If you are an academic who came of age any time after say 1990, then you probably associate Adrienne Rich with some sort of essentialist feminism.  She is, depending on who you read, one of four to ten feminist writers most frequently labeled “cultural feminists.”  In one of the most influential essays published about feminist theory in the 1980s, the point at which I argue women’s culture was misidentified as part of “cultural feminism,”*

Linda Alcoff argues, drawing on Rich’s work from the late 1970s, that

cultural feminism is the ideology of a female nature or female essence reappropriated by feminists … Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly have been influential proponents of this position.

Prior to the mid 1980s, however Rich was one of the most prominent feminist spokespeople.  Her unassailable status as an established poet, combined with her employment at elite educational institutions, meant that Rich published in the mainstream, as well as the feminist, press.  Part of the project of The Politics of Women’s Culture is to shift the conversation about feminism and culture back to the earlier 1970s when academics and activists worked side by side in order to trace the divergences that led to the women’s culture wars.

In 1969, the Modern Language Association, the “marketplace and funeral parlor” for the study of literature, as Rich described it, created a Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession.  In 1971, the Commission sponsored a a panel consisting of Rich, Tillie Olsen, Ellen Peck Killoh, and Eleine Reuben, moderated by Elaine Hedges, on “the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.”

Rich presented “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re- Vision,” which fittingly, given Alcoff’s pairing of them, invoked Mary Daly’s idea of “the boundaries of this patriarchal space” [from 1971 Beyond God the Father] in order to offer some thoughts on the way the awakening consciousness of women had led to a new vision of the writer and culture, that should be made available to all women, and yes, to men, although the women would lead and work separately.

Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new  critical direction-is  for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival … is more than a search for identity:  it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

While this value laden description, “male-dominated destructiveness” being, it is implied, quite different from what “female-dominated” society would be, is often seen as evidence of totalizing essentialism, such analyses ignore the context.

 In 1972 Rich was heavily involved in the anti-war movement, which similarly depicted the “dominant culture” as war-making. What women’s liberation activists, like Rich, did was to add a feminist analysis, to point out that “male-domination” might be in some way related to the “self-destructiveness,” and to emphasize that the mechanisms which allowed for the domination of women as a group [although not felt identically by all women] were not dissimilar from the mechanisms that facilitated the domination of groups of people in other countries.

Rich, refusing to be limited by the highly debated question  of

whether  an  oppressive  economic  class system  is  responsible  for  the  oppressive  nature  of  male/female  relations,  or whether,  in  fact,  the  sexual class system  is the  original model  on  which  all the  others are based

instead focuses on the

awakening consciousness [that] has already affected the lives of millions of women,  even those who  don’t know  it  yet.  It is  also affecting  the  lives  of  men,  even  those who  deny its  claims upon  them.  

Thus what appears initially a “simple inversion of value systems” is really an application of the notion of patriarchy  understood as an ideology, not as the blaming of individual men, with her conclusions available to both sexes.

What keeps this from happening, according to Rich is the fact that “woman has been a luxury for man, and has served as the painter’s model and the poet’s muse” while for women, there is always, the idea present “of being overheard by men” [which reminds me so much of Dixon’s concept of the “invisble male audience.”]

Thus writers such as Virginia Woolf code their “own sensibility …  to protect it from those masculine presences. ” The woman writer finds herself always writing for men, even when “like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women.”  Furthermore, most women’s writing is never heard, as Rich notes, alluding to “the  “women are washing dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children.”

Therefore, Rich argues, the woman writer in the twentieth century must work to make available to all people the “sensibility” of the “awakening consciousness” of all women.  Rich, rejecting what Ozick called the “dancing dog” syndrome, notes

how destructive is the myth of the special woman, also the token woman. Every one of us here in this room has had great luck … for we  all know  women  whose  gifts  are buried or aborted. Our struggles  can  have  meaning  only if  they  can  help to  change  the  lives  of  women whose  gifts-and  whose  very  being-continue  to be thwarted.

While Rich doesn’t write yet of women’s culture, per se, she points out “A lot is being said today about the influence that the myths and images of women have on  all of  us who  are products  of  culture” in “a  culture  controlled  by males.”  Like other feminist writers about culture in the early 1970s, for Rich culture is  is something belonging to men,  with women only on the edges.  It is from these margins where women can see “a whole new psychic geography” they they must look to the writer  “eagerly for  guides, maps possibilities.”

Rich describes how during the political tumult of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she began “to  feel  that politics  was  not  something:  “out there” but something  “in here.” Once she makes that final connection, she notes “The  awakening  of  consciousness  is not  like the  crossing  of  a frontier-one  step,  and  you  are in  another  country,” but instead it will mean an ongoing process of “creating” and “becoming” that men and women will have to do for themselves.

However, because “historically men  and women  have played  very  different parts in  each  others’ lives,” now although “we  can  go  on  trying  to  talk to  each  other,  we  can sometimes  help  each  other, …  women  can no  longer  be  primarily mothers  and muses for  men:  we  have  our own  work  cut out for us”

Tt is clear that Rich’s ideas rest on far more than ” the ideology of a female nature or female essence.”  She is attentive to the differenes among women, her analyses are historical not resting on “nature” or “essence” and the project is, at least implictly, political.

*best response ever to typologies of “feminist consciounsess” is Sandoval’s Methodlogy of the Oppressed which notes how teleleological and whiggish these typologies are.