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Maggie Doherty, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s (2021).

In 1960, Mary (“Polly”) Ingraham Bunting, newly-appointed President of Radcliffe College, wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine to encourage applications to the new Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. In the essay, Bunting connected the Institute’s goal of ending the “waste of highly talented, educated womanpower” to helping women as well as to better realizing America’s “heritage” and “aspirations.” The Institute would help “intellectually displaced women”—mothers whose homemaking and childcare responsibilities had interrupted their careers—get back on track through a financial stipend of up to $3,000, access to Harvard’s library resources, a private office, and formal and informal exchange.

As Maggie Doherty recounts in her engaging book, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, Bunting, a microbiologist and educator, first conceived this “messy experiment” in “a national war room populated almost entirely by men”: she served on a Cold War-era committee formed by the National Science Foundation after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik to study education in the U.S. and steer more resources and students into science and engineering. (Pp. 58-59.) Publicity for the Institute echoed Cold War rhetoric about the national risk of not utilizing women’s talents, but also stressed the risk to families and marriages: “This sense of stagnation can become a malignant factor even in the best of marriages . . . when the gifted woman must spend her time inventing ways to employ herself mentally and failing, or only half-succeeding, may turn against the marriage itself in sheer frustration.” (P. 68.) If this rhetoric brings to mind Betty Friedan’s famous articulation of “the problem that has no name,” in The Feminine Mystique, it may be because Bunting and Friedan initially planned to collaborate on the book. However, the collaboration ended because Bunting resisted Friedan’s approach of viewing the dynamic “in terms of men against women,” instead of (as Bunting perceived it) a “climate of unexpectation” about women’s roles “in which both men and women were trapped”: that women could not have both family and career so that any pursuit of intellectual goals would be at a cost to their personal lives. (Pp. 63, 65.) Bunting viewed the Institute as a way to change that climate. (P. 63.)

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