In 1960, Radcliffe College announced the founding of an Institute for Independent Study, offering fellowships to women with a PhD or 'the equivalent' in artistic success. Doherty follows poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen as they navigate the Institute, friendship, and the fraught path of art-making in a man's world.
... electricity is palpable in Doherty’s pages. I have rarely, if ever, read a work of non-fiction that chronicled relationships like these, with women in conversation about everything except men. Even Sylvia Plath appears without Ted Hughes, befriending Sexton at a poetry seminar in Boston. There were moments when I wanted to know more about the rest of their lives—the troubles in Sexton’s marriage, including her multiple affairs, are mentioned only in passing. But I understood, also, why Doherty focuses so tightly on the Institute. Her book is a love story about art and female friendship ... I consumed both Wade and Doherty’s books at a furious speed, scrawling notes in the margins with greater-than-usual intensity, pausing occasionally to let the ideas sink in. The urgency with which their subjects—ten between them, extending across more than a century—negotiated the demands of intellect and life is timeless. Women must undertake that project anew in each generation because the social structures to support it do not exist. We are still trying to figure it out.
... [an] engaging work of cultural biography ... Doherty provides lively glimpses of the individual trajectories and projects of these artists, both in the years leading up to and after their time at Radcliffe. Olsen’s complicated relationship with the academy is well evoked, as are Sexton’s volatility ... Doherty may be less interested in the visual artists; or perhaps there exists less documentation of their thoughts and experiences ... Doherty’s attention to these early Radcliffe fellows is tempered by her awareness of the institute’s homogeneity at the time with respect to race and, for the most part, class ... This endeavor simultaneously to offer a broader context for the Radcliffe Institute and to cover a large period of time — from 1957 to the mid-1970s — ultimately renders The Equivalents somewhat diffuse, and in places it can feel skimpy. While Sexton’s and Kumin’s lives are thoroughly documented (and have been told elsewhere), Swan’s and Pineda’s in particular are only briefly handled. Doherty isn’t notably a stylist, and her descriptions can be perfunctory ... It’s hard to tell whether the book’s primary interest lies in portraying the complicated and demanding friendships among Kumin, Sexton and Olsen in the context of what is now the Radcliffe Institute, or in representing, at speed, the diverse strands of feminist activism and scholarship in the late ’60s and ’70s. Doherty tries to address all of these, in part, one suspects, because the subjects of her title — the five 'Equivalents' — seem, from a contemporary intersectional perspective, potentially problematic: They were white, and, with the exception of Olsen, educated and largely well-off ... Doherty’s account, may have its flaws, but The Equivalents is nevertheless an illuminating contribution to our history.
The book reads like a novel, and an intense one at that ... Doherty closes with a comparison of that era with ours. What has changed for women over 60 years, what remains the same and what is worse? Was all that struggle and angst and creative turmoil for nothing? She doesn't think so, and neither do I. I once lived in that distant country, and I'm grateful to the author of The Equivalents for reminding me that I have no wish to return.