Santa Cruzs Adrienne Rich, groundbreaking feminist writer

Adrienne Rich, a fiercely gifted, award-winning poet whose socially conscious verse influenced a generation of feminist, gay rights and anti-war activists, has died. She was 82.

Rich died March 26 at her Santa Cruz home from complications from rheumatoid arthritis, said her son, Pablo Conrad. She had lived in Santa Cruz since the 1980s.

Through her writing, Rich explored topics such as women’s rights, racism, sexuality, economic justice and love between women.

Born in Baltimore in 1929, Rich was the elder of two daughters of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother — a mixed heritage that she recalled in her autobiographical poem “Sources,” describing herself as a “perpetual outsider.”

Adrienne Rich photo/ap-stuart ramson

In 1953, Rich married Harvard University economist Alfred Conrad, member of an observant Jewish family, and they had three sons. But she left him in 1970 and eventually lived with her life partner, writer and editor Michelle Cliff. She used her experiences as a mother to write “Of Woman Born,” her groundbreaking feminist critique of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, published in 1976.

In later years, Rich began to explore and embrace her Jewish identity, which she had been forced to hide or suppress in her youth. She became involved with New Jewish Agenda and in 1990 was a founding co-editor of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal.

In 1982’s “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity,” she asked, “Why … does this question of Jewish identity float so impalpably, so ungraspably around me, a cloud I can’t quite see the outlines of, which feels to me to be without definition?”

Rich published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction.

She won MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and many top literary awards, including the Bollingen Prize, Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and Wallace Stevens Award.

She won a National Book Award for her collection of poems “Diving into the Wreck” in 1974, when she read a statement she wrote with fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, “refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.”

In 2003, Rich and other poets refused to attend a White House symposium on poetry to protest to U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Rich taught at many colleges and universities, including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State and Stanford.