This week would have been the 85th birthday of Adrienne Rich, the Jewish feminist poet who died three years ago leaving behind a tremendous legacy of ideas and words that helped shape many people’s gender identities and inspired the work of feminist activism.
Adrienne Rich narrated her life and our world through her poems. Her poetry chronicles her transformation from bored, repressed suburban wife to restless, passionate, lesbian feminist activist. Her descriptions of the inner lives of women – radically spoken at the time from a woman’s point of view – were revolutionary then and continue to resonate today. As women (and others) struggle to break free from societal expectations of gender, Rich’s voice gives power and credence to the process of social change and discovering freedom. She embodied the personal as political.
She did not merely narrate feminism; she also urged it along with power and vision. Her impact on the evolution of the feminist movement can be felt in the many tributes to her since her death, which testify to the sometimes very personal ways in which her writing affected people, liberated women and often validated the desire to live fully and embrace their passions and identities. The Jewish Women’s Archive also paid tribute to her last month as part of Poetry month.
Still, I think that in the Jewish world, her impact has perhaps not yet been fully actualized. We still have a lot to learn from her. Her poetry leaves signposts for Jewish feminist activists, bits of power and encouragement along the way.
One poem that articulates the mission in a way that particularly relates to Jewish life is “The Roofwalker” (1961), where Rich wrote of the “half-finished houses”. She asks, “Was it worth while to lay–/with infinite exertion–/a roof I can't live under?/All those blueprints/ closings of gaps/ measurings, calculations?/A life I didn't choose/ chose me: even/my tools are the wrong ones/for what I have to do.” This resonates deeply with me, and possibly with others who are trying to make changes around gender within Jewish life. I also feel that the life chose me, of fixing the roof of the half-finished house that I am not sure I can live under. It is half-finished because Jewish women have not been fully able to make our mark on the culture. And the “measurings, calculations” remind me of all the Talmudic and halakhic discourse with which the Jewish house is built. There are other, better tools out there, and Rich reminds me to search for them and use them.
Adrienne Rich also brilliantly revealed the ways in which gender oppression take place on the female body. In the poem "Tear Gas," she wrote "The will to change begins in the body not in the mind/My politics is in my body." Her book, “Of Woman Born,” goes even further in unpacking the myriad societal constructs around motherhood. Indeed, in Judaism the female body is at the center of incessant discourse and discord, as Jewish women grapple with demands on bodily cover and uncover, with rabbinic judgments of women’s sexuality, with societal expectations of women’s bodily appearance. Be attractive but not slutty; be sexy but not sexually active; be thin but not anorexic; eat but not too much; have sex but only in certain conditions; get pregnant but don’t get fat; be a mother, be an angel, and always smile; and no matter what, be feminine always, never to violate the social expectation that woman is a complete and singular, identity, definable and ownable by markers on her body. Rich gives voice to this reality and reminds us that social change begins with changing the societal constructs of the female body. This is a lesson that is still being learned and unlearned.
Rich urged women to be rebellious and disloyal, to revise our cultures and social expectations. As Kathleen Thompson writes for the Jewish Women’s Archive, “She was not a good girl; she was a dangerous woman.” She gave voice to oppressed and abused women. In “Translations” (1972), she wrote of a woman “obsessed/with Love, our subject/we've trained it like ivy to our walls/ baked it like bread in our ovens/ worn it like lead on our ankles/ watched it through binoculars as if/ it were a helicopter/ bringing food to our famine/ or the satellite/of a hostile power.”In “Peeling Onions,” she wrote of “Red onion slices/ Only to have a grief/ equal to all these tears!”
It’s a sliver of a portrait of an oppressed woman. In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” she wrote, “The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band/ Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand./ When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie/ Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by./ The tigers in the panel that she made/ Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.” Rich, in describing the reality of marriage as she – and many others – experienced it, gave women permission to re-envision their lives.
For Rich, poetry is a tool for social change. When she famously refused the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, she wrote to then President Bill Clinton, “I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage.” Her poetry is definitely not decorative. It is poetry urging us to action.
One of the most powerful poems she wrote that has a particular message for feminist activists is “Diving into the Wreck.” It describes an androgynous narrator diving into the depths of the ocean to find a wreck, “to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail”. The poem is a powerful metaphor for the process of unpacking culture. “I put on/ the body-armor of black rubber/ the absurd flippers/ the grave and awkward mask. I am having to do this/ not like Cousteau with his/ assiduous team/ aboard the sun-flooded schooner/ but here alone.” This poem is a call to arms for fighting women, a reminder that we have the power to change. “[M]y mask is powerful/ it pumps my blood with power/ the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power/ I have to learn alone…”
Although Rich described the process of fighting for social change as a lonely one, perhaps it no longer has to be. I think that thanks to the work of women like Rich, today feminist women fighting for social change – including Jewish feminist women fighting for change within Jewish life – can find power in camaraderie with one another, in knowing that we are not alone in the depths of an ocean but part of a strong and growing movement that was established by great and powerful women like Adrienne Rich. Although the feminist work of social change that Rich lived so vehemently is hardly done, we are better off for having her poetry as a tool for our own work.
Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, educator, and Jewish feminist activist. She blogs at A Jewish Feminist.