A Woman with a Certain Mission: Adrienne Rich’s Liberative Feminism and Poetics

In her foreword to On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose (1979), Adrienne Rich addressed the single most important question feminists have been asking since before the American Civil War: “How shall we ever make the world intelligent on our movement?” In truth, it is too large and too general of a question to answer on its own. Instead, Rich approached it from a different angle by saying “I do not think the answer lies in trying to render feminism easy, popular, and instantly gratifying. To conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention.” For Rich, the answer to the question exists in its opposite reasoning: feminist movement is not about achieving mass appeal; it is concerned with breaking out of conventional notions of what it means to be a woman within the patriarchal system. It means unplugging from oppressive modes of thought and doing the hard work of analyzing feminine (as well as masculine) ideas of the self. In this sense, Adrienne Rich was one of the most important feminist thinkers to contribute to the ongoing feminist struggle for liberation since the late 1960s. But she was more than a brilliant radical feminist thinker. She was also a dynamic and highly influential poet who opened up endless possibilities for how other poets could articulate their experiences. Through Adrienne Rich, woman-centered thinking was introduced into a poetry landscape that had been dominated by male thinkers, essentially shifting the poetic consciousness into a more balanced state between masculine and feminine thought. Rich was a crucial figure within the feminist liberation movement and the contemporary poetry community because she brought both groups into harmony with each other. This essay will examine Adrienne Rich as an important feminist thinker and as a captivating American poet by exploring some of her ideas about feminist politics and providing close readings of two poems in terms of her political and aesthetic sensibilities.

Rich was concerned with numerous key issues surrounding the female experience: lesbianism, motherhood, and tokenism, as well as overarching issues involving sex, race, class, and oppression in all its forms. Her scope was not limited to the United States; she was deeply invested in global issues and how they impacted women everywhere. What made Rich incredibly significant as a feminist was how she routinely focused on the most oppressed groups of women—those who were marked by poverty, illiteracy, and experienced the most brutal realities of inequality. She continually drew attention to women who had suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, rape, sterilization, as well as women who were forced into unskilled wage labor, who had little or no access to healthcare, education, or the means to improve their conditions. She made these women the central concern of her feminist politics, along with the stigmatization of lesbianism that burdened women across race and class lines. Growing up part Jewish during WWII, she was acutely aware of religious prejudice, and how being Jewish served as another way to be marked as existing outside the norm of American society in the mid-twentieth century. Adrienne Rich earned her credibility as a feminist activist through her efforts to specifically confront white privilege within the feminist movement and the ways it shielded white women from having to account for the realities of Black female experience. Recognizing her own privilege as a white middle-class woman, she chose to align herself with the common woman rather than the exceptional woman, making her one of the most well-known and deeply-admired feminists the movement has ever embraced.

A major issue Rich was concerned with was the education of women. She felt that one of the most important ways women could attain full liberation was through higher learning. But more than that, she believed in learning not as a passive act, but as an engaged one. In order for women to move forward individually and collectively, they needed to become active participants in the pursuit of knowledge of all types: intellectual, emotional, sensual, sexual, and artistic. Most importantly, they needed self-knowledge. In “Claiming an Education” a talk she gave to Douglass College students in 1977, she said “…I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you, in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves.” For Rich, personal responsibility is the most important component of education because it creates a deeper awareness of the self in relation to society. She elaborated by saying that

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies and minds are inseparable in this life, and when we allow our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind.

Liberation involves taking an active role in obtaining an education, but it also means learning to be authentic, to use the resources within in order to evolve into a more complete human being. This means learning how to see the world, and live in the world, as a woman, to know and understand the world through the female perspective. It also means regarding the mind and the body as both feminine in nature, and honoring it as such. When women come to regard themselves in this respect, it allows them to take more agency in their lives and in their personal relationships.

Even as Rich saw education as a way to obtain many types of knowledge, she also saw it as a way for women to gain access to the larger female historical tradition. In “Taking Women Students Seriously” a talk given to the New Jersey College and University Coalition on Women’s Education in 1978, she explained

Suppose we were to ask ourselves, simply: What does a woman need to know? Does she not, as a self-conscious, self-defining human being, need a knowledge of her own history, her much-politicized biology, an awareness of the creative work of women of the past, the skills and crafts and techniques and powers exercised by women in different times and cultures, a knowledge of women’s rebellions and organized movements against our oppression and how they have been routed or diminished? Without such knowledge women live and have lived without context, vulnerable to the projections of male fantasy, male prescriptions for us, estranged from our own experience because our education has not reflected or echoed it. I would suggest that not biology, but ignorance of our selves, has been the key to our powerlessness.

The point of focus in this passage deals with a common problem faced by most women: they have “lived without context” and are “vulnerable to the projections of male fantasy.” As a result, women are “estranged” from their historical roots. This is a crucial situation Rich elaborated on in many of the essays she wrote: the woman who has been cut off from learning about the female tradition. According to Rich, inequality of the sexes is not biological, but systemic. Ignorance is the result of centuries of being denied access to a specific kind of education, which is the education of “our selves”—of the female experience. It is this kind of education Rich encouraged women to pursue above all, as a way to grow personally and collectively as women rather than through skewed male notions of what it means to be a woman. When women gain knowledge of their own tradition, they become authentic, productive, self-realized human beings.

Female tokenism was another issue pertinent to feminist politics that Adrienne Rich focused on in terms of the damage it could do not only to individual women but to women as a whole. In “What Does a Woman Need to Know?” a commencement address she gave to Smith College students in 1979, she laid out a full, straightforward definition:

This is the meaning of female tokenism: that power withheld from the vast majority of women is offered to a few, so that it appears that any “truly qualified” woman can gain access to leadership, recognition, and reward; hence, that justice based on merit actually prevails. The token woman is encouraged to see herself as different from most other women, as exceptionally talented and deserving, and to separate herself from the wider female condition; and she is perceived by “ordinary” women as separate also, perhaps even as stronger than themselves.

In the first part of the definition, female tokenism puts forth the idea that “any ‘truly qualified’ woman can gain access to leadership, recognition, and reward.” It gives the impression that through the example of a few gifted women, all women can conceivably live the merit-based life of a token woman. However, this idea is in conflict with the second part of the definition wherein “The token woman is encouraged to see herself as different from most other women” and to “separate herself from the wider female condition.” In order to participate in tokenism, a woman must cut herself off from womanhood in every sense and therefore, give up what makes her truly female. This definition has tremendous consequences as Rich went on to explain that

Tokenism essentially demands that the token deny her identification with women as a group, especially with women less privileged than she: if she is a lesbian, that she deny her relationships with individual women; that she perpetuate rules and structures and criteria and methodologies which have functioned to exclude women; that she renounce or leave undeveloped the critical perspective of her female consciousness.

By denying her womanhood and cutting ties with other groups of women, the token performs the primary function of serving the needs of systems and institutions that are oppressive (sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist). The true purpose of the token is to “perpetuate the rules and structures and criteria and methodologies which have functioned to exclude women” so that female exceptionalism appears attainable and progressive, but is in fact unrealistic for most women, and therefore, counterproductive and harmful to all of society. Even worse, the token is expected to “leave undeveloped the critical perspective of her female consciousness.” This means the token will never progress as a woman because she is kept from exploring her personal nature, which is female at its core, and instead lives the life of a stunted, incomplete human being. Tokenism is problematic because instead of fostering unity, it creates artificial boundaries between the exceptional woman, which is illusory, and the common woman, which reflects the true reality of female experience. With this invisible division in place, the larger female population suffers because it has to constantly combat false notions of what it means to be a successful woman in contemporary society. As a result, the real problems of sexism and oppression continue to go unnoticed. Instead of tokenism, Rich advocates for all women to nurture selfhood in order to enact genuine change in a way that will be both personally and collectively uplifting:

The insistence of the feminist movement, that each woman’s selfhood is precious, that the feminine ethic of self-denial and self-sacrifice must give way to a true woman identification, which would affirm our connectedness with all women, is perverted into a commercially profitable and politically debilitating narcissism. It is important for each of you, toward whom many of these messages are especially directed, to discriminate clearly between “liberated life style” and feminist struggle, and to make a conscious choice.

For Rich, tokenism is a self-centered pursuit that stands in opposition to feminist struggle which is a collective movement invested in the betterment of all women’s lives. For women to truly achieve liberation, feminist struggle is the preferred path over tokenism.

Adrienne Rich was one of the most outspoken critics in regards to institutional oppression, which is patriarchal at its roots and only benefits those who prescribe to white male dominant thought. She linked power with patriarchy and saw institutions as the apparatuses through which patriarchal thinking manifests itself. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986), she gave a concrete explanation of how institutions function within the patriarchal structure:

When we think of an institution, we can usually see it as embodied in a building: the Vatican, the Pentagon, the Sorbonne, the Treasury, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Kremlin, the Supreme Court. What we cannot see, until we become close students of the institution, are the ways in which power is maintained and transferred behind the walls and beneath the domes, the invisible understandings which guarantee that it shall reside in certain hands but not in others, that information shall be transmitted to this one but not to that one, the hidden collusions and connections with other institutions of which it is supposedly independent.

Institutions are visible through the architectural structures of buildings, serving as physical symbols of patriarchal power, and they are invisible in the ways that control is managed inside these buildings through their implicit interconnectedness. In Of Woman Born Rich analyzed motherhood as an institutional form that functions in conjunction with patriarchy. This was a truly groundbreaking analysis because Rich explicitly showed how motherhood, throughout history, has been used to perpetuate patriarchal societal structures through religion, science, the medical industry, psychology, and cultural norms. However, a major challenge to understanding motherhood as an institution is that it is difficult to visualize. As Rich explained “When we think of the institution of motherhood, no symbolic architecture comes to mind, no visible embodiment of authority, power, or of potential or actual violence. Motherhood calls to mind the home, and we like to believe that the home is a private place.” Institutional motherhood is pervasive because it exists within the intimate confines of the home—the private realm. As a result “Institutional motherhood revives and renews all other institutions.”

In the chapter “The Kingdom of the Fathers” Rich explicitly demonstrated how motherhood functions as an institution serving patriarchal needs. To begin, she gave a definition of patriarchy:

Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.

In her definition, the main point of focus is the concept of male control of the female through various avenues, most of which are ideological in nature. She went on to explain that “The power of the fathers has been difficult to grasp because it permeates everything, even the language in which we try to describe it. It is diffuse and concrete; symbolic and literal; universal, and expressed with local variations which obscure its universality.” Much like the institution of motherhood, the power of the fathers is largely invisible, but it exists within the very elements that help society function. With this in mind, Rich narrowed her definition of patriarchy even further: “At the core of patriarchy is the individual family unit which originated with the idea of property and the desire to see one’s property transmitted to one’s biological descendants.” In short, patriarchy, at its most basic root, functions in the form of the family unit, and the concept of motherhood is translated through this patriarchal familial arrangement: “…every mother must deliver her children over within a few years of their birth to the patriarchal system of education, of law, of religion, of sexual codes; she is, in fact, expected to prepare them to enter that system without rebelliousness or ‘maladjustment’ and to perpetuate it in their own adult lives.” This is the unspoken expectation of motherhood: that it serves as the primary institution for conditioning children to become productive citizens within the patriarchal system.

For Rich, feminist struggle was the solution to breaking apart the institution of motherhood, thereby ending patriarchy, which depends on women to give birth to new citizens ripe for social conditioning. Therefore, the most important part of feminist struggle involves the act of educating oneself by any means necessary. In an interview Rich gave with David Montenegro for American Poetry Review in 1991, she put forth an apt example of why education is so central to the feminist movement:

In fall, 1986, the New York Times published yet another article about the young white woman of thirty-eight who is an attorney and feels the biological clock ticking. And the last paragraph began: “At a time when the women’s movement is virtually invisible…” I brought that article to my class in feminist theory. I also brought in an armful of publications that had been lying around my house, from all over the world, from the global women’s movement. And I said: “All right: here’s this pile of papers, journals, newsletters, pamphlets. It’s concrete, it’s here, it’s visible. And here you have a statement that the women’s movement is virtually invisible. Now to whom is it invisible? And why? And who is saying that it is invisible? And who benefits if it is?

The issues pertinent to the feminist movement—the need for women to educate themselves, the falseness and contradictory nature of tokenism, and the institution of motherhood as a means to perpetuate patriarchy—are still central problems within contemporary society. Furthermore, it is important to note that feminist struggle for liberation has not ended; it is ongoing—and it is only invisible to the powerful groups of society (the media, politicians, supporters of patriarchal thought) because it serves their interests not to point to it or to give it its proper space within the larger landscape of contemporary concerns. This is the primary reason why Rich emphasized education as a means to liberation: with knowledge comes the ability to enact changes at a personal and societal level that benefit women as a whole rather than a patriarchal system that exists only to serve the needs of those who promote white male dominant thought. It is also worth pointing out that many of the talks and speeches Rich gave were aimed at a female audience (particularly young college students). One reason for this was that she hoped those women who were in the process of educating themselves in an institutional setting would take her ideas about feminist struggle to heart and incorporate them into their educational experience, and in the long run, seek to use the skills they obtained to aid all women through liberative means rather than uphold a patriarchal system that is catastrophically oppressive.

Along with being an important feminist thinker, Adrienne Rich was a gifted poet, and she saw both roles as being deeply intertwined. In Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986) she poignantly explained that “To write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience, to take women’s existence seriously as theme and source for art, was something I had been hungering to do, needing to do, all my writing life.” This goal became more pronounced in the middle part of her writing career, starting with her most important work Diving into the Wreck (1973), although the need to express a female-centered voice was clearly apparent in her early work as well. Rich came into her own as a poet when she began to write in forms that suited her personal voice; her poems opened up, became more intense and lyrical, and explored topics in a more direct fashion, such as lesbianism, sex, love, womanhood, and politics. Female solitude is another subject that runs all throughout Rich’s poetry and serves as a nice contrast to the more politically-charged work, emphasizing a singular, internal, feminized voice. One such poem that does this is “Song” from Diving into the Wreck. Here are the first two stanzas:

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

This is a stand-out poem in the collection for the way it incorporates the lyric into the stanza form. Most of the poems in the collection are written in a free verse style, accommodating a speaker who converses in an intimate tone. Here, the speaker uses image and metaphor to convey loneliness. These first two stanzas also employ motion as a way to communicate the feeling of loneliness: “a plane” that “rides lonely and level / on its radio beam” and “a woman driving across country / day after day.” These metaphors enact movement, but it is slow and occurs over long distances, suggesting a type of loneliness that is ongoing and almost without end. The “Rockies,” “ocean,” and “little towns” are suggestive of slowness: objects that change gradually over time, but essentially remain the same. They also become metaphorical in regards to the speaker’s experience of loneliness. Here are the last two stanzas:

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

These stanzas enact a shift in the poem: everything suddenly becomes very still. The third stanza describes a loneliness “of waking first, of breathing / dawn’s first cold breath on the city,” which suggests isolation, but also a kind of alertness “of being the one awake / in a house wrapped in sleep.” The final stanza employs loneliness as a feeling of being stuck: “the rowboat ice-fast on the shore / in the last red light of the year,” but what is interesting is that the speaker gives the boat a sense of awareness: “that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither / ice nor mud nor winter light / but wood, with a gift for burning.” The final phrase “a gift for burning,” is loaded with complex meaning because it is where the boat turns into a transcendent object; it becomes an offering as well as a source of heat, presumably for the speaker. In this sense, the boat and loneliness become intertwined, transforming the concept of loneliness into a purposeful feeling that warms and sustains the speaker.

The poem “Dreamwood,” from Time’s Power (1989) examines female solitude from a different angle, using one simple image—a typing stand—as its point of focus, from the perspective of a woman who uses her meditative abilities to imagine new possibilities for herself. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In the old, scratched, cheap wood of the typing stand
there is a landscape, veined, which only a child can see
or the child’s older self,
a woman dreaming when she should be typing
the last report of the day.    If this were a map,
she thinks, a map laid down to memorize
because she might be walking it, it shows
ridge upon ridge fading into hazed desert,
here and there a sign of aquifers
and one possible watering-hole.    If this were a map
it would be the map of the last age of her life,
not a map of choices but a map of variations
on the one great choice. It would be the map by which
she could see the end of touristic choices,
of distances blued and purpled by romance,
by which she would recognize that poetry
isn’t revolution but a way of knowing
why it must come.      If this cheap, massproduced
wooden stand from the Brooklyn Union Gas Co.,
massproduced yet durable, being here now,
is what it is yet a dream-map
so obdurate, so plain,
she thinks, the material and the dream can join
and that is the poem and that is the late report.

The points of interest in this poem employ lyrical flourishes. For example, the phrase “If this were a map” sets up a metaphorical meditation about what the woman sees in the desk. “If this were a map,” “it shows / ridge upon ridge fading into hazed desert / here and there a sign of aquifers / and one possible watering-hole.” The typing stand is a map, but it is also a journey: “If this were a map / it would be the map of the last age of her life, / not a map of choices but a map of variations / on the one great choice.” Here, both the typing stand and the map become complicated in that they show the woman “choices” and “variations / on the one great choice.” The ending lines of the poem describe the typing stand as “cheap, massproduced,” “massproduced yet durable,” “being here now,” “so obdurate, so plain,” but also what the typing stand could be: “a dream-map.” The typing stand as a common, functional object traditionally used by low-level professional women becomes a springboard for possibility, allowing the woman to “recognize that poetry / isn’t revolution but a way of knowing / why it must come” and to visualize the ways that functionality and artistic liberation can become unified: “the material and the dream can join / and that is the poem and that is the late report.” Although “Dreamwood” at its core is a free verse poem with lyrical, imagistic, and metaphorical elements, it is also political in nature, suggesting that female liberation can occur even in the most presumably thoughtless occupations through the solitary meditative discovery of poetic possibility.

“Song” and “Dreamwood” represent Adrienne Rich’s principal talent as a poet: her ability to bring poetry and politics into one harmonious mode from a woman-centered perspective. What could be said about Rich is that she brought female experience into the forefront of the poetic landscape through aesthetics, personal experience, imagination, and the creative desire to open up possibilities for what poetry could be. Her poetry was informed by her involvement in the feminist movement; she had the rare ability to articulate what she saw happening to women in mid-to-late twentieth century American society and connect it to the larger problem of patriarchal oppression. Adrienne Rich’s most impressive qualities consisted of her willingness to express how her past personal experiences played into the larger issues of oppression (sexism, racism, and classism) and her continued desire to adjust her own thinking so that it could be more effectively aligned with the larger goal of achieving liberation through feminist struggle. She continues to serve as an example for how to go about achieving a stronger sense of self through education, lived experience, and the pursuit of literary excellence. Through Rich, the feminist movement thrived, and continues to thrive, influencing and inspiring those who are interested in enacting tangible changes on a personal and communal level in order to create a healthy society that serves the needs of all human beings.

March 2, 2020