Image by Neal Boenzi via Getty Images
Adrienne Rich was an award-winning writer of political and feminist poetry and essays. An anti-Vietnam War protestor and a Black Panther fundraiser, Rich was deeply involved in progressivism in the 1960s and 1970s. Her work reflects her political and social values, as well as her identity as a Jewish lesbian woman.
One of Rich’s best-known earlier works is her 1951 poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” The imagery of the literal and figurative weight of Jennifer’s wedding ring, along with her creation of fierce tigers who do not fear men, prefaced the feminist thought that Rich would come to be known for. Her 1963 poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” was her first explicitly feminist poem. It communicates the frustration and anger Rich feels when reflecting on the meaning of being female in a patriarchal society.
Rich also conveyed a desire to break through the restrictive gendered expectations of the past. The title poem of her 1973 book “Diving Into the Wreck” describes a dive into the symbolic wreck of myths about gender. Through the androgyny of her central character, Rich emphasizes the need to search for truths of life that transcend the gender binary.
Issues of sexual and reproductive freedom also influenced Rich’s writing. In her 1976 book “Of Woman Born,” Rich wrote that “we need to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture.” A decade later, in her 1986 introduction to the book, Rich underlined the importance of the women’s health care movement, while acknowledging the disproportionate benefits it had for white, privileged women like herself.
Perhaps most significantly, sexual orientation played a crucial role in Rich’s life and her art. She came out as a lesbian in the 1970s, marking a new era for her work. She wrote of lesbian sexuality and desire in her poetry and of the need for the discussion of sexuality in feminist writing.
Her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” addressed the lack of lesbianism in feminist scholarship and framed heterosexuality as a repressive, socially enforced institution. She argued that maintaining the oppression of lesbian women would negatively affect all feminist efforts. Such theories mark Rich as not only a talented artist but a key intellectual figure in facilitating the inclusion of non-heterosexuals in feminism.
Throughout her career, Rich was awarded several honors for her work and used these public acknowledgments as opportunities to make political statements. She chose to accept the 1974 National Book Award for her collection “Diving Into the Wreck” as a joint award with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde as a symbol of unity among women in a patriarchal and racist society.
Similarly, Rich refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts as a statement against racial and economic inequalities in America. In her letter to the NEA chair, Rich stated: “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
Rich has been criticized for her association with Janice Raymond, the author of The Transsexual Empire — a book widely considered to propagate Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Although Rich did not produce anti-trans work herself, Raymond cited and thanked her for reviewing the controversial book before its publishing, leading many fans of Rich to wonder about her stance on trans issues.
Adrienne Rich passed away in 2012, but her work will remain relevant for years to come. Her popularity and critical acclaim granted her an influential position that she utilized well to highlight the need for feminist and lesbian activism.