Mourning the loss of Adrienne Rich

By Hans Johnson, Vice Co-Chair, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Board of Directors

Feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who died this week at the age of 82, was a staggering intellect, with a voice of shattering clarity. Both will echo long after her passing.

It is impossible to exaggerate the impact she has had on two complete generations of students and scholars. Rich’s awards across 60 years — from the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1951 to a MacArthur Fellowship and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Literary Foundation — hint at her productivity.  In 1981, she received the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and in 1993, she attended the Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in Durham, N.C., where she did a book signing.

Rich traveled tirelessly in the ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s, leveraging a then-flourishing network of women’s and gay bookstores, and the chapels, lecture halls and graduation speeches at campuses large and small to break through into mainstream visibility as a poet and political essayist.

She called on women to unite across racial and class differences and chided white women who resisted coalition politics. She called out anti-feminist men, including gays who ridiculed Anita Bryant in terms that she saw smacking of misogyny.

She rekindled what became known as the Third Wave of Feminism, which in turn, fueled by outrage at anti-abortion Supreme Court rulings in Webster (1989) and Rust (1991), vastly increased women’s voice and power in elective office in the 1990 and 1992 elections.

Perhaps more than any other single American scholar, the discipline of women’s studies reflects her handiwork. But she was also possessed of such anarch independence that in 1997 she refused an honor from then-President Clinton, citing the chief executive’s penchant for compromises that undercut the social contract and her principles, rooted in wide-ranging research and understanding of Jewish history and America’s past and present progressive movements.

Adrienne Rich’s is one of those rare, resilient voices — of aching, tender and enviable metaphoric brilliance, as well as moral and political toughness — it seemed she would never leave us. Her passing is cause for renewed celebration of a body of work and a life that connect, enrich and inspire all who explore them.