A Cohort of One’s Own

October 9, 2020   •   By Frances Lazare

The Equivalents

Maggie Doherty

No Modernism Without Lesbians

Diana Souhami

VIRGINIA WOOLF FAMOUSLY WROTE that a woman must have £500 a year and “A Room of Her Own” if she were to write fiction — plus the habit of freedom “and the courage to write exactly what we think.” Oft repeated, her title phrase belongs to an essay on gender and writing in which Woolf articulates a structural affinity between the conditions of the modern woman — in her exclusion from social, political, and creative spheres — and the aims of modernist fiction to restore the texture of those “infinitely obscure lives” into the realm of recognition. The essay unfolds an account of Woolf traversing the streets of London, capturing women in their various “moments of being”: the women walking with their arms akimbo, the nursemaid wheeling the perambulator carefully in and out back to nursery tea, the shopkeeper adding up the day’s takings, and the violet-sellers stationed under empty doorways. In her impressionistic rendering of the city’s street life, Woolf proposes that the banal, everyday occurrence may hold a particular valence for women, whose lives so often go unrecorded. “For all the dinners are cooked,” she writes, “the plates and cups are washed; the children sent to school and gone at into the world […] all has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about.”

If Woolf’s rumination on the causes and effects of a longue durée of exclusion and discrimination facing women strikes us as familiar, even reductive, in our present, its prescience endures in the relationship she establishes between genre and gender. In her avowal of a utopian linguistic structure she calls the “woman’s sentence,” Woolf suggests that, in finding a literary form for women’s talk, the writer can powerfully conjure a counter-public sphere in which woman sees herself represented, past and present. Woman, explain Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “who has been sentenced to confinement and dispossession, to staying in the parlour of domesticity and keeping off the grass of culture,” will now sentence herself — quite literally, through her revision of language’s conventional forms — to freedom and to £500 a year.

Recent books by Maggie Doherty and Diana Souhami self-consciously enliven Woolf’s call to conjure such a writerly sphere, drawing into focus two coteries of women whose contributions, both collective and individual, fundamentally shift the ways we understand the breakaway movements of modernism and feminism, respectively. At the fore, Doherty’s and Souhami’s investments are historiographic; each author attempts to rectify the obscurity of their subjects’ labors by bringing them into the redemptive realm of recognition. Yet, the political stakes of their recoveries occur on the level of method. Following Woolf, both Doherty and Souhami position description, and attention to those everyday “feelings in drawing-rooms,” as a mode of writing history uniquely suited to the lives of women, still sidelined by mainstream art and literary history.


On November 19, 1960, The New York Times carried a front-page story announcing a new program, a so-called messy experiment, designed to reignite the professional ambitions of “displaced women” whose careers had been interrupted by motherhood. The program, named the Radcliffe Institute, accepted women with PhDs or “the equivalent,” and provided them with a stipend and a private office, rooms of their own where they could return themselves, full-time, to their intellectual work.

In her debut book, The Equivalents, Doherty traces the lives and careers of five women from the Institute’s first two cohorts. She draws a direct link between her own text and Woolf’s, in which she identifies a nascent longing for female community and intergenerational support. This longing serves as the basis for Doherty’s approach; she focuses on the loving, complex, and competitive relationships between her protagonists as a way of describing how and why the feminist movement emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Drawing on journals, letters, poems, and other archival fragments, Doherty renders her subjects’ idiosyncrasies in novelistic prose. The dynamic, often fraught relationship between poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin forms the text’s narrative heart. Their intimate bond predated their years in Cambridge, and their correspondence serves as the author’s primary lens onto the Radcliffe Institute’s formation. Writer Tillie Olsen, a communist organizer from San Francisco, emerges, also, as a compelling character. Her trajectory as a struggling novelist, on the quest to write a great proletarian novel, is recounted vis-à-vis her unfolding relationship with Sexton prior to and during their time at Radcliffe. Fellow scholars Marianna Pineda, a figurative sculpture whose work explored the female form, and portraitist Barbara Swan also figure prominently in The Equivalents, though their story lines are less resolved than the others.

Doherty is at her strongest when she attends to the richness of her subject’s epistolary intimacies. She writes strikingly about the relationship that unfolds between California-based Olsen, whose political organizing shaped her intellectual life, and Sexton, whose life as a well-to-do East Coast WASP provides an altogether different view of the world. Doherty uses their correspondence and diaries to paint a vivid and compelling portrait of mutual support and artistic innovation, in spite of their class differences, in the decades before modern feminism.

Sexton, for her part, wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, and masturbation, at a time when the prosperities embraced none of these as proper topics for poetry. When Sexton expressed fear and anxieties about her subject matter, Olsen assured her in writing, calling her “our most promising & prominent domestic lady poet.” “I cherish your hopes, and feel kind to your dreams,” she encouraged her friend. In return, Sexton offered Olsen access to the intellectual networks of the East Coast, a welcome addition to the writer who — before her stint at Radcliffe — remained isolated in California, bound by household duties and conscripted by persistent economic struggle. Olsen was grateful, and, at the same time, helped Sexton to see one of the major fissures already shaping the women’s movement: between working-class women who lacked access to the literary, and the wives and daughters of the intellectual elite. Through their meetings and letters, Sexton and Olsen inspired one another to create work that explored the contradictions of motherhood, the shapes of their sexuality and desires, and critiques of class hierarchy and divisions of labor within women’s liberation before there was a template for doing so.

Though it is full of compelling and poignant moments, the coherence of The Equivalents’s narrative is not always apparent. We move roughly chronologically through the women’s lives, but their stories are interspersed without apparent logic. It is sometimes unclear why a character emerges and one story line is often truncated at the expense of another. This is particularly true in the case of Swan and Pineda, whose plot lines are less considered than Kumin’s, Olsen’s, or Sexton’s, and often serves as foils for advancing claims about them. In describing Olsen’s profound difficulty drafting a talk for the Institute’s weekly seminar, for instance, the author mentions both Pineda’s and Swan’s own lectures only in passing. Swan and Pineda are likely strangers even to an expert audience. Both women were visual artists working in figurative idioms at a moment when artistic realism was considered woefully passé. Doherty’s text thus serves as a welcome exploration of a distinct strand of artistic modernism that eschewed abstraction and embraced figuration, and indeed the domestic, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Doherty shies away from explicitly making such claims.

Recovery of such figures is not her primary aim. Rather, Doherty is chiefly invested in animating the contemporary, political relevance of the Equivalents’ lives and careers, and comparing them to her own. She discovered the group in her late 20s, while performing research for her doctoral degree and contemplating the uncertainties of her own career as she navigated a partnership with a man whose work took precedence over her own. Her identification with her subjects — particularly Sexton and Olsen — is evident, and enlivens her text. The Equivalents thus stands as a testament to the seductions of the archive, and the powerful equivalences and deep attachments we often form with the objects of our own research. In bringing this aspect of writing to her text’s fore, Doherty articulates the sustained relevance of a historical method that responds “in the spirit of fellowship” (to use Woolf’s words) to the “pressure of dumbness,” and the accumulation of unrecorded, intimate life.


Diana Souhami’s No Modernism Without Lesbians articulates a similar methodological approach, if in a wholly distinct context. Like Doherty, Souhami focuses on the lives of a group of women who, in the face of prescriptive economic and social roles, made a society all their own. Souhami takes us to Paris in the years between the World Wars, where Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein — expats of the United States and United Kingdom — took advantage of the boulevards and bars, the good food, and the low rents of Paris to thwart power and convention. Individually, Souhami argues, each made a vital contribution to the arts and letters; collectively, they were a revolutionary force in the breakaway movement of modernism, the innovations in art, writing, film and lifestyle and the fracture from 19th-century orthodoxies. “There had been nothing like it,” she writes “since Sappho and the Island of Lesbos.”

The generative resonances between Souhami’s text and Doherty’s are plenty. Just as Doherty locates the seeds of modern feminism in the ambitions of the Radcliffe Institute, Souhami locates an originary moment in the emergence of contemporary lesbian identity in early 20th-century Paris. In insisting upon the formative nature of her subject’s identities as “women who loved women,” her text demonstrates how powerful a part the category of female homosexuality played in the cultural and artistic revisions wrought by modernism. Just as modernism, broadly speaking, sent fissures through a whole bundle of conventions, so too did her subjects.

Yet she is careful to resist overdetermination. If feminist historians have warned against looking for “lesbians” in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, Souhami acknowledges the anachronistic limitations of the unifying moniker which links her subjects. “I call them all lesbians,” she writes, “but the words lesbian, dyke and daisy were not much used by them.” On the surface of her text, then, is the difficulty of managing and containing the intimate bonds that form between woman. Souhami skirts these difficulties with care and humor, proposing the obviously absurd QUILTBAG+ (queer or questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bisexual, asexual or allied, gay or genderqueer) in order to resist the initialism of our present age for a more capacious understanding of female homosexual desire. “There are but twenty-six letters in the Roman alphabet and life is short.”

The various iterations of QUILTBAG+ attachments emerge throughout her text, which proceeds figure by figure, starting with Beach and concluding with Stein. Each chapter is structured around one of her four subjects, although each is sprinkled throughout, as they dart in and out of each other’s lives. Souhami’s writing is lively and humorous, even as she handles heavy subject matter, such as the artistic censorship of Beach’s little magazine by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. And, while the text proceeds roughly chronologically through each woman’s life, Souhami’s text also flirts with formal experimentation. Each section is broken up into a series of fragments, each with a unique title above it, bolded but in lower case. As such, Souahmi’s writerly approach makes a nod to the aesthetic revisions waged by her subjects, incorporating Barney’s and Stein’s rejection of the conventions of narrative, in favor of the fragment, for instance, into the fabric of her own text.

If war tore apart the women whose lives she details in her pages, Souhami offers their collective memoir as a model for writing the story of women’s lives that stretches far and beyond Paris in the 1920s. As with Doherty and her Equivalents, Souhami manipulates the format of biography, replacing the traditional emphasis on a singular auteur with a group portrait of great women whose artistic and writerly practices, while wholly distinct, were deeply informed by their engagement with one another. In so doing, she reveals the contingency of each of her subjects and of their modernist emendations.

Indeed, the idea that creative production depends upon material circumstance, and that the woman artist needs money (£500) and space (a room), serves as a guiding conceit for each book. Both Souhami and Doherty follow their subjects’ careers, their feelings in drawing rooms, their friendships and their fights, and the particularities of their daily lives to describe how social forms shape artistic practice. Given that modernism is generally characterized as an aesthetic rupture, upending (sometimes violently) the conventions of 19th-century realism, the repetition and routine that constitute daily life are traditionally cast as its intellectual opposite. Taken together, these books articulate a renegotiation of the very terms of modernism — homing in on the power of those “accumulations of unrecorded life” to account for its gendered, and indeed classed formations.

Yet, we are wise to remember that it is only the few among us who have drawing rooms in which to recount our feelings. Even as Souhami and Doherty stake powerful claims for political representation vis-à-vis literary representation and open vital questions about the relationship between material circumstance and artistic freedom, their inquiries remain moored to the lives of a white, semi-bourgeois, educated class. If their projects operate in the legacy of Woolf’s search for “a woman’s sentence,” we ought to ask: Which women can this grammar accommodate? Here, Doherty’s and Souhami’s avowed return to Woolf could have profited from a simultaneous turn to Hortense Spillers, whose 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book” searched for a language for the black woman’s experience — for her place within the kinship structures and norms of signification that American slavery systematically shattered.

This is not to say that the stories of the Equivalents or that roving pack in Paris do not merit contemplation, but rather that the reparative method Souhami and Doherty forge should extend across forms of difference only lightly broached by their subjects. For example, the ongoing pandemic has animated Olsen’s inquiries into class-based hierarchies of need; “Just what kind of worker is a writer?” she asked in 1934, a question which feels especially fresh as our economy splits labor into “essential” and not. The virus has likewise forced a collective reckoning with the corrosive effects of confinement on the imagination for all persons, and the basic need for community and belonging. These resonances sustain implications beyond rereadings of modernism or feminism. Indeed, what Doherty and Souhami offer is a model for finding pleasure and meaning in domestic rhythms and everyday intimacies.


Frances Lazare is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Southern California.