Among the growing ranks of radical feminist poets, Adrienne Rich is probably the best-known and most eloquent. Speaking for their cause, in the Foreword to this book she cites Susan B. Anthony’s impatient cry, “How shall we ever make the world intelligent on our movement?” Then in a collection of essays and notes spanning more than a decade, Rich furnishes material with which that world might begin to educate itself. She probes issues (“secrets”) that are most often relegated to “silence” and covered by “lies”: among them, women loving women, fallacies in the assumption that conventional marriage is a worthy base for society, lesbian motherhood—and always, at least implicitly, the wrongs done to women and to the quality of life by the dominant patriarchal system.
It is no doubt true that some potential readers will reject the book out of hand because of the author’s expressed sexual preference. She is aware of that; as she notes, the word “lesbian” has powerful reverberations, often striking fear, disgust, and even hatred in its hearers. Yet her book has been hailed by such women as Tillie Olsen and Mary Daly (vide the paperback cover); Rich writes urgently, and she is well worth attending.
In fact, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence contains much more than militant feminism. It is autobiography and women’s history, it is a critique of the educational system, and it is literary criticism. Before considering these several topics, however, a familiarity with Rich’s life up to the earliest of the essays—1966—is important, since the author’s evolution as a poet and as a feminist is pertinent to the new volume. Born in 1929, Rich began writing poems as a child, encouraged by her earliest ideal audience, her father. Her reading in his library was of the “standard” nineteenth century male poets. At Radcliffe she published her first volume, A Change of World, chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award. Her models had become twentieth century male poets; only latently is there evidence in these poems of her later directions. After a Guggenheim Fellowship in Europe, she married a Harvard professor, and by age thirty she was the mother of three children.
Her writing continued during the decade of the “silent 1950’s”—silent for women. But depression plagued her, by her own account, for increasingly she felt herself a failed poet and a failed woman, unable to find a workable synthesis of her two roles. In the turbulent 1960’s, however, after a process of self-searching and redefinition, she found her own voice and began to seek and claim kinship—no longer with Auden and Yeats, but with literary forebears such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. To read Rich’s poetry chronologically is to trace her intellectual and emotional evolution from what Auden complimented her on—her good manners, detachment, and formal skill—to the outspoken, free, impassioned woman’s voice of The Dream of a Common Language (1978).
Rich’s turn toward feminism began with a search for a selfhood undefined by such roles as “wife,” “mother,” and even “good-mannered poet.” She came to hope for a change in the attitudes of both men and women toward one another and toward themselves. She hoped for freedom from repressive stereotyping, hoped that men would learn to acknowledge what for a time she believed to be “the ghostly woman” in all males; further, she hoped that women could learn their own powers and cease being defined and repressed by the patriarchal system. Even as late as the earlier essays in the present volume, she retained this androgynous ideal. As the essays with her accompanying commentaries reveal, however, her hope for what she sees as an urgent need for total restructuring of society has now come to rest almost altogether with women.
In order to carry the story of her evolution to the present, Rich arranges these essays chronologically, not deleting opinions she has abandoned, but remarking on them. Thus the book reveals a continuing self-assessment as well as a clear picture of the world as she perceives it.
Rather than deal separately with the essays on social criticism, however, one may draw on them as a group to see Rich’s main concerns: “Vietnam and Sexual Violence,” “Motherhood in Bondage,” “Conditions for Work,” and “Husband-Right and Father-Right,” among others. Central to her thought is her view of the patriarchy, which she defines as a system “dominated by violent and passive-aggressive men, and by male institutions dispensing violence”; it is a “culture which endorses sadomasochistic male homosexual and heterosexual behavior, violent pornography, and forcible sterilization.” It has made women passive victims of guilt, self-doubt, rape, and pacifying drugs; it has denied them intellectual prowess, expurgated them from the established canons of literature and art, and caricatured their efforts at self-determination. It is the patriarchy that makes the traditional family (father the head, wife and children his adjuncts) the socially accepted norm and that has created institutions (educational, economic, domestic) to perpetuate female subservience. It leads to “war, exploitation, greed for power, and ravagement of the nonhuman living world.” In short, “a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.”
Yet within this system, it is the women who have been the menders, the healers, the nurturers; their domain, despite the system, has been “world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair.” Rich’s picture of the world produces an unequivocal demand for change in all aspects of society; she sees as absolute necessity that women “gain control of our bodies and our lives for our selves and others.” Yet who will be the agents to work such profound reordering? “A militant and pluralistic lesbian/feminine movement is potentially the greatest force in the...