Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, a feminist literary figure celebrated as much for deeply personal reflections on her own life as for sometimes-biting social commentary, has died at age 82. Rich, who lived and wrote openly as a lesbian for most of her adult life, starting in an era when homosexuality was widely condemned in American society, became a pioneering champion for women’s rights and the rights of others who were disadvantaged. With her highly charged poems about the politics of sexuality, race, gender, and language, Adrienne Rich has been a major force in American poetry for a half-century. Rich’s 19 volumes of poetry and three collections of essays have claimed nearly every major literary award, including the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry for Diving into the Wreck and two Guggenheim Fellowships. An advocate for gay and lesbian rights and reproductive freedom, Rich was also involved with in the New Jewish Agenda, a national progressive organization active in various arenas of democracy and civil rights. Her 1976 non-fiction volume Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution is considered a groundbreaking examination of motherhood.
Later in the life, in 1997, she created a stir by refusing the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to artists and artistic patrons, on political grounds. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote, “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” Rich evolved greatly as a poet over the years, both stylistically and thematically, starting out with very traditional, formal verse that dwelled largely on personal experiences.