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The Forgotten Feminism of Lola Ridge

Ten years before Virginia Woolf called for a room of one’s own, this radical poet paved the way for literary feminists.

Estate of Marjorie Content

Radical poet Lola Ridge’s landmark presentation, “Women and Creative Will,” given on February 25, 1919, was the first of five lectures by poets from the Speakers Bureau of the modernist magazine, Others. Although poet and chess master Alfred Kreymborg claimed to have thought up the Bureau, it could well have been Ridge’s idea since her friend, anarchist Emma Goldman, had been doing such tours for decades. Other historians said it was conceived by William Saphier, funded by salonniere Margery Currey and directed by writer and lawyer Mitchell Dawson, but Ridge certainly helped organize the tour from the New York end.

“Respectable, high-minded persons are given to classifying writers of vers libre with dog stealers, ticket scalpers, wife deserters, and the Bolshevikii” begins “Miss Ridge to the Rescue,” the newspaper announcement of Ridge’s talk as the first of the series. The poets delivered their speeches up the elegant glass-doored elevator, past the panels of dark wood and pre-Raphaelite murals into the drama school of the Anna Morgan Studios in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building, the epicenter of Chicago’s bohemian art scene.

Chicago was hot, at least in terms of poetry. The Jackson Park Art Colony of writers at the time—Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Ben Hecht and soon-to-be New Yorker Margaret Anderson—circled around critic Floyd Dell who had moved with his wife into the old concession stands of the Columbian Exposition.

In anxious preparation before her engagement in Chicago, Ridge kept changing the title of the speech on individualism, a lecture that might have mentioned Nietzsche, Stirner, and Ibsen, the triumvirate that stressed independence and self-reliance over social expectations. Or she could have taken a less political stance to the subject. According to contemporary anarchist Murray Bookchin, “individualist anarchism remained largely a bohemian lifestyle, most conspicuous in its demands for sexual freedom and enamored of innovations in art, behavior, and clothing.” Right before her arrival, Ridge decided on giving the speech, “Woman and Creative Will.”

“They say there never has been, there is not, and there never will be a really great woman artist,” Ridge begins her speech, 52 years before Linda Nochlin asked, “Why have there been no great women artists?” and ten years before Virginia Woolf published “A Room of One’s Own.”

“I shall try to show that woman has not only a creative will, but a very great future in creative art,” Ridge declared at the onset of her speech.

Genius. . . is composed of the male and female principles of mental order and intuition vitalized by spiritual energy. . . And a work of creative art requires a union of these principles, just as the act of physical creation requires them. . . And for this reason—the dual sexuality of genius—men and women so gifted usually show characteristics of both sexes. . .

The biological explanation of woman’s inferior status, she says, is only half true. “Even Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Strindberg—three of women’s most hostile critics—have agreed. . . in granting [woman] the largest share of intuition.” Positing that intuition is the “first requisite of what we call genius,” she divides intuition into male and female principles which “must be united in one individual before we can have that perfect expression that results in a work of great creative art.” The male principle is “the power of correlating thought” and the female’s is “the ability of the mind to grasp truth with a minimum of effort.” These two principles must be “coupled with an intense urge to expression” which is “easily squandered” in the “arduous years of child-bearing.”

There is no separating the body from the mind. “Genius is a quality of the spirit rather than of the brain, and spirit is as much permeated with sex as the flesh.” Ridge asserts as popular belief that if a woman should create something of genius, she is not a woman. “In order to prove that no woman ever has been or ever could be a creative artist, [philosophers and critics generally] have said that. . . all the women of genius are. . . men.”

But—and this is Ridge paraphrasing sexologist Havelock Ellis—homosexuality “is found in a greater proportion of male geniuses but no woman has yet made herself ridiculous by asserting that men of genius are women.” She sees that “the [male] artist is naturally predatory. His soul sits like a patient spider, throwing out infinite antennae, clutching and drawing within,” and writes that he allows women in the salons solely for his own stimulation.

Her most vivid example of the opportunities withheld from women is illustrated in a reversal of genders. The Baroque painter Murillo leaves a canvas unfinished and his “mulatto” works on it without permission but is freed after showing great talent. Ridge postulates that “a girl slave who had the temerity to dream of painting a white Virgin would probably have been raped.” “Sex antagonism has been expressed in every age,” and Ridge speaks of Athens, with its “strange spectacle of artists and philosophers on one side and stunted illiterate, cow-like women on the other” that is saved only by “the so-called courtesans.” She then turned to politics and noted that the “present occupation by women of men’s places in industry” was occurring only because of the war. If it had continued, the women would be once again at the “task of providing fodder for still more deadly cannons.”

She didn’t believe in the promotion of women’s rights “as much as a human rights movement, that stands squarely linked to stand and fall with the rise and fall of the proletariat of the world.” She claimed that “the aspirations of women and the aims of labor are two things that can no longer be dictated by governments” and that fear is the only thing holding them back.

When women have realized “that art must transcend fear, and that thought is a spiritual substance to be molded like clay—they too will be the masters of dreams.” She refused even to acknowledge the still current argument cultural critic Vance Thompson made twenty years earlier: “When with simian— the feminine is nearer the simian than the masculine— ease they imitate the gestures of an artist one must always look in the background for a man.” She saw “a great future for women in creative art.”

She did not waste time blaming men for suppressing women’s creativity, but proposed an androgynous blending between what Drake calls “the male/intellect—female/intuition polarity” that would enable “real equality and an end to sexual antagonism between men and women.” She put it succinctly: “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior.”

She wanted women to work “not merely toward reorganization and reform, but toward the construction of a completely new social and economic fabric”—an insight that anarchist writer Voltairine De Cleyre and Emma Goldman would have agreed with, if not inspired. She was tremendously moved by the Russian Revolution and saw it as the place where feminism would result in liberty for both sexes, part of the “Woman Renaissance” that she felt was taking place at the time. Her contention was that if men and women could work together, America would finally overtake Europe as the intellectual and artistic world leader.

Envisioned as a sort of sideshow for this new strange practice of modernism, the Others Speakers Bureau was to have toured other Midwestern cities, according to the March 1919 issue of the magazine. Ridge was the only one to have spoken in St. Louis where she delivered her “The Growth of Individualism in American Poetry” to a good crowd, and afterwards went on to Chicago. Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Wallace Stevens were to have lectured in Chicago in the fall and winter. But the first season of the lecture series was its last—no reason given. Nonetheless, William Saphier reported in the next Others issue that “the result [of the tour] was that Lola Ridge, Conrad Aiken, Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams visited Chicago, addressed hundreds of people, made a great many friends and sold lots of books.”

Ridge’s speech received enough praise (although no reviews) that she repaired to Montreal with unsolicited money given to “individuals working for society along radical lines,” to expand her speech to book-length, with chapters on “Woman’s Creative Past, The Nature of Aesthetic Emotion, Man’s Conception of Womanhood as the Rib, Puritanism and Art, The Bisexual Nature of Genius, The Inner Room, Sex Antagonism, Motherhood and the Creative Will, and Woman’s Future in Creative Art.”

But she sensed that the project wasn’t going to be popular. “People hate to mistake you for a lamb and then catch the glint of teeth,” she wrote after her presentation in Chicago. She never completed the book and finally discarded it nine years later when Viking, then her publisher, withdrew its support on the grounds that she would have no readers.

This piece has been adapted from the author’s book Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, out this month from Schaffner Press.