Adrienne Rich’s first essay collection, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), bracketed the first decade of the “second wave” of the twentieth century U.S. women’s movement. The work may be characterized by the title of its foreword: “On History, Illiteracy, Passivity, Violence, and Women’s Culture.” Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 continues Rich’s examination of these issues. The two titles indicate Rich’s sense of chronological continuity, not least in the scrupulous dating of each collection and of individual essays, which enhances their value as historical documents.
More pertinently, the titles of the collections qualify perceived periods during the feminist struggle. The feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s arose from a female condition of social oppression based quite literally in lies perpetrated by fathers, secrets passed between mothers and daughters for generations, and an all-pervasive silence where women’s voices might have been but were not. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writings (1983) have notably addressed women’s textual silencing. By 1986, however, when Rich published Blood, Bread, and Poetry, the feminist focus had shifted somewhat from an analysis of negative social conditions to a celebration of women’s collective strengths. Ultimately, if patriarchal oppression can be defined by its “lies, secrets, and silence,” then the feminist revolution could surely be defined by its three essential qualities, “blood, bread, and poetry.” Rich’s public voice helped to create the change.
The feminist movement addressed by Blood, Bread, and Poetry had changed in ways that the essays themselves acknowledge, though sometimes only implicitly. By the mid-1980’s, the work of “women’s liberation” no longer took place primarily in kitchens and borrowed office spaces; rather, 1980’s feminism was located largely in universities and such groups as the National Organization of Women (NOW). Rich had cautioned faculty about “Taking Women Students Seriously” in 1978; by 1981, she could address the National Women’s Studies Association on the possibilities for radical “Disobedience and Women’s Studies.” Yet in 1984, Rich observed the insidious persistence of lesbians’ “Invisibility in Academe” (and in feminist organizations), just as women of color have been marginalized in academe and in the feminist movement.
While her first collection contained many academic-oriented essays in women’s literary studies, such as on Emily Dickinson, Rich takes a popular, sociohistorical approach in Blood, Bread, and Poetry . This substantive shift reflects Rich’s own career: Not simply a poet and academic, she had become...
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