Thursday, March 31, 2022

Abigail’s Dear John Letter Laid Down Early Demands for the Ladies

Abigail Adams, painted here as the first mistress of the Executive Mansion in Washington D.C., kept up a frequent and detailed correspondence with her husband John while he was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

On this date in 1776 as the Revolutionary War was still young and Boston was besieged by George Washington Abigail Adams sent a letter to her husband John who was in Philadelphia as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts.  The success of the war against the most powerful empire in the world was far from assured and the Declaration of Independence, of which John was a prime mover, was yet months away.  But amidst the turmoil Mrs. Adams admonished her husband not to neglect, as male governors had done from time immemorial, rights and needs of women.  

In the midst of a lengthy, chatty letter filled with news from home she included one remarkable passage not even a full paragraph:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Abigail may have regarded the threat of rebellion with tongue firmly in cheek.  For his part John did not seem to take it seriously, although he frequently relied on his wife’s advice.  Certainly, neither he nor Congress did anything about it.  To lawyer Adams, women’s rights and privileges would certainly continue to be constrained by English Common Law which is to say they hardly existed.  Women were and would remain virtual chattel first of their fathers and then of their husbands.  Even widows and spinsters had precious little control of their property or affairs.

Abigail's noted comment was contained in a short passage of the lengthy three page letter.

Mrs. Adams was 32 years old that year and the mother of five children.  She was every inch the match of her husband, well read, keenly intelligent, strong willed, and independent.  She comfortably mastered raising her brood and managing the affairs of the family and their small stone farm during the long absences—months, even years—while her husband was away helping to invent America and serve it interests.  In New England where many wives of merchant traders, fishermen, and sea farers had to cope with such long absences perhaps women were more used to self-sufficiency than in other regions where they mostly stayed with their mates on family farms or tended house in villages and towns.

Since the letter was not a public document, it roused no movement among women who might have been similarly disposed.  It was not published until 1848 when Abigail’s grandson Charles Francis Adams included it in his multi-volume compendium of their correspondence.  Of interest mostly to serious historians, the books were not widely read, and little special notice was given to a single passage which was not echoed anywhere else in the collection of missives.

Susan B. Anthony, above, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Abigail's phrases in the first volume of their monumental History of Woman Suffrage more than 100 years after she wrote it.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took note of the letter in the first volume of their epic multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage which was first published in 1886.  Slowly the quote spread in the suffrage movement largely to add a connection to the nation’s founders.

But it was the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that really made the passage famousGloria Steinem featured it proximately in early issues of MS. Magazine and was featured on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and demonstration placards.  In the 21st Century it has become widely shared as a meme.

Dozens of widely circulated memes keep Abigail's words alive on the internet.

Whatever Abigail intended by her passing comment, it certainly has grown legs.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Calamity or Martha Jane—Myth and Mundane Reality in the Old West

One of the most widely seen photographs of Calamity Jane taken in 1885 when she was 33 years old and already exploiting a growing public reputation,  Commonly used by debunkers to counter the glamorized portrayals in fiction and film.

Calamity Jane is a semi-mythical character out of the rootin’ tootin’ Wild West famous for being famous.  She is a character with serious schizophrenia.  On the one hand she has been portrayed as just an All-American Tom Boy with a crush on Wild Bill Hickok in innumerable novels and in movies.  She was portrayed by Jean Arthur opposite Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly inaccurate The Plainsman, by busty Jane Russell in the Bob Hope farce The Paleface, by chipper Doris Day in the musical romp Calamity Jane, and more grimly by Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill.  Angelica Huston got a crack at the part in the TV miniseries based on Larry McMurtrys Buffalo Girls opposite Sam Eliots Hickok.  Jane Alexander played her in the western cum family tearjerker TV movie also called Calamity Jane.

On the other hand, there are the professional western de-bunkers who depict Calamity as a vicious bull dyke, prostitute, drunk, and an inveterate liar who made up most of her alleged exploits.  The latter, in the age of tearing down icons, is increasingly the more popular view these days and frequently gets expressed in books, articles, and in portrayals like that of Robin Weigert in the fine, profane HBO mini-series Deadwood.  These portrayals paint her as ugly based on photographs taken of her when she was trying to exploit her image to make a living.

Perky Doris Day, like Jean Artur before her portrayed Calamity as a loveable all American Tomboy in a real romance with Wild Bill.

So, who was the real Calamity?  

Well, the debunkers have the evidence of her death on August 1, 1903.  She was carried dead drunk from a train from Belle Fouche, South Dakota where she had been working as a cook in a brothel operated by an old friend, madam Dora DuFran and taken to the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota, where she hemorrhaged and died at the presumed age of 51.

At her request her body was returned to her old stomping grounds in Deadwood and buried next to Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the city.  She reportedly made the request, which was honored by her friends who raised money for the grave site and a monument, because she claimed that “Bill was the only man I ever loved.”  Both graves are a popular tourist pilgrimage sites to this day.

She started out as Martha Jane Canary on May 1, 1852 to a hardscrabble farmer in Mercer County, Missouri just south of the Iowa border.  She was the eldest of a family that grew to include five more children.

Little is known of her early life.  After the Civil War in 1865 her father packed the family into a covered wagon and lit out for Virginia City, the gold mining boom town and new capital of Montana Territory.  The trek took more than six arduous months.  Later in her fictionalized and ghost written Autobiography she claimed that at age 14 on the trip she rode the family horse bare back and honed her skills as hunter to provide meat for the cooking pot. Her mother died “washboard pneumonia” along the route and was buried at Blackfoot, Montana.

Her father was unable to get established in Montana and after a year relocated the family to the Salt Lake Valley where he tried to eke at a living on a 40 acre dust farm on land the Mormons didn’t want.  He died in 1867 leaving teenaged Martha to support the family.

This photo taken in what she later referred to as the "uniform of my sex" circa 1880 hints at the attractive young girl described in the earliest accounts of Martha Jane Canary in the west by those who actually knew her.

She loaded up the wagon and headed east to Fort Bridger, Wyoming where she sold the rig and piled the family onto a Union Pacific train that took them to near-by Piedmont, a railroad boom town whose main industry was lumbering and cutting ties for construction of the Transcontinental Railway.  Jane and her family stayed in the town until 1874 and she supported the brood by taking any jobs she could find—dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl (prostitute), a nurse, and an ox team driver.  Despite her later reputation as ugly, at this point in her life she was described as extremely attractive and as a “pretty dark-eyed girl.”  She still wore conventional women’s clothing including what finery she could assemble to attract customers to her dance hall/brothel duties.

According to her suspect autobiography, Martha Jane began her association with the Army in 1870 when she claimed to have enlisted as a Scout under Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer (still called General by some because of his brevet Civil War) rank at Fort Russell in Cheyenne.  She thus coupled her identity with a famous name.  But the story is impossible.  Custer was never stationed at Ft. Russell and troops from there were not dispatched to Arizona for an Indian campaign where she claims to have served a Scout.  Since Scouts generally needed to be familiar with the territory in which they were operating and a good knowledge of the tribes they were fighting, a youthful girl with no experience in the Southwest would hardly have been enlisted.

Some historians date her involvement with the Army to 1872 under General George Crook at Fort Fetterman, one of the string of posts north of Ft. Laramie meant to enforce the terms of the Sioux Treaty of 1868 which ended Red Clouds War.  She was certainly active there and at other posts by 1874.

Her service was not likely as a Scout, except perhaps unofficially.  She was a teamster, a job critical to logistical support of both the permanent posts and operations in the field.  It was during this period that she began adopting mens clothing, certainly more suitable attire for her work than the cumbersome dresses and skirts of the era.

One Cavalry officer who would have known here during this period, Captain Jack Crawford, told a Montana newspaper after Jane died that she “never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook…never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”

Popular she was on those isolated posts where the men were amused by her ability to curse like the mule skinner she was, drink and carouse the best of them, and probably liberally bestow her sexual favors for fun and profit.

She was beginning to establish a “reputation” and stories circulated.  About this time, she acquired the nick name Calamity.  She claimed it was for rescuing wounded Captain Egan after a running Indian fight outside a small post at Goose Creek, Wyoming about 1872.  This seems to have been a wholly invented yarn.  Other times she told people it was because she warned men that it would be a “risking calamity to offend her.” An old timer recalling her probably got closest to the truth when he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that, “She got her name from a faculty she has had of producing a ruction at any time and place and on short notice.”

Calamity during her brief stay as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

As a teamster Jane visited many posts and may have taken to the field in the baggage train of active campaigns.  She evidently accompanied troops to the Black Hills for the first time in 1874 and was there again the following year.  It was at this time she may—or may not—have made the acquaintance of William Fredrick Cody, the Scout known as Buffalo Bill who would figure in the legends and yarns about her and briefly later employ her in his Wild West Show.

She wintered over at Ft. Laramie where she worked at the Three-Mile Hog Ranch brothel as a prostitute, and reportedly one of the establishment’s top attractions.

At least one instance of her acting in the role of a scout has been verified by contemporary accounts.  In the spring of 1875 accompanying Crook on a second march to the Big Horn.  She was entrusted with “important dispatches.”  She swam the Platte River and made a 90 mile ride soaking wet to Ft. Fetterman to deliver the message.  At the Fort she was taken ill, probably with pneumonia and had to be nursed back to health.  It was on the basis of this confirmed episode that many years after her death the Army granted pension survivor benefits to a woman claiming to be her daughter.

Calamity spent another winter at Ft. Laramie and at her employment at the Hog Ranch before signing on as a Teamster on a Charles Utter wagon train heading north with supplies for the rogue boomtown of Deadwood.  It was on this trip that she met Hickok, a fellow teamster and a meat hunter for the expedition.  They arrived in town in July of 1876.  Jane had enough of a reputation that the Black Hills Pioneer reported “Calamity Jane has arrived.”

Calamity first worked in Dora Dufran's Deadwood brothel when the madame was only 15 years old.  They remained life-long friends and Dufram employed Calamity in various capacities over the years including a final job at her Belle Fouche, South Dakota whorehouse as a cook/dishwasher and tourist curiosity.

She was smitten with Hickok and he was friendly with her, standing her to drinks in the local saloons.  When he decided to stay and take the local miner’s gold at the poker table, Jane decided to stay too, riding mail dispatches to and from Ft. Custer, operating a freight hauling business, and servicing customers for Dora DuFran.

Jane’s later claims that she married Hickok in Benton, Montana in 1873 and that he fathered her daughter Jean, despite being honored by the Army claims board in 1941, were impossible.  Hickok had married Agnes Thatcher Lake, who operated a circus in Cheyenne in March, just before joining the wagon train where he did meet Calamity.

Hickok was famously shot in the back of the head at a poker table in Deadwood on August 2.  Jane later claimed to have personally hunted down his killer, Jack McCall and “arrested” him armed with a meat clever.  It wasn’t true.  She was so depressed by the killing that she drank herself in a stupor, not an unfamiliar condition.


Calamity at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok on Mt. Moriah in Deadwood.  She later had copies of this photograph made into postcards which she sold to tourists and at attempts to exhibit herself  on the stage to make a living.  Her dying wish was realized and her remains were buried next to Hickok's grave in 1903.

Despite Hickok’s death Jane stayed around Deadwood.

In 1877 riding post to Crook City, Jane performed her most famous confirmed act of daring to.  She encountered the Overland Mail coach from Cheyenne under attack by a band of hostiles as it was coming into a relay station to change horses.  The driver, John Slaughter—a semi-famous character in his own right—was dead.  Calamity stopped the runaway team, jumped into the driver’s seat, and sped away avoiding a second ambush at the station.  She saved the lives of the six passengers and brought the stage safely into Deadwood.

Despite her increasingly obnoxious, alcohol-fueled behavior around town, Jane won a place in the city’s heart and history in 1878 when she was the only person who volunteered to care for eight men quarantined with smallpox in a small cabin outside of town.  Although three of her charges died, the others recovered, and Jane treated other victims until the epidemic played itself out.

Shortly after the smallpox outbreak, Jane returned to working as a teamster, this time using oxen instead of mules, for the Army, accompanying the 7th Cavalry to Bear Butte Creek where they established Ft. Meade and the town of Sturgis.  The next year she joined the gold rush to Rapid City where she evidently panned the streams and tried to establish a claim.

By 1881 Jane had drifted into Montana where she tried her hand at ranching near Miles City on the Yellowstone River and also ran a “wayside inn for weary travelers.”  It must not have been successful. In 1883 she headed to California where she spent the next two years in Ogden and San Francisco.

In 1885 she was in El Paso, Texas where she met and may have married Clinton Burk.  Although the couple moved together to Boulder, Colorado where they operated a hotel, some scholars don’t believe that they became legally married until the 1890’s.  In 1887 Jane gave birth to daughter Jean, who she gave up to foster parents recognizing that she could not care for the child.

What happened to the baby is unknown, although a woman named Jane McCormick claimed to be Calamity’s daughter born earlier by Hickok.  Jane claimed to be in possession of letters Calamity written but unsent to her daughter which were found among her possessions at the time of her death.  Since Jane was known to be illiterate, these letters have been called into question.  But they have entered the lore.  A composer even set them to a cycle of art songs and they were the basis of the TV movie starring Jane Alexander.

The couple remained in Boulder through 1893.  Meanwhile Calamity’s name had been used without her permission in dime novels including the popular Deadwood Dick series dating back to 1877.  The exploits in them were entirely imaginary, but they fueled public interest.  Reporters sometime sought Jane out at the Boulder hotel where she was interviewed and happily posed in male garb heavily armed on and off horseback.

                        Calamity later in life as a hotel keeper or as Dora DuFran's cook and dishwasher.

Probably due to Jane’s drinking, her marriage deteriorated.  She became a vagabond sometimes with and sometimes without her husband roaming through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.  In 1895 she returned to Deadwood, where she claimed her old friends welcomed her with open arms.  Certainly Dora DuFran did, although after 17 years Jane was no longer fit to be one of her girls.  She was, however, an attraction for the eastern tourists who were already showing up looking for the “authentic west.”  If they would stand her for a drink, Calamity was free to accommodate their interest in yarns real and fanciful.

Old associates like Bill Cody had already turned to show business to exploit their celebrity.  Even her beloved Hickok had allowed himself to be “put on display” before he died.  Jane accepted an offer by the Palace Museum in Minneapolis in 1897.  But after a few months her drinking and sometime bizarre behavior cost her job.  She tried exhibiting herself on the vaudeville circuit, but her act, telling stories, failed to win many bookings due to her drinking.  She was frequently in trouble.  Cody tried briefly to employ her in his show but could not keep her on.

In 1901 she was appearing at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York where Cody’s Wild West Show was also an attraction.  She was arrested for fighting and disorderly conduct.  Cody bailed her out and paid her fare back to Deadwood.  He later said, “I expect she was no more tired of Buffalo than the Buffalo police were of her, for her sorrows seemed to need a good deal of drowning.”

New markers replaced the original headstones for Calamity and Hickok at Deadwood's  Mt. Moriah Cemetery.   They remain a tourist attraction but have been eclipsed to some degree by the slot machines that have taken over much of the city's historic downtown strip.

It was pretty much her last hurrah.  Two years later she was dead.  She was taken off a train from Belle Fouche passed out in a drunken stupor and died of a hemorrhage two days later without regaining consciousness.  Her remains were shipped to Deadwood where in the ground next to Hickok she made a more dependable and less troublesome tourist attraction. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Katherine Lee Bates Saw America from a Mountain Top

This monument was erected in 1993, 100 years after Bates ascended the peak, as a donation from Colorado Springs' businessman Costas Rombocos.  Note the addition of all of the patriotic iconography surrounding the verse.  Katherine Lee Bates would not have approved.  

America the Beautiful with lyrics from a poem by college professor and writer Katherine Lee Bates in 1893 is one of the songs often mentioned as a possible replacement for the Star Spangled Banner as the Untied States national anthem.  The flag worshiping anthem although popular with traditionalist is considered too hard to sing by many and a glorification of war by some.  Others in contention for substitution include grades school ditty My Country ‘tis of Thee which has the disadvantage of sharing a tune with God Save the Queen, the anthem of the nation our fledgling country spent years in bloody rebellion against; Irving Berlin’s God Bless America which is a favorite of many Christians but makes defenders of the separation of church and state cringe; and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land which is disrespectful of authority and written by an actual Red.  Bates’s mountain top pean might hold an edge for at least being made a second national song.  Australia and a handful of other nations have more than one official song depending on level of formality and state ritual.

Bates was on a summer trip to Colorado when she rode up Pike’s Peak in a mule-drawn wagon and hiked the final climb to the summit.  She was so awed by vista below her that she quickly jotted down a verse when she returned to her resort hotel and mailed it to The Congregationalist, a magazine which had often published her work which published it in the Fourth of July 1895 edition of the church periodical.  Originally titled simply America the poem immediately attracted attention.

Bates as a young academic and writer.

Bates was born on August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts to the Congregational minister William Bates and his wife, the former Cornelia Frances Lee.  It was a solid New England family with deep roots.  Unfortunately, her father died a few weeks after she was born, and she was primarily raised by her mother and an aunt with a literary bent, both of whom had graduated from the all-women’s Mount Holyoke Seminary.  She was raised from the beginning in an environment of books, a broad liberal faith, reverence for academia, and the nurturing influence of strong, independent women

She attended Needham High School, now known as Wellesley High School, in 1872 and then Newton High School until graduation in the Centennial Year, 1876 when patriotic fervor was sweeping the nation.  Bates stayed close to home to enroll at women’s Wellesley College as part of its second class the same year. She graduated with a B.A. in 1880.  She almost naturally became a teacher first taught at Natick High School in 1880–81 and then at Dana Hall School from 1881 until 1885.  She had no interest in finding a husband and raising a family which would confine here to the near cloister of a late 19th Century middle class Home.

She also began to write and submitted pieces to Congregational denominational journals.  In In 1889 Bates’s young adult novel Rose and Thorn won a prize awarded by the Congregational Sunday School and Publishing Society. It incorporated poor and working class women as characters to teach readers about the reform movements inspired by the Social Gospel in which she was passionately engaged.

Bates invented the character Mrs. Santa Clause in her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride which was also a feminist declaration.

Also, in 1889 Bate’s invented Mrs. Santa Claus, an audacious introduction to the polar household of a bishop and saint.  In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride from the collection Sunshine and other Verses for Children Santa’s wife has grown tired of working year round to sustain and organize his Christmas Eve journey while the old man grows fat on her cookies.  She demands to accompany him and on the trip around the world chides him for his selfishness in not wanting to share the pleasure of gift giving and for ignoring tattered poor children and orphans.

With the prize money from Rose and Thorn, Bates was able to afford to travel to England and study at Oxford University in 1890–91.  Upon her return she became an associate professor at Wellesley as an in 1891, while she earned her master’s degree.  Soon after she was named a full professor.

Shortly after her return Bates took the opportunity of a summer teaching position at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.  Duties were not taxing and allowed plenty of time for her to explore the grandeur of the Rockies.  She would later recall:

One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.

Bates had personally experienced sexist prejudice and discrimination, had witnessed the ravages of the industrial revolution in both America and Britain, had seen firsthand urban poverty and misery, and keenly wished for equality. Her dream of an all-inclusive egalitarian American community also reflected the severe economic depression of 1893.

After first appearing in The Congregationalist The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version appeared in her collection America the Beautiful, and Other Poems in 1912).

Bates's poem was finally married to the melody written years earlier by Samuel A. Ward.

The poem was set to various melodies until Samuel A. Ward, an Episcopal church organist and choir master married Bate’s slightly adapted words to a hymn he had composed in 1883, O Mother Dear, Jerusalem which was published ten years later.  He adapted his old hymn to the new lyrics and together they were published in 1910 under the new title America the Beautiful.  It became an instant hit not only for church choirs but on the vaudeville stage and in early recordings.  It has since been recorded hundreds of times and has made it to the record charts oftenIt is now frequently paired with the Star Spangled Banner and many American sports events.

Bates's happy academic home, Wellesley College.

Meanwhile Bates retuned to her happy and fulfilling life at Wellesley while continuing to publish widely and advocate for social reforms.  As professor she revised and expanded the study of literature from the Greek and Latin classics plus Chaucer and Shakespeare to include more contemporary British and American work including poetry and popular novels.  She was one of the first to teach and study social context of her selections.

Bates especially reveled in the supportive atmosphere of the all-women’s school and inspired by several deep and abiding relationships between faculty members she found there.  She met Katharine Coman while still an undergraduate and engaged her in passionate correspondence in surviving letters while studying in Oxford.  Coman taught history, economics, and statistics eventually becoming Dean.  She was enormously influential for framing sociological insights with social justice. She escorted her students on field trips to Boston’s tenement houses, labor union meetings, factories, and sweatshops.  In 1885, at the age of 28, she became professor of history and economics.  She inspired Bates on a personal and professional level and as a public advocate.

Fellow Wellesley professor Katherine Corman was Bates's life partner.

Most historians agree that the pair were in a long-term lesbian relationship.  Others believe that it was a “Boston Marriage”—a household arrangement of two single women living respectably together.  Such arrangements were common at Wellesley and among educated and wealthy women in New England.  These relationships may or may not have been sexual.

In 1906 Bates and her brother built a new home in Falmouth to accommodate her surviving family and tenants.  Corman officially moved into an attic apartment later moving to a downstairs bedroom.  The pair remained together until Cormans death in 1915 at the age of 57.

Bates's Fallmouth home Scarab House--named for the Egyptian beetle--which she shared with Corman is now a historical landmark.

As a writer, Bates continued to be active and moderately well known.  Near the end of the Spanish American War, she became a special correspondent for The New York Times and, always a champion of the underdog, tried to reduce widely-circulating negative stereotypes about Spaniards. She contributed regularly to periodicals, sometimes under the nom de plume James Lincoln, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Congregationalist, Boston Evening Transcript, Christian Century, Contemporary Verse, Lippincott’s, and The Delineator.

Bates was also a social activist interested in the struggles of women, workers, people of color, tenement residents, immigrants, and poor people.  She helped organize the Denison House, a settlement house, with other women friends and colleagues in 1892.  She wrote and spoke extensively about the need for social reform and was an avid advocate for the global peace movement that emerged after World War I, especially to establish the League of Nations.  Long an active Republican, Bates broke with the party to endorse Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of Republican opposition to American participation in the League.  She declared herself a global citizen and decried the American policy of isolationism.

This statue of Bates stand before the Falmouth Public Library.

Bates died in Wellesley on March 28, 1929, while listening to a friend read poetry to her.  She is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Falmouth.  Most of her papers are housed at the Wellesley College Archives. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Prophetic Feminist Poet Adrienne Rich Remembered

Adrienne Rich as a young poet.

Adrienne Rich was 82 when she died ten years ago in California, a long way from the life of privilege and learning into which she was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929.   

Her father was a noted professor of medicine at prestigious Johns Hopkins and her mother had been a concert pianist.  He was a secular Jew, she a lady-like Southern Protestant.  Adrienne and her sisters were raised as nominal Christians.

Both parents cherished learning.  Before she was of kindergarten age Adrienne was reading from their vast library, mostly English poets.  Not trusting their bright children to a drab public education, Adrienne and her sisters were educated at home in that library until the fourth grade.  In her later years she was sent to a prestigious girl’s school, Roland Park Country School, which she later credited with providingfine role models of single women who were intellectually impassioned.”

The progression to Radcliff College for her undergraduate degree was a natural one and she continued to flourish in the all-women environment.  She also took classes, mostly in poetry, at very male Harvard.  Her very first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was written as an undergraduate, selected by none other than W.H. Auden for publication as the Yale Younger Poets Award winner.  Auden wrote a thoughtful introduction lauding her technical competence, craftsmanship and “…elegance and simple and precise phrasing.”

Thus, impressively launched on a noteworthy literary career she traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.  Part way into the year she abandoned formal study to linger in Italy.

Adrienne Rich's husband economist Alfred H. Conrad n 1959.

On returning to the United States in 1953 Rich married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad and settled into the life of an academic wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her first child, David, was born in 1955, the same years as her second collection, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, earned praise and garnered awards.  Two more sons were born and she struggled to balance the demands of marriage, motherhood, and writing.  She felt a failure at all of it.

Despite continuing to publish successfully, Rich could have been the model of the kind of accomplished, highly educated woman stifled by conventional domesticity that Betty Friedan wrote about in Feminine Mystique.

The themes began to emerge more forcefully in her poetry.  She abandoned the carefully crafted lines of metered rhyme which characterized her earlier work and began to work in blank verse.  The poems became more frankly autobiographical.  Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law in 1963 delved into that struggle followed in 1966 with Necessities of Life.


Rich in the '60s--fierce and feminist.

Now both a recognized literary superstar and open feminist, Rich’s career began to eclipse that of her husband.  He moved with her to New York City when she accepted a post at Swarthmore.  She latter also taught in the Graduate School of Columbia University and a free style “open university at the City Colleges of New York.  During this period, she became deeply and publicly involved not only in the feminist movement, but in opposition to the Vietnam War, and moved in increasingly leftist circles.  She hosted events for the Black Panthers and was a noteworthy signatory of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest to the war.

Her poems were now overtly political.  The publication of Leaflets, an examination of the turmoil of the 1960’s, secured Rich’s place as a leading radical voice.

All of this placed a strain on her marriage.   He husband felt she was literally losing her mind and moved out.  He was quite wrong.  Rich hadn’t lost her mind but had decided to become the quintessential class traitor.  Three months after the separation Alfred Conrad shot and killed himself.  It was a naturally traumatic event to Rich and her children.


A cartoon by Alison Bechdel demonstrates the enormous influence Rich had on many women writers and artists.

Yet the accolades and awards continued to pile up. There was the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, another Guggenheim Fellowship, and various prestigious academic appointments.

She reached perhaps the pinnacle of her literary career with the publication in 1973 of Diving into the Wreck.  This was the most intensely personal work yet, anguished and angry yet clear of thought and expression.  She was picked to share the National Book Award in Poetry with Allan Ginsberg in 1974 but declined to accept it as an individual. Instead, she made national headlines by going to the podium with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept the award on behalf of all women writers. 

Rich’s life and work changed dramatically in 1976 when she began her life-long relationship with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff.  She would later say that her lesbianism was both the natural fulfillment of desires and yearnings suppressed since girl’s school and a political statement.  Her writing began to express this new life, both philosophically in works like Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, her first significant prose work, and lyrically in frankly erotic verse, the pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems.


                                   Michelle Cliff became Rich's life partner, inspiration, and collaborator.

She continued to hold important teaching posts at Rutgers, Scripps College of San Jose State University, and Cornell.  She dedicated more time to essays, literary criticism, and political theory, publishing several well received books.

Rich and Cliff settled in California and co-edited an important Lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom in 1981.  She published three more books of poetry in the 1980s and garnered more literary awards—the Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters from NYU, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry both in 1989.

A revived interest in her Jewish identity and what it means to be a leftist Jew led her to found. Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990.

An Atlas of the Difficult World, published in 1991, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award, Commonwealth Award in Literature as well as the Poet’s Prize in 1993.  In 1994 she tagged for a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.” All the while she served in mentoring positions to women writers around the world.

In 1997 Rich made headlines by publicly snubbing the National Medal of Arts in protest to a House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts and policies of the Clinton Administration.  She told reporters “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration... [Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

In the new century Rich was slowed by advancing rheumatoid arthritis but continued to speak out publicly, especially against the looming war in Iraq. 


Adrienne Rich--the elder still untamed.

She was named a Chancellor of the Board of the Academy of American Poets in 2004.  That decade she produced four more collections of poetry, the last being Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 and three more collections of essays. 

In 2006 she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters followed in 2010 with the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Poetry Prize

That’s more than enough official honors for anyone.  But Adrienne Rich’s legacy cannot be measured in plaques, certificates, and engraved bowls.  It is in the hearts of all the readers whose lives she touched and enriched, all the students she nurtured, all the writers she encouraged.


What Kind of Times Are These


There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill

and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows

near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted

who disappeared into those shadows.


I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.


I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.


And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything?  Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.


Adrienne Rich