Adrienne Rich, one of America's premier public intellectuals, died March 27 in California. According to her obituary in The Independent, she described herself as a "white woman, a Jew, a lesbian, and a United States citizen".
Coming across Driving into the Wreck on the new books library shelf was a life-changing event for me, a high school English teacher-in-training in the 1970s. Adrienne's artful and masterful writing breathed life into the phrase "the personal is political" in a way that I could immediately translate into my own life and work choices. Her life also spoke volumes to me. That she with her Radcliffe education had left a "charmed" East coast life that included marriage to a Harvard economist and three sons before she was 30 gave me the insight that a woman and freedom's choices, or at least the quest for freedom's choices, could be more than just an empty phrase. I began to take my own education, in and out of school, seriously. No small feat for the child of an immigrant steelworker with a fourth grade education in the dominator's language in his own war-torn homeland, a man whose broken English reflected his broken dreams of a life not to be lived.
So what, you ask? What does this have to do with me? All of you who have been, are, or will be, schooled could lean a bit more into learning instead by reading one or both of Adrienne's writings/talks - Claiming an Education and Taking Women Students Seriously.
Here's an excerpt from "Claiming an Education", a speech delivered at the 1977 convocation at Douglass College: Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking and naming for you.... Responsibility to yourself means that you do not fall for shallow and easy solutions - predigested books and ideas....
I "snuck" Adrienne's quotes and ideas like these into as many courses as I could while I was a former university education teacher. When I could figure out a direct connection with course objectives and content, I would include portions or the entire text if possible.
Although geared toward women audiences, her work goes beyond gender and other filters. And since both were presented and written decades ago, some of the content on a first reading seems dated to readers today. Great possibilities for discussion: How does this relate to you, even though you're not a woman? Even though you're a ....... (fill in the words here)? And what has and hasn't changed since she wrote this?
The final word here goes to Adrienne in an excerpt from her 1994 poem "And Now":
....I tried to listen to
the public voice of our time
tried to survey our public space
as best I could
-tried to remember and stay
faithful to details, note
precisely how the air moved
and where the clock's hands stood
and who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.
from Dark Fields of the Republic
Her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — were found in a 1984 speech, according to her New York Times obituary:
What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”
Claiming an Education
Taking Women Students Seriously (1978)
First page only: www.jstor.org/stable/20709173 F
Rich, A. (1979). Taking women students seriously (1978). In On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978 (p. 237-245). New York: W. W. Norton.