Long before the dawn of sexting and frank depictions of women’s sexuality in TV shows like Broad City, the candlelit tea-rooms of 1920s Greenwich Village boomed with women’s sex talk. They didn’t call those years “roaring” for nothing. World War I had just ended, as had the terrible flu epidemic. Both were short, and their casualties enormous. What else for the survivors to do but fuck, or at least talk about it? According to Foucault, poetry at the start of the 17th century was the only sex talk there was until two centuries later, when sex scientists like Havelock Ellis began a murmur that turned into the roar of the sex-positive 1920s. When women writers re-discovered sex in the 1920s, poetry was what the wild girls wrote. Bookstores couldn’t keep women’s work in stock, with poems like Mina Loy’s “Love Songs to Joannes” (“Pig Cupid/His rosy snout/Rooting erotic garbage.”) flying off the shelves.
During this era, literary soirees broke out all across town—late-night wild parties with Prohibition “tea,” and drugs of any kind (most were legal),where poets burned candles at both ends. Bisexual Edna St. Vincent Millay dropped her robe at the bedside of one of her patrons and the poor woman never got over the shock. If the parties went too late, Millay was supposed to have said: “Well, tired little boy, if it’s too far to your place, you might spend the night with me, only one flight down…” (Scott, 55). But she wasn’t the only one out late. Even virginal Marianne Moore often read her first poems of the night at 2 a.m. (Kreymborg, 160).
This was at a party thrown by the anarchist poet Lola Ridge, who was known to host the best parties of all. Raised in New Zealand’s wildest era: drunken, sexually exploitative, promiscuous— and not to mention morally coercive—Ridge began writing about sex in code, the way the Victorians used flowers to secretly convey the erotic. The unpublished stanza from her poem “The Bush” (no kidding!) is:
The rival sunbeams their fingers thrust
Amid her guarded & most secret sweets;
They steal & nestle on her swelling bust,
And view unhidden all her chaste retreats. (Verses 8)
After extricating herself from New Zealand, Ridge spent four years living among North Sydney’s bohemians who promoted “wine, women and song,” where radical freethinker William Chidley delivered speeches about sex in a toga. Ridge herself modeled—probably in the nude—at art school, and later arrived in New York City in 1908.
The first thing Ridge did upon her NYC arrival was take ten years off her age, which gave her more time, sexually and socially. After all, nobody was checking her passport—nobody had passports. By October of that year Ridge was working for Emma Goldman, the century’s most famous anarchist. Sexual freedom was at the top of the list of anarchy’s demands. Goldman lectured all over the country about sex and birth control—it wasn’t just political ideas that brought on the cops. She also wrote very explicit love notes to her raunchy lover Ben Reitman, and practiced “varietism”—a chaste-sounding term that meant three- and four-somes, gay, straight, whatever.
Through Goldman, Ridge was named organizer of the anarchist Ferrer Center in the Village. The Center’s sexual openness attracted the money of Alden Freedman, the gay heir to the Standard oil fortune. At the Ferrer Center, activist Margaret Sanger offered information about birth control. Theodore Schroeder, founder of the Free Speech League, talked so often about the obscenity of religion that reporter Lincoln Steffens commented, “I believe in Free Speech for everybody except Schroeder,” and writer-historian Will Durant spoke on sex psychology. According to him, Ferrer Center audiences were “delighted to hear that almost every symbol in religious history, from the serpent of paradise to the steeples of churches in nearby Fifth Avenue, had a phallic origin” (Avrich, 167). Appointed instructor for the Ferrer Center’s school, Durant promptly married his 15-year-old student.
“Sex permeates everything,” Lola Ridge wrote in her 1909 notebook. She quit the Center and went traveling across the country in 1912 with David Lawson, a much younger man. They had been living together in the Village where, according to one critic of the time “love without marriage was seen as infinitely superior to conventional partnerships” (Stansell, 274). Ridge already had a husband—he had threatened to murder her if she took their son to America. Under an assumed name, she smuggled their son on a boat but deposited him in a Los Angeles orphanage en route to New York. The son, released at age 14, lived with Ridge and Lawson for three years while they were traveling, but was abandoned in Detroit, and she never saw him again. Ridge was a “New Woman,” and did not let the errors of her sexual past impede her present. After Goldman was deported under the Alien Immigration Act—despite being twice married to an American—and all the addresses of her friends and associates were confiscated, Ridge must have had second thoughts about her marital status. She married Lawson, making her a U.S. citizen—and a bigamist.
By 1918, Ridge was one of six editors on Margaret Sanger’s new Birth Control Review. The magazine ran articles like Maude Durand Edgren’s “Regeneration Through Sex,” which posed the question, “What is there between the deep sea of celibacy and the devil of sex gluttony?” Lower Manhattan was then notorious for licentiousness, the Tenderloin district supporting some 2,000 brothels, and, judging from the number of abortions at the turn of the century on the Lower East Side (about 100,000) everyone in the Jewish ghetto was having sex. Ridge’s editorial position on the Birth Control Review coincided with the publication of her very popular first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems. In these poems, she praised women’s sex:
Nude glory of the moon!
That leaps like an athlete on the bosoms of the young girls stripped
of their linens;
Stroking their breasts that are smooth and cool as mother-of-pearl
Till the nipples tingle and burn as those little lips plucked at them.
They shudder and go faint. (Ghetto, 26-27.)
and S&M in “Brooklyn Bridge”:
Over the night like an ecstasy–
I feel your coils tightening…
And the world’s lessening breath. (Ghetto, 70)
Ridge hooked together sex and gender in a groundbreaking speech she gave in Chicago called “Women and the Creative Will.” This speech outlined how sexually constructed gender roles hinder female development—ten years before Virginia Woolf wrote “A Room of One’s Own.” “Genius,” wrote Ridge, echoing her 1909 notebook, “is a quality of the spirit rather than of the brain, and spirit is as much permeated with sex as the flesh.” Funded to turn the essay into a book, she worked on it on for the next 10 years but gave it up when her publisher told her she would have no audience for it.
The title poem of Ridge’s 1920 book, Sun-up and Other Poems, features a bad girl who beats her doll, bites her nurse, wonders “if God has spoiled Jimmy,” after he exposes himself to her, and intimates that an imaginary friend is her bisexual half-being, suppressed by her mother.
[Jude] is fading now…
He is just lines…like a drawing…
You can see mama in between.
When she moves
She rubs some of him out. (Sun-up 36)
Ridge owned Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, new that year, which may have influenced the second half of her book. The poem “Secrets” begins in dream: “did you enter my wound from another wound/brushing mine in a crowd. . .” (64) “After Storm” ends with “Silence/builds her wall/about a dream impaled.” (62) In the aubade “Wild Duck,” the speaker sings “a hot sweet song to the super-stars,” then says a casual good-bye to her lover—”Twas a great night. . .” (41) In “Time-Stone,” the moon breaks a date with the City, “playing virgin after all her encounters,” (51) and in “Train Window” there are whispering small town churchgoers—“how many codes for a wireless whisper”(52) —just before, of course, “Scandal,” and then “Electricity:”
the charged phalluses of iron leaping
Female and male,
Complete, indivisible, one,
Fused into light. (Sun-up 54)
“In Harness” details what must have been a well-known perk of the ragtrade: orgasms in the sweatshop. Foremen were told to listen for runaway sewing machines because women climaxed frequently using the treadle for so many hours.
The girl with adenoids
rocks on her hams. . . .
Her feet beat a wild tattoo—
head flung back and pelvis lifting to the white body of the sun. (Sun-up 84.)
Soon after Sun-up was published, the soon-to-be novelist Evelyn Scott wrote in an admiring note to Ridge: “One thing I am sure of always is my love for you—your man size courage and woman size understanding and your complex bi-sexual brain.” Scott had just arrived in New York after near starvation in South America, where she had run off with a married man twenty years her senior, and returned with a new baby. She sent Ridge a present after their first meeting and Ridge answered with a mash note: “your action is the greater gift, that I would not return if I could but shall keep always like a flower . . .” It was love at first sight, and their ensuing 20-year correspondence is replete with endearments like “Lola I never think of you but with the taste of metal in my mouth as if the gods were moulding you with fire.” Did they have an affair? Women of the time often sounded on paper as if the heights of passion were being scaled.
Ridge’s reputation for poetic sexual forthrightness was the subject of a parody by fellow poet Margaret Widdemer in A Tree with a Bird in it: a symposium of contemporary american poets on being shown a pear-tree on which sat a grackle. Widdemer makes fun of Ridge’s (and many other poet’s) glorification of the city, but emphasizes Ridge’s real interest in sex:
Here are trees and birds and clouds
And picturesquely neat children across the way
on the grass
Not doing anything
(Poor little fools, I mustn’t blame them for that
Perhaps they never
But oh, God, take me to the nearest trolley line!
This is a country landscape—
I can’t stand it!
God, take me away—
There is no Sex here
And no Smell!
Ridge’s sexual nature is almost repressed by politics in her third book, Red Flag, published in 1927. “Russian Women”subtly suggests bisexuality: “You swing of necessity into male rhythms/that at once become female rhythms.” (52) In “Moscow Bells 1917” the bells ring:
over the caught air that trembles like love-flesh
Songs of all wild boys who ride forth
to love and death. . . (Red Flag 41)
In “After the Recital,”dedicated to Roland Hayes, an internationally famous black tenor, there is the suggestion of (illegal) interracial sex.
Who cared…amid the suave-shoed, white-skinned day
That scanned his body…if beneath her fires
Yet throbbing like five wounds, unhealed, he lay
Back turned…(Red Flag 79)
Ridge’s fourth book, the hastily written Firehead, is a retelling of the Crucifixion, mostly from Mary’s point-of-view. Jesus is the great seducer, and all endure “the searing fire of that glance.” (34) Amongst Firehead’s “tirelessly extended metaphors” writes one critic, lies “an anachronistic poetess-like lyric style in the service of clearly un-lady-like material,” with lines like “Let thy trumpeting mountains urinate upon her their scalding lavas.”(95) Even Christ does not escape eroticization. After it seems he has raped his mother, he begs to return to her: “Thou wound of time that gangrenes now, thou mud of ages,/open and take back thy son.” (98)
“Nice is the one adjective in the world that is laughable applied to any single thing I have ever written,” Ridge writes two years later. Yet such is the strength of her work that the radical preacher John Haynes Holmes, founding member of both the N.A.A.C.P. and A.C.L.U., invited her to read at his church on Park Avenue that year.
Ridge’s last book, Dance of Fire, contains no overtly sexual material but was published just as she was beginning an affair with a Mexican man during her travels on a Guggenheim when she was 62. Left in Ridge’s correspondence around the time of this liaison was a slip of gold-orange paper with a note written in her hand:
. . . that has nothing to do with the emotional attractions of one being for another in which while it lasts anyhow – dignity is pretty generally forced to abdicate – and most every other attribute of the ego that is likely to obstruct that very exclusive jealous and single urge. . .
It might not have been her first affair. There is a letter from a “Stan” that’s very suggestive of a brief relationship. Addressed to “Darling, ” and signed “all my love.” The letter is replete with compliments, as well as the timid assertion that he “dare to talk to you as an equal.” Adultery was all the rage. Millay rendezvoused with a young man with her husband’s consent, and Ridge’s friend, Eda Lou Walton, had affairs with Margaret Mead’s husband and brother—and many others. For years, Ridge had hoped that her husband would take a lover, complaining that if he gave her money, he wouldn’t be able to afford a girlfriend. She even tried to act as a matchmaker but he refused to be involved with anyone else. After her affair in Mexico, when she was marooned penniless in California, Ridge’s husband offered to take her back. She died a few years later in an apartment they shared in Brooklyn.
Lawson bequeathed Ridge’s library to Bryn Mawr, writing his name inside four of her eight books on phallic worship, two of them heavily illustrated. Ophiolatreia begins “O, the worship of the serpent, next to the adoration of the phallus, is one of the most remarkable, and, on first sight, unaccountable forms of religion the world has ever known.” Ridge notes of the author of Sex Symbolism in Religion that “This man is too biased and undeveloped.” Phallicism in Ancient Worship features pictures of pillars and columns, and The Story of Phallicism devotes many pages on Roman prostitution. Ridge’s statements on bisexual creativity are affirmed in Sex and Sex Worship, published a year after her speech in Chicago. It cites Philo, a Jewish philosopher contemporaneous with Jesus, who believed that Adam was an androgynous being “in the likeness of God,” and Plato, who saw male and female as sexual halves.
As Lola Ridge put it in a 1935 interview, “I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” Her writing spanned highly political topics such as executions, labor leaders, race riots and lynchings. And sex was central to Ridge—celebrated but not separate from her politics. Her work has been historically neglected partially because Ridge was too radical, in life and in work—which begs the question: Is her sexually charged work still too hot, even for today?
- Evelyn Scott to Lola Ridge. 1920. Uncollected. Smith College.
- Lisella, Julia. “Lola Ridge’s Firehead.” How2 1.8 (Fall 2002).
- Ridge to Louise Adams Floyd. 12 Aug 1932. Smith.
- Schulz, William F. Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004 95.
Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. Oakland: A.K. Press. 20005.
Kreymborg, Alfred. Troubadour: An Autobiography. New York: Liveright, 1925.
Scott, Cyril Kay. Sinbad: A Romance. New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923.
Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009.
Terese Svoboda is an American poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, librettist, translator, biographer, critic, and videomaker. She is the author of five collections of poetry, five novels, a novella and stories, a memoir, and a book of translation. Her essays, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Poetry, Times Literary Supplement, Yale Review, Slate, and The New York Times. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship and the Money for Women Barbara Deming Memorial Prize, and she teaches fiction at the Center for Fiction in New York. Her new books are When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems 1985-2015 (Anhinga Press) and Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (Schaffner Press). She lives in New York City.