I was reminded of Robin Morgan on reading about the publication of a second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters late last year. Among them were letters Plath wrote to her psychiatrist, telling of Ted Hughes’ mistreatment of her, on occasion amounting to physical violence leading to a miscarriage. Ultimately their daughter Frieda withdrew them from publication, but they are now in the possession of Plath’s former university, Smith College in Massachusetts and in the public domain. There was, however, enough in the published letters to show that Plath was convinced of Hughes’ genius, in fact of their mutual genius. Her passion for him, and for them as a power couple was immense. All the more humiliating when he dumped her for another woman, in the way any ordinary man might do. In an article by Rachel Cooke in The Guardian (9 Sept 2018) she describes Plath’s death from suicide after Hughes leaves her for another woman as becoming ‘the victim of simplified feminist ideology.’ I’m not sure if the Ted Hughes/ Sylvia Plath story is one of simplified feminist ideology, but it resonated deeply with many women at the time.
Sylvia Plath died in 1963. In 1973 Robin Morgan’s book of poetry, Monster, was published. It was wildly popular with active feminists and one poem in particular became something of a rallying cry. The Arraignment begins,
‘I accuse Ted Hughes…’
Women were angry with Hughes and his abandonment of Plath which led, as they saw it, to her suicide. The fact that the woman who replaced Plath in Hughes’ life also took her own life and that of their two-year old daughter when he left them for another woman, coupled with the fact that he profited from Plath’s work while editing it, also caused anger. It seemed to represent the callous treatment of women by men.
Hughes leant on the publisher with threats of legal action and Monster was withdrawn from sale, but by then Robin Morgan had such a huge following worldwide, that women in many countries elected to publish pirated editions of the work. For many years they disrupted Hughes’ reading with cries of ‘Monster’.
How did Robin Morgan get the power to have so much influence over so many women world-wide? One could say by sheer hard work and dedication, coupled with the fact of her inordinate sense of responsibility. How did all this come about?
Robin Morgan was brought up by her mother and her aunt. She found out later in life that they had lied about her parentage and even the year of her birth. Robin didn’t find out for many years that she was actually one year older than she had thought. She was born on 1941, not 1942 as she had been told. Her mother and aunt had also lied about the relationship with her father to disguise the fact that she was the illegitimate child of a father who didn’t care about her or her mother in any way.
Her mother went out to work and Aunt Sally managed Robin and her career. For she had a working life from a very early age. She was a cute prize-winning baby aged one and a half, and from then on was a child model and actor. She was giving speeches at benefits at the age of four and also had her own radio show, The Little Robin Morgan Show, where children wrote in to her with their problems and she counselled them. At the age of six she is photographed holding the little Robin Morgan Doll:
The Robin Morgan doll…was manufactured in a limited number as an elite doll…A plaster cast was made of my face…then the cast was recreated in hard rubber.
Elite doll: time and again it was clear someone was making a ton of money out of this child and none of it found its way to her, ever. Her mother and aunt made her feel responsible for the welfare of the family, and that never changed. She was on radio from the ages of five to seven, then moving on to television where she played Dagmar in Mama for seven years, as well as numerous roles in TV plays, as well as cutting records for Columbia. Her education had to fit around her work, which meant half-day lessons in a tiny private school, piano lessons, dance lessons, and even, when her hair began to darken, sessions at the hairdresser every few weeks to bleach her hair to keep it blonde.
Here is an excerpt from eight-year-old Robin’s diary, showing how hard she tried to be ‘good’:
I am sorry I made Mommie so miserable during that time. So I thought of the perfect present for her! It was to promise for a whole year not to make her miserable…I drew a chart …on the side it has a list of the things I do that give her nerves or hurt her…
Not to Argue
Not to be Lazy
Not to Complain
Not to Talk so Much
Not to be Selfish
Not to be a phony
She was always a thoughtful child, and her greatest dream was to be a writer.
When Morgan finally refused to continue on that exhausting treadmill for which she got nothing, there was no money forthcoming to help her set up her own apartment. Luckily, she had made friends by then, and the gay man she ultimately married and who was the father of her son Blake helped her a great deal. But even here Morgan worked day and night.
Her life is filled with work and political activism. It was she who coined the phrase Sisterhood is Powerful when she published an anthology of that title. Later came Sisterhood is Global. Her life is too full and complex to address fully here. I found her book absolutely fascinating: her friendship with Gloria Steinem, her relationship with Marilyn Waring, and endless lecture circuiting around the world. Perhaps all those years when as a child she spoke at political functions and helped other little children with their problems were perfect training for her tireless political activity. And she always wanted to be ‘good.’
But what about the money you say? As vengeful soul, I was angry on her behalf, but she remains uncomplaining. It appears that her mother had a fair bit of (Robin’s) money tucked away, but her two elderly lady carers made away with it and Robin ended up with nothing.
But what a rich life.