagerness, a rush of sympathetic energy. The child (or children) might be absorbed in busyness, in his own dreamworld; but as soon as he felt me gliding into a world which did not include him, he would come to pull at my hand, ask for help, punch at the typewriter keys. And I would feel his wants at such a moment as fraudulent, as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself. My anger would rise; I would feel the futility of any attempt   to salvage myself, and also the inequality between us: my needs always balanced against those of a child, and always losing. I could love so much better, I told myself, after even a quarter of an hour of selfishness, of peace, of detachment from my children. A few minutes! But it was as if an invisible thread would pull taut between us and break, to the child’s sense of inconsolable abandonment, if I moved – not even physically, but in spirit – into a realm beyond our tightly circumscribed life together. It was as if my placenta had begun to refuse him oxygen. Like so many women, I waited with impatience for the moment when their father would return from work, when for an hour or two at least the circle drawn around mother and children would grow looser, the intensity between us slacken, because there was another adult in the house’ (1977 p.23).

Miriam E David, GEA Executive

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