It was called “a messy experiment” by its founder. It became a hub of creativity that helped propel forward the women it engaged, and the women’s movement, in crucial ways.
The timing was right for Mary Ingraham Bunting and her audacious new plan. It was 1960, and a cultural war had been brewing since the late 1950s. Women were seeking higher education in increasing numbers and pushing back against strict gender roles in the home and the workplace, and the approval of the birth control pill by the Food and Drug Administration in 1959 was allowing them, for the first time, to take charge of their child-bearing years and careers.
That was the backdrop against which “Polly” Bunting, the newly minted president of Radcliffe College, launched the new Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (since reincarnated as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study). A microbiologist by training, Bunting was eager to create a place for women whose academic and professional lives had been put on hold by the demands of motherhood and family life. She dreamed of a space where promising, high-achieving women could study, research, write, read, and find community with like-minded peers. These “intellectually displaced women” would receive a stipend to spend as they wished, an office, access to Harvard’s libraries and professors, and the gift of unfettered time.
Author Maggie Doherty chronicles that shift in her new book, “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s.” The work charts the story of the center’s infancy through the lives of five of its earliest fellows: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin; writer and labor activist Tillie Olsen; sculptor Mariana Pineda; and painter Barbara Swan. Their time at the Institute, and with one another, would shape their future successes, and their work would influence the early women’s liberation movement and later inform and inspire new expressions of women’s equality and empowerment.