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Florence in Words

Adrienne Rich and Amy Swerdlow: Two Deaths in One Week





Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich
I know precisely how I first met Adrienne Rich. It was 1963, and I had invited Robert Lowell to read at Goucher College, where I ran a poetry series. He arrived with a small woman in tow, and announced to me and the audience that Adrienne Rich would share his platform. I can even remember the outrage I felt at that moment, though most of it dissipated once she began to read from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, her about-to-be published book. The next day I learned that Adrienne had been at Harvard when Elaine Hedges had been there and that they were “friends.” A few days later the Baltimore Sun asked me to review Adrienne’s new book.

We must have become friends as well, for my next sharp memory is of a ringing phone in my bedroom—perhaps a decade later—and it’s Adrienne on the line. She’d just had a call from a man who had just realized, he said, that though the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education had commissioned 100 books, not one of them included women or addressed the “problems” of women in higher education. The man who had called her had been a colleague of her former husband, an economist at Harvard.

She had told him she would find someone else who could take on the assignment, and she said she had thought of me at once, since I was involved with the MLA. I agreed to take it on only if she would work with me. I remember Adrienne’s brief response in her clipped tones: “I cannot write prose.” And I remember my response: “Nonsense. Your poetry is in sentences. Of course you can write prose. I won’t do it without you.”

We chose two other people to work with us, and so sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, and lawyer Aleta Wallach joined us in writing Women and the Power to Change, published in 1975 in a small cloth edition, and a year later in an unattractive paperback. Adrienne’s essay, “Towards a Woman-Centered University,” deservedly became a classic, as did Arlie’s essay, “Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers.” Mine was the title essay, and perhaps the most important essay long-range was Aleta’s, “A View from the Law School,” which argued that we live under “the rule of men, not the rule of law.”

Most unusual, from the point of the man who had asked us to write this book was the Introduction I wrote, which was a product of our meetings: it placed us in our personal lives as well as our academic professions, and it was forthright about our commitments to activism and political work. Interestingly, it was the personal material that the editors of the Carnegie series wanted cut. We refused of course, and the book appeared as we had written it.

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Amy Swerdlow
Amy Swerdlow
Amy Swerdlow came into my life along with Bella Abzug and Judy Lerner, in part because of my move to New York in 1971, and later, because of beach house summer life in East Hampton, and chiefly because of the Feminist Press. Amy was on the Board of Directors in the first years of the Press’ life in the 1980s, and she was one of the people who helped imagine the 12 books in the series called Women’s Lives/Women’s Work. With Joan Kelly, Renata Bridenthal, and Phyllis Vine as contributors, she edited the volume called Household and Kin, and took on the writing of an important chapter on utopias.

In the late seventies, when I lived in Ohio for a year and had no apartment in New York, Amy’s huge and gorgeous apartment in the Beresford on Central Park West and 79th Street became my home. I’m certain that she knew she was teaching me how to dress, what kinds of clothes and shoes to buy. The year I went to India, she handed me half a dozen dresses from her closet, though I had to try them on first to see whether they were “right” for me. She even took me to her hairdresser. I was too old to be her daughter, but I longed to have her style, her good taste, her ability to be a forerunner. I especially admired the way in which she controlled her space and loved her family. I, too, loved Stanley, her husband.

Amy was very proud of her family, and I remember the moment when both she and her son Ezra were enrolled somewhat competitively in Rutgers’s doctoral program in history, that she eschewed the prize that could have gone to her, saying that it would be better for Ezra’s future that he win it. I never tired of hearing her brag about her children and her grandchildren.

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What connects both these women, apart from their deaths within days of each other and their age, less than ten years apart? Their activism, not only on behalf of women, but the complex nature of their political thinking, their consciousness about connections among women, racism, war, class bias, gay and lesbian bias. I was a better activist in their company. I also loved them for their wisdom, Adrienne, for the beauty of her utterance and Amy, for her generosity and humor. Both of them could be blunt. Both of them could be kind. I will miss them.
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