Activist of the Week: Adrienne Rich

by Alexa Bass, writer/poet

September 13, 2017

Born in 1929, Adrienne Rich experienced history in its making: The Great Depression, World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, and the rise of radical feminism. Her experiences throughout each of these significant moments in time shaped who she would become as a staunch feminist, an essayist, and poet. Rich attended Radcliffe University, during which her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was published and selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She later married Alfred Haskell Conrad in 1953 and went on to have three children. Motherhood and a move to New York in 1966 would be the ultimate catalyst for her newfound radical feminism, stating: “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”  

After her move to New York, Rich became involved with the New Left, a political movement seeking reforms in civil rights and gender roles. Rich and Conrad began fundraising for the Black Panthers and anti-war parties, but their marriage ended in the mid 70s. By 1976, Rich had begun a partnership with Michelle Cliff, a Jamaican novelist, and would mark the beginning of her introspection on heterosexuality and the rigid roles women play in life and marriage. Most notably in her collection of socio-political essays was  “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”.

In 1977, Rich joined the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit organization focused on connecting the public with women-based media. Moving to Santa Cruz, California with her partner, Rich spent the 80s and 90s as a poet, professor, and editor, whilst publishing several volumes of her work. An accomplished poet, winner of multiple awards, and vocal activist, Adrienne Rich redefined protest.


“I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.”


Rich’s controversial poems and essays on motherhood and the female experience are not for those who wish to go unchallenged on their indoctrinated beliefs on gender roles or social justices. By politicizing her human experience, her artistry took activism to a new level. Her words cut through and questioned the very practices that seemed to keep the world together: Breadwinning men and their doting, housebound wives. Conflict that can only be solved by gunfire and bombs. Harmony that exists in oppression and segregation. She dared to challenge the formulaic system of overt and covert oppression relevant not only to her time, but ours as well.

“I was born at the brink of the Great Depression. I reached sixteen the year of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, I learned about the Holocaust first from newsreels of the liberation of the death camps. I was a young white woman who had never known hunger or homelessness, growing up in the suburbs of a deeply segregated city in which neighborhoods were also dictated along religious lines: Christian and Jewish. I lived sixteen years of my life secure in the belief that though cities could be bombed and civilian populations killed, the earth stood in its old indestructible way. The process through which nuclear annihilation was to become a part of all human calculation had already begun, but we did not live with that knowledge during the first sixteen years of my life. And a recurrent theme in much poetry I read was the indestructibility of poetry, the poem as a vehicle for personal immortality.” –Adrienne Rich


HuffPo: Adrienne Rich: Leaving Her Mark on America
The Guardian: Poet and Pioneer
Biography: Adrienne Rich


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