When you talk about ‘feminism’, the concept of ‘patriarchy’ is virtually raised directly or indirectly. Both come as heavily loaded concepts and they are often juxtaposed. Many feminist poets such as Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree), Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Anna Akhmatova, etc to name a few talked substantially about feminism in different lights in the past two centuries. They were very vocal and assertive about their rights and the ‘rights for women’ in general. Each of them fought hard to bring equality between the two genders. While they might have been successful at making a good attempt to obliterate gender biases but still there are lot of disparities between the two genders. Nevertheless, their poetry reflects a deep angst.
Sojourner Truth born to slave parents lived more than half her life as a slave. The turmoil and the stigma she went through in the initial stages of her life are clearly reflected on her much celebrated poem, “Ain’t I a woman?” The title of the poem is a question asked to the men folk about her sexuality. She deliberately uses this question redundantly in the poem to reiterate the fact that she is a woman. By asking the same question to the male counterparts, she is reassuring herself that she is a strong woman who is nothing less than a man.
Therefore, Sojourner skillfully and purposely attributes all the male characteristics to the ‘woman’ in the poem. She can eat as much as a man can. She can work as much as a man does. She can also take the whippings from a man. Her hands too are thick and strong like men’s.
Thus, she compares herself to a man as she thinks she can do everything that a man can and does. Interestingly, nobody answers her question, which she asks repeatedly. The silence is evident enough that a woman cannot necessarily become a man or be equivalent to a man just by having the male characteristics in her. “What does then take for a woman to be equivalent to a man?” is a question one might to ask here.
Emily Dickinson was more like a recluse herself. She is known for her eccentricity. She was perpetually obsessed with ‘death’ and in it she found true happiness. However, one can also read this from a different angle of the prism. In her poem, “The Chariot” she talks about ‘death’ being the final destination. She dramatizes ‘death’ by personifying as male.
On one hand, this seems like she is obsessed with both death and men. On the contrary, this could be a euphemistic way of expressing her disgust towards the men folk. As death is an end to everything, she calls upon men to take her to the final destination. Her poem therefore, is a very subtle way of countering men in general. She cleverly talks about ‘feminism’ by using a very common topic such as ‘death’ very openly.
Maya Angelou, a well-known Afro-American autobiographer, a poet and a feminist is well known for being feisty. In her poem, “Caged Bird”, she symbolizes the “Caged Bird” as a woman, who is terminally trapped in the men’s world. The ‘caged bird’ has no freedom to fly as it is caged forever. When it observes its surroundings, it is jealous of the free bird as the latter has everything that it wants. The freedom to fly wherever it wants to, the freedom to challenge the world are all that the free bird is attributed to. Nobody chides the free bird for anything it does whereas the caged bird is denied the freedom.
Maya symbolizes the caged bird skillfully. Here, ‘cage’ is an important symbol of putting restrictions and hard rules on women by men folk. Their movement is restricted and they are also under constant scrutiny as they can be easily available unlike the free birds that fly independently. Ironically, the free bird has everything that the caged bird wants. Therefore, the only freedom that it has is ‘to sing’.
Through singing, the free bird expresses its freedom. The tone clearly suggests the envy that the caged bird has towards the free bird. ‘The freedom to sing’ that is awarded to the caged bird is a reminiscent of ‘Harlem renaissance’ that witnessed an intellectual uproar in the black community. Music was one of the strong tools used by the subjugated blacks to express their angst and freedom against the whites.
Sylvia Plath, who suffered a mental breakdown during her college days, is a well known face in American Literature. She is also an important figure of ‘Feminism’. She was known for her obsession with ‘death’ primarily and also for her eccentricity. She contemplated suicide ten times and died at the last attempt. Her poetry deals with the ‘obsession with death’, which is almost a forbidden topic to be discussed more so by a woman.
She however, talks about ‘death’’ at lengths in her poetry. She also called ‘dying’ an art and confessed openly that she did exceptionally well at it. In “Lady Lazarus”, she substantially talks about her contemplating suicide time and again. She then moves the topic to talk about ‘Nazism’, which she did not support. Further, she gives a confused details about her appearance. She seems to oscillate her own descriptions from one extreme to the other.
At one point, she describes herself as a delicate creature and on the contrary, she projects a devilish image of her own appearance. She ends the poem with a warning sent against men by proclaiming that she will rise from her death and eat them like air.
Anna Akhmatova, a Russian great feminist poet portrays the difficulties of writing creatively by women and the pain endured under Stalinism. The much celebrated biblical story, “Lot’s Wife” has been composed as a poem by Anna. In the poem, Lot and his family members are warned by God not to look back while fleeing from their hometown.
However, Lot’s wife looks back and she is punished by God by turning into a pillar of salt. It is interesting to note here that Lot, who being a man should be guiding his wife, is not successful at doing so. Nevertheless, he is not questioned nor is he punished by God who is also a male. Lot’s wife is also not given any freedom to justify herself for the supposed sin that she committed. This may clearly say that men’s judgments are based on assumptions and not on facts. Moreover, it’s also possible that Lot’s wife could have tripped over a stone while walking in a hurry to flee from her home.
Besides, being a woman she is bound to feel more emotional about leaving her home permanently than her husband does. Ironically, she is not given any chance to take any stance. The very fact that Lot’s wife is not given any name itself proves the double standardness of men. Anna refers back to the “Holy Bible” to prove a point that gender discrimination against women started right from God, which is diligently followed by his male disciples, Lot being one of them. Nevertheless, rationalization is ruled out completely.
While the contributions made by these well-known feminist poets augur well for bringing equality between men and women but only for a while. Therefore, women alone cannot mend the disparity, which began right from the days of God. It’s about time that men took active participation in obliterating the gender biases and gender inequality that persist till today.
As the famous cliché goes, “There is a woman behind every successful man.” It’s time that the world found a supportive man for every single woman. Therefore, ‘feminism’ cannot be a one-sided-struggle but a collective struggle wherein men and women contribute equally.