In 1966, she moved with her family, which now included three sons, to New York City, and became increasingly involved in the sociopolitical activism of the day. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. In 1968, Adrienne also began teaching for the college as part of the SEEK writing, she also maintained the position of lecturer and adjunct professor at both Swarthmore College and Columbia University School of the Arts. Rich stayed on to teach in the basic writing program at CUNY as directed by Mina Shaughnessy through the early 1970s. Much of her interest in teaching basic writing, as with her poetry at the time, was in the colliding political and social worlds at CUNY with open enrollment program. Her books from this period, Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and Will to Change (1971), reflect an evolving, expanding sense of poetic form and social engagement. In 1969, she became estranged from her husband, who committed suicide the following year. Rich became active in the women's liberation movement from this point forward. In 1974, her collection Diving Into the Wreck received the National Book Award for Poetry; Rich, however, refused the award individually, instead joining with two other female poets (Alice Walker and Audre Lorde) to accept it on behalf of all silenced women.
Rich's feminist position crystallized in her self-declaration as a lesbian, in 1976, the year she published her controversial but groundbreaking volume Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution; the pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), which was incorporated into the following year's Dream of a Common Language (1978), marks the first direct treatment of lesbian desire and sexuality in her work. The subsequent A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) and some of the late poems in The Fact of a Doorframe (2001) represent the capstone of this philosophical and political position. During this period, Rich also wrote a number of important essays, including "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," some of which were republished in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979).
Rich's poetry of the 1980s and 1990s cast a broader net, once again exploring the themes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but with greater acuteness and range. The award-winning volume An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) and Dark Fields of the Republic (1995) in particular map out discursive spaces engaging private and public histories, and offer powerful examples of ethically engaged, socially committed lyric poetry.
Rich refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997 stating that "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." Another quote from the same speech outlines her view of poetry: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
Among her many awards are the inaugural, 1986 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the 1992 Poets' Prize, the 1997 Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets, the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for School Among the Ruins, and the 2006 National Book Foundation (presenter of the National Book Awards) "Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters".