To say that feminist author and poet Adrienne Rich is award-winning would be an understatement. The list of awards she has been honored with is truly impressive, as was her 1997 refusal to accept the prestigious National Medal of Arts, in protest of a vote to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration…[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”.
You can read her complete statement regarding her reasons for declining the award, as well as some other online essays here.
Born to Arnold Rice Rich, a pathologist who served as Chairman at Johns Hopkins Medical School and Helen Elizabeth Jones, a composer and concert pianist, Rich was something of a child prodigy. Home-schooled by her parents, who had an extensive library, until the 4th grade, she was well-prepared for Radcliffe College. While still in her last year there, her first collection of poetry was chosen by poet W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship award to study at Oxford.
She married Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad in 1953, and became the mother of three sons. Her work soon began to reflect her experiences as a mother and how those experiences affected her identity as a woman, both personally and within the larger society. Because it also reflected her anger at the social injustices suffered by women as a whole, and mothers in particular, she was somewhat censured by the literary community as a result. In response to those who called her work radical, she stated openly that
“The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”
One manifestation of that “radicalization” was her becoming politically active in ways which led to her husband questioning her sanity and a divorce in 1970. Her causes for political activism included racial, as well as gender, equality. She would become one of the first modern female authors to publicly acknowledge their homosexuality, and to question the validity of “compulsory” heterosexuality.
Adrienne Rich had already won the 1974 National Book Award, along with Alan Ginsberg, by the time her highly influential book “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution“ was published in 1976. That was the same year that she began her life-long partnership with novelist Michelle Cliff. The subject matter remains so relevant that the book still receives five star ratings on Goodreads today. Excerpts from the book were also included in Brenda Hillman‘s 2003 anthology, The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood.
Some of the themes that Rich felt it was important to address in the book include rape, childbirth, the effects of economic dependence, laws regulating contraception, and the lack of social benefits for mothers. According to her,
“motherhood is more fundamental than tribalism or nationalism in that every human is born of a woman.
She questions the extent to which women have been robbed of the natural experience, and creative power, of motherhood. For example, she questions the practice of replacing midwives with doctors in hospitals.
The book presents a historical overview of motherhood while demonstrating the ways in which patriarchal culture
“has created images of the archetypal Mother which reinforce the conservatism of motherhood and convert it to an energy for the renewal of male power.”
She asserts that the modern division of labor gave mothers almost exclusive responsibility for child-rearing, while limiting the rewards, both social and financial.
Adrienne Rich sought to liberate women from the unrealistic aspects of that responsibility by pointing out that much of what women have been taught to believe is part of their nature is actually the result of social engineering. One of the most compelling concepts in the book is the argument for increasing awareness of the connection between the experience of motherhood and artistic creativity.
Feminist author and intellectual Susan Sontag, in the afterword to the book, said
“There are ways of thinking that we don’t know about. Nothing could be more important or precious than that knowledge, however unborn. The sense of urgency, the spiritual restlessness it engenders, cannot be appeased . . . “
It seems that the process of assimilating that precious knowledge is still ongoing, as evidenced by this page of quotes from the book.
A champion for social equality, Rich worked tirelessly for positive change in societies’ treatment of women around the world. She was an active member of many advisory boards, like the Boston Women’s Fund, the Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa, as well as the National Writer’s Union. When she was awarded the 2003 Yale Bollington Prize for American Poetry, the panel of judges applauded her
“honesty at once ferocious, humane, her deep learning, and her continuous poetic exploration and awareness of multiple selves.”
We owe her a debt of gratitude for reminding us just how complexly and powerfully creative mothers really are.
Here is another article on Rich and Maternal Ideals.