Adrienne Rich: groundbreaking, author, poet and feminist dies at 82

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.

She writes,

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.

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  • smash

    Thank you for honoring her. I wish more feminists would read her work. I loved _Of Woman Born_.

  • toongrrl

    Ohhhh……she also wrote “Of Woman Born” which was recommended and quoted in “The Mommy Myth”

  • Marlene

    I don’t disagree with the good things you say about her, but I don’t think that your brief sentences about gender essentialism and pornography begin to scratch the surface.

    She also helped Janice Raymond to write The Transsexual Empire, one of the most viciously transphobic and transmisogynistic screeds ever put to paper. With Rich’s help, Raymond spearheaded a view of trans women that led to witch hunts within the lesbian feminist community, gave academic cover to the closing of gender reassignment programs at major universities and posited trans women as perpetrating the rape of women’s bodies simply by daring to exist.

    • Samhita

      Thank you for this, I updated the post. I knew her gender essentialist framework went far, but I didn’t know it went this far–nor did I really know about that horrific text. I’m shocked, but not really shocked, that my women’s studies professors never brought this up.

    • lisa

      I guess I have not heard any evidence that Adrienne Rich did help Janice Raymond work on her book nor that Rich was transphobic. I am not clear why an assertion without any evidence is being accepted and not challenged. where is the specific evidence that Rich was transphobic ?

  • smash

    Actually, upon further research, it looks like she helped form the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, which opposed Dworkin/MacKinnon’s anti-pornography legislation.

    What in particular about her stance on pornography did you object to?

  • Stephanie

    Wow. I remember reading her work “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” just last semester. R.I.P. Adrienne Rich.

    Unlike Steve Jobs, this is a true loss for the world.

  • Mary

    The link below is to a great blog post written by a trans woman pointing out the complicated mourning that she experiences at Adrienne Rich’s death. A reminder that even the most change-inducing of us are human and imperfect. Romanticizing even intellectually is dangerous, no?

    • Gina Morvay

      Last time I looked, Rafe Posey is a trans man, not a trans woman.

      And yes, Samhita, sadly a lot of what’s taught in Women’s Studies (even worse in Gender Studies) is rather transmisogynist by omission and even erasure. Way too many tributes to Adrienne Rich (a great poet and key feminist) which don’t make any mention of her part in The Transsexual Empire… the same thing happened when Mary Daly died last year. And I expect much the same is going to happen when transphobes like Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffreys, etc. end up passing some day.

      Which is one reason why these episodes need to be brought up even at a time when so many are mourning their loss and celebrating their lives. Adrienne Rich had 30+ years to repute or elaborate her stance on such issues and she either never bothered to, or worse, never had the courage to reexamine her hateful assumptions. Ezra Pound was a great poet as well but, given his politics, I can’t be bothered to care.

  • Lynn Ballen

    It’s clear that Adrienne Rich’s feelings/ideas towards transgender rights evolved. So… why is it that so many commenters here, and on other blogs, seem resistant to the fact that she (and many, many other second wave feminists) learned and grew and evolved in their views? Surely that’s one of the goals of working for all kinds of social justice – the opening & changing of minds and entrenched attitudes? So why condemn Rich for her views from 32 years ago without doing further research?
    It’s documented that Rich’s views on racism also evolved. She talked about it extensively- how she moved from being raised by Southern parents to finding her inchoate feelings of rejection & resistance to racism named and articulated when first reading James Baldwin. And going on to work closely with Audre Lorde and do anti-racism work.
    Yes, it’s true that she received thanks from Janice Raymond in The Transsexual Empire for reading the manuscript through all its stages and providing resources, creative criticism, and encouragement ( 1979) But however, years later, she’s thanked in FTM author Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors (1997) – Acknowledgements section : “For support that came in many forms, my gratitude to:” And in the Acknowledgements to Minnie Bruce Pratt’s “S/he”: “For the wonderful and lively conversations I’ve had about the ideas dealt with in this book, many thanks to:” (1995)
    I trust that Feinberg and Pratt – outspoken trans rights warriors both – clearly knew and appreciated what Rich’s views were when they wrote that.