It is with a heavy heart I share the news that Adrienne Rich passed away yesterday at her home in Santa Cruz, CA at the age of 82 from complications of rheumatoid arthritis.
Adrienne Rich changed the way we understand queer existence and feminism. Rich’s essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, gave us the language to talk about love like we never were able to before. Specifically, she unearthed the taken for granted social burden that is normative heterosexuality–what later was termed heteronormativity. For those of you that have read my book know, I am not afraid of using this word! If I were to give you a list of the 5 most influential authors that impacted who I am, how I see the world and why I do the work I do, she would be in that list.
Historians need to ask at every point how heterosexuality as institution has been organized and maintained through the female wage scale, the enforcement of middle-class women’s “leisure, ” the glamorization of so-called sexual liberation the withholding of education from women, the imagery of “high art’ and popular culture, the mystification of the “personal” sphere, and much else. We need an economics that comprehends the institution of heterosexuality, with its doubled workload for women and its sexual divisions of labor, as the most idealized of economic relations .
The question inevitably will arise: Are we then to condemn all heterosexual relationships, including those that are least oppressive? I believe this question, though often heartfelt, is the wrong question here. We have been stalled in a maze of false dichotomies that prevents our apprehending the institution as a whole: “good” versus “bad” marriages; “marriage for love” versus arranged marriage; “liberated” sex versus prostitution; heterosexual intercourse versus rape; Liebeschmerz versus humiliation and dependency. Within the institution exist, of course, qualitative differences of experience; but the absence of choice remains the great unacknowledged reality, and in the absence of choice, women will remain dependent on the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives. As we address the institution itself, moreover, we begin to perceive a history of female resistance that has never fully understood itself because it has been so fragmented, miscalled, erased.
Reading Rich’s work today, you realize it smacks of the gender essentialism that many of us prefer to distance ourselves from, searching for a feminism that doesn’t necessarily harp on the innate “power and beauty” of woman-ness, instead calling into question the very way we understand gender. And most of us would disagree with her stance on pornography.
But Rich carved out a space for us to begin that conversation by pointing out the oppressive power structures that have forced women to be complicit in structures that do not serve them, keep them subordinate, often cause them harm and keep them unhappy. She gave us the language to build the modern day gay rights movement–made the case for why we must recognize how relationships between women are not just important, but have consistently resisted patriarchy for generations.
Finally, some of Rich’s greatest contributions were not as much in theory as they were in poetry–a space she felt gave us the opportunity to radically re-envision our possibilities as women. One of my favorite ones is the poem, “The Rules Break Like a Thermomemter” from The Dream of a Common Language–a book that sits on my nightstand with a collection of books I read on occasion because I need them.
The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language
no laws, we’re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years… we’re driving through the desert
wondering if the water will hold out
the hallucinations turn to simple villages
the music on the radio comes clear—
neither Rosenkavalier nor Götterdämmerung
but a woman’s voice singing old songs
with new words, with a quiet bass, a flute
plucked and fingered by women outside the law.
As Ann Friedman said simply, “Adrienne Rich was important.” May she rest in power.
Additional note: As someone brought up in comments–Adrienne Rich was cited as a source of mentorship and advisement in the very transphobic text The Transexual Empire–that worked to not only discount the experiences of trans women, but claimed that trans women weren’t real women and a whole bunch of other weird stuff, ultimately concluding that trans women shouldn’t exist. Scary.
Her amazing contributions notwithstanding–Rich’s oversight and insistence on a gender essentialist framework that resided in female power coming from having a vagina–was a huge one. It is unfortunate that it appears her own political framework didn’t change as marginalized identities emerged and pushed the boundaries of gender, identity and feminism.