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

Knopf. May 2020. 400p. ISBN 9781524733056. $28.95. LIT
In 1960, Radcliffe College president Mary Ingraham Bunting established the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, offering paid fellowships to women looking to restart stalled scholarly or artistic careers. Historian Doherty’s study of the early years of the institute generally centers on a group of women who called themselves the “Equivalents”—poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olson, painter Barbara Swan, and sculptor Marianna Pineda—as each had been accepted into the school’s program for possessing the “equivalent” of a doctorate in creative achievement. The work also alternates between facets of the institute and its fellows: the difficulties of women seeking creative careers in the mid-20th century; the fellows’ responses to the beginnings of second-wave feminism; the institute’s complex relationship to underprivileged women and women of color; and the benefit of providing a supportive community for women’s scholarly pursuits.
VERDICT Doherty’s overall galvanizing look at a little-explored conjunction of critical feminist voices should incite provocative historical context to current-day discussions around the need for more support of women’s intellectual work.
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