Rich came out as a lesbian in the 1970s and had been with her partner, writer Michelle Cliff, since 1976.
Her poetry and prose showed feminist sympathies from the 1950s onward, and her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum” challenged the idea that heterosexuality was the only normal orientation and formed the heart of theories of lesbian feminism. Her work features prominently in gender studies classes.
She also wrote passionate antiwar poetry and concerned herself with issues of class. In 1997 she turned down the National Medal for the Arts, writing to President Bill Clinton, “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”