‘The Most Impressively Talented Women’
The author Maggie Doherty on feminist education and the tension between intellectual journalism and academe
Doherty, a writer and instructor at Harvard University (where she earned her Ph.D. in English), focuses on five such “equivalents,” all women admitted in the first two cohorts of Radcliffe fellows. They are the writers Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, and Maxine Kumin, and the artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda.
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Doherty, a writer and instructor at Harvard University (where she earned her Ph.D. in English), focuses on five such “equivalents,” all women admitted in the first two cohorts of Radcliffe fellows. They are the writers Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, and Maxine Kumin, and the artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda. The Chronicle Review spoke with Doherty about the history of women’s education, the role of creative writers in the postwar university, and the recent flourishing of academically trained intellectuals in the public sphere.
You say that the Radcliffe Institute was a “novel experiment in women’s higher education.” What made it so novel?
It was unprecedented in its specific terms, but it was also part of an ongoing interest in reforming women’s higher education in the ’50s and ’60s. In the ’50s, women were attending college in great numbers. But because of the GI Bill and other factors, you had this weird effect where the raw numbers of women were higher than ever, but in terms of the proportion of students on campus they seemed sort of insignificant.
So you were educating a large swath of women, but under terms and conditions that made them feel that this education was not designed for them. That produced a lot of discussion among ed reformers and administrators. What is the best way to educate women? This is a conversation that Mary Bunting, who founded the institute when she was president of Radcliffe, was very much engaged in.
As dean of Douglass College, which was the women’s college at Rutgers, she had been experimenting with continuing education for older women — and by “older women” I mean women in their 30s and 40s. She had designed a program for women in the area who could commute in to campus a few times a week for college classes. This was first seen as very strange: Will these women who have been at home with children have any intelligence left? Will they complete their coursework? Will they be interested? It turned out they were very strong students.
What was different about the Radcliffe Institute was that it was supposed to be for the most highly accomplished and most impressively talented women. One of the things that inspired Bunting to do this was a study of the highest-performing high-school students on tests who, for whatever reason, ended up not going to college. Ninety per cent of those students were women. So she began to think that one of the main problems in this country was about how it encouraged, or didn’t encourage, a specific, narrow demographic: highly talented, highly intelligent women who were being completely underserved by educational institutions.
The other thing that made the institute novel was that it offered really concrete resources: We’re going to give you an office, we’re going to give you money. We’re going to give you access to the resources at one of the best universities in the world. And we’re going to give you community, with women who are like you in terms of their accomplishment and achievements, in different fields and different disciplines.
One of the most moving sections of the book is about the women who never had a chance of getting admitted to the institute — who lacked the talent or educational background. You describe, for instance, one Barbara Rozen, who wanted to study “a little-known family of spiders.”
Many, many women wrote to Bunting when the institute was first announced, in November 1960. There was an immediate response that they didn’t anticipate. Tons of women are calling the office, tons more are writing directly to Bunting. Most of these letters were letters of inquiry. So many women wrote in to say, I’m interested, how do I apply? I remember a letter from a woman who ran a general store and who had four children and had never been to college. She thought the institute might give her a chance to go to college. She was so excited about it.
The women who wrote in were all so different, but there were a few things that they had in common. In all of these letters they describe how hard it is for them to raise a family, take care of a household, work a job if they were working, and have some kind of creative or intellectual or scholastic engagement. They all sort of said, I can’t do this on my own.
The other thing they all had in common was the housewife role. Most of the letters I found in the archive were written on stationery with the husband’s name at the top, and most of the women signed their names “Mrs. Alfred Smith” or something like that. Even though there was such wide variety of experience in midcentury America, the ideal of the housewife and of the nuclear family really did have an impact on women of all different positions. It wasn’t like highly accomplished women were writing in an assertive, independent way — no, they were also using their husband’s stationery. Seeing all of these letters that all looked the same and told the same kind of story was compelling: It showed me how pervasive this domestic ideology was at the time.
At one point, Bunting planned to write book with Betty Friedan, but it didn’t pan out.
The book was going to be what became The Feminine Mystique. Bunting and Friedan had been connected by a Smith College graduate who had told Bunting that she knew of this other writer who was thinking about the same problems facing educated and ambitious women. I should note that my source is an oral history with Bunting that’s in the archives at Schlesinger Library, so I only have Bunting’s perspective.
As reformers, they were both interested in what might strike us as a pretty narrow selection of women. Friedan’s book opens with her discussing the survey of Smith alums that generated the idea for the book — she saw all these alums describe the same sort of malaise and frustration. Similarly, Bunting was thinking about women who went to Radcliffe or who got Ph.D.s who were also feeling frustration, boredom, stagnation.
The difference is that Friedan was more polemical. It was as much a difference in affect as in ideas. Bunting was raised by a Quaker mother. She had a moderate approach to most things in life. She wasn’t really looking to overturn the established order.
That’s one of the reasons that she was able to push through this ambitious program. She was saying, This is going to help the country as a whole. We’ll be able to compete with the Soviet Union in the space race; undergraduate women will be more inspired and more engaged; and then, when they get married, they’ll have happier marriages. She had an ability to please everyone, whereas I think Friedan wanted to go after these long-held beliefs about women, home, and family. As Bunting remembered it, Friedan was too angry, and the two decided to stop collaborating after four meetings.
Regarding the space race — you observe Bunting’s “fluency in Cold War rhetoric.” What was the relationship between her kind of feminism and the Cold War?
I don’t know that Bunting would have called herself a feminist: I think she saw herself as helping women, but in part because of her own life experiences, she didn’t describe her reforms as feminist.
She also saw her projects as perfectly consonant with many of the nation’s goals of the time: to achieve excellence in the arts and sciences, to educate the population, to have an informed citizenry that would be able to participate democratically in all of the institutions of governance and society.
But it’s always hard to know when reading letters and applications written by someone like Bunting how much of her talk about American greatness and beating the Soviet Union is just strategic. Keep in mind that there was a lot of money floating around for projects that would help America win the Cold War. You see this with funding for the arts, for instance. We shouldn’t discount how savvy it was to use this kind of language when you are seeking, for instance, a donation from the Rockefeller Foundation, as Bunting was.
Much of your book focuses on literary figures — Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen. Kumin and Sexton met in a poetry workshop, is that right?
An adult-education workshop in Boston, in 1957, run by John Holmes.
And Kumin eventually gets a gig teaching at Tufts.
Yes. She credits Holmes with helping her get that job.
In a wry aside, you note that Olsen, despite being “averse to the kind of critical analysis that preoccupied most scholars,” ends up at the 1971 MLA. The overlap between creative writers and the university is a big part of the story that you’re telling. I was reminded of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, about the influence of the creative-writing program on postwar American fiction.
The figures that I’m interested in became quite influential in their respective fields, and meant a lot to different audiences, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the institute itself reshaped American literary production or anything like that.
But I do think it is significant that the thing that brings together the figures I’m interested in is a university. McGurl talks about the rise of the university, especially about the creative-writing program as an organizing force in the life of a writer. There’s a lot of money going into research universities during the ‘50s and ‘60s, so they take on a more central role in the lives of people like Anne Sexton and Tillie Olsen, who didn’t themselves go to college. Even though they didn’t attend university as undergraduates, they end up circling back to it as accomplished writers, first at the Institute and then later as teachers.
One of the reasons I chose to focus on artists in this book, as opposed to some of the scholars who attended the institute — and this is something McGurl discusses as well — is their oppositional relationship to the university. The two visual artists, Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda, were both dissatisfied with liberal-arts education and thought learning from great artists in art school or in ateliers was far more effective. But even they took teaching jobs at liberal-arts colleges at various points — that’s part of making a living as an artist. Olsen was hired by Leo Marx, at Amherst, in 1968, precisely because he thought that she was going to shake things up. She gave a pretty confrontational interview, in which she talked about what a shame it is that literary study is so narrowly focused on the most visible and privileged and canonical writers. That’s why she’s hired — she’s hired because she doesn’t have a ton of faith in the way literature was taught in colleges.
The presence of “the equivalents” at the institute was, in a way, about supplementing academic life with the kinds of intellectual life that had less of a home in academia — in this case, both because they were women at a time when academia was totally male-dominated, and because they were artists and poets rather than scholars. Do you see the need for similar kinds of supplementation in academia now?
What the institute was responding to, in part, is the great need in this country for some kind of material support for people who raise families. The sort of need that the institute filled for a limited number of women is for financial assistance or other kind of social support for caregiving. We ask specific people in our culture, often women and often women of color, to take on the work of caring for children and the old and infants and households and so on — all of the work that helps society reproduce itself. We often ask them to do this work out of love, and with very little remuneration.
When I think about what the institute means today, the first thing I think is that it points up the continued absence of adequate social or governmental support for care work. We still don’t have affordable child care. We still don’t have universal free pre-K. I see this lack as part of the story of the institute—what it reminds us that we need.
Within academia specifically: In the era of the institute you see a similar pattern to one you see today. At the time that this book is set, women made up a majority of undergraduate English majors, half of doctoral students — and then there was a very steep drop-off when it came to professorships and tenured professorships. The numbers aren’t the same today, but I think there’s a similar pattern. When you look at those numbers, decreasing with each step up the academic hierarchy, you’re seeing evidence of a broad social problem, and you’re seeing institutions that are not doing enough to do what they can independently to rectify it.
You’re part of what seems like a generation or a minigeneration of humanist academics, some with jobs in the academy and some without, who have turned to larger audiences, trade books, and intellectual journalism in places like n+ 1 and so forth, in new numbers, with new intensity. Besides your public writing, you also teach first-year college writing as a contingent faculty member. What’s the relationship between these two worlds?
I saw the scholar and critic Merve Emre say on social media that she has two jobs — she has a job as a critic, as someone who writes literary criticism and writes books for a general audience, and then she has a job as an academic. I don’t have a job as a tenure-track professor, so I don’t really think of myself as having a job as an academic. But I would agree with her that in a lot of ways, these are two just nonoverlapping jobs. I have a job as a full-time teacher of undergraduates, and I have a job as a full-time writer of reviews and criticism and books, and never the twain shall meet.
You’re right to say that there seems like there has been a kind of cross-pollination, but I don’t know that actually pursuing those careers together allows for much real entwinement, ultimately. What we’re observing is a nonviable marketplace for people who went into Ph.D. programs.
I realized pretty early on in my Ph.D. program that I was not going to get the job that I was trained to do. And, I should say, I felt that I was being trained for a job. I didn’t think that I was acquiring a sort of general critical mind. I was being taught: This is how you make an intervention in a particular field; this is how you conduct yourself in a conference; this is the kind of research that you need to do in a particular discipline, this is how you teach undergraduates, etc.
I was doing that fully knowing I was never going to actually do that work in the future, or that I would do some of the work, such as teaching undergraduates, but under very different conditions than the ones presented to me in grad school. And that’s part of what, for me, prompted the shift to writing in other venues. I imagine this motivates a lot of the younger academics doing that work — the fear of not having any way to support yourself.
I realize that now there’s also pressure for young academics who do plan on being professors to also do public writing, and that strikes me as an incredible burden, and not directly relevant to what constitutes the vast majority of their responsibilities in those jobs. Of course, there may be situations when it’s appropriate, such as someone applying to teach creative writing who holds a Ph.D. in creative writing, but most of the time I think it’s just asking too much of applicants.
In a way, this takes us back to the institute: for all her interest in high-achieving women, Bunting also recognized that you couldn’t just tell women to be more ambitious and work harder and “lean in”— you had to give them institutional support, tools and resources, money. Otherwise you’re placing all the burden on individuals to overcome structural inequality and combat exploitation. It’s too much! Maybe there’s a lesson here for academics as well: You can’t just tell graduate students and contingent faculty to publish more and work harder. You have to provide them with the material support — child care, health care, a living wage — that would allow them to do so.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.