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Introduction to Feminist Poetry

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Hello, in this lecture we move onto the next week’s topic that is, Feminist Poetry. We willhave a brief introduction to Feminist Poetry and discuss the historical and literary contextwith reference to the waves of feminism; first wave, second wave, third wave, fourth wave.And as we discuss these different waves of feminism, we will also have some sample poemsrepresenting each of these waves. Finally, we will arrive at the features of Feminist Poetrywhich we will find in the poets, we have chosen to discuss in this course.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:00)
The historical context is very vast as old as human beings, as old as civilisation. Right f romthe beginning of human life, we have found some kind of discrimination based on gender.And that has resulted in some kind of imbalance in our life. So, discrimination based ongender is a serious problem and that leads to oppression of women throughout history. Thisoppression is found in the form of denial of rights to ownership of children, body, property,voting, education and employment and many other areas of life where men take them forgranted but women will have to struggle hard to achieve even common things like education.What is distressing about this situation is a woman who gives birth to her child, even that shecannot claim to be her own child; that is a kind of life we have lived through. Things havechanged now but still we find absence of adequate, equal opportunities for women andmarginalised groups of people. Initially, therefore women did not have much participation insocial and political life. One of the best ways they thought they could achieve some rights isthrough this political participation with this voting rights.That is why women’s suffrage moments were popular throughout the world particularlyEurope and America. Thereafter, after so many moments, so many actions on the groundwomen were able to see some kind of progress but the realities and gaps in the socialcondition of women, we are able to see even today. Some kind of subtle and opendiscrimination, we find even today in our life and that is, very much visible in the continuedviolence against women.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:17)
The historical context reflects the literary context as well. Both men and women were writingpoems, plays, epics and so many other art forms but then this idea of women’s writing did notreceive much prominence, that is why their representation in serious studies is negligible. Theliterary canon has therefore remained patriarchal favouring men and against women.Twentieth century has seen several changes in the literary context. Many women were able toexpress themselves, write themselves, publish their writings and then bring these writingsinto serious discussions among various people, including academia.Therefore, women writers are no longer required to use a male name as we can see in thenineteenth century. Women were using male name, for example George Elliot, so that wasnot her name but she had to adopt this name. Now, women can look upto a feminist traditionin literature, if a woman wants to write a poem she can see, read and model herself on awoman before her. But earlier this kind of woman’s writings were not easily accessible,available for others.We have writers like Virginia Wolf and Theorists like Betty Freidan, who have establishedthe feminist writings and their grounds firmly today. Some poets like, Elizabeth BarrettBrowning and Emily Dickinson have overcome all their difficulties and they were able toestablish themselves as great poets. When we discussed Lord Tennyson, we found ElizabethBarrett Browning was a serious contender for this poet laureateship of England but she couldnot get it because she was a woman.
Now, the granddaughters of Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson, they have got so manyprizes, so many awards, so many positions in various walks of life. We have two great poetsin twentieth century, Adrienne Rich and Carol Ann Duffy, who represent even various sexualorientations and that is how this feminist poetry or feminist writings has flourished intwentieth century and it continues to do so in twenty first century as well.(Refer Slide Time: 06:02)
Let us see the series of waves of Feminism. This wave of feminism is all about articulation ofwomen’s voices in different periods. Earlier we have had some isolated efforts from thefifteenth century to the nineteenth century. And once this kind of organisation took place thenthe voice became louder and louder. Let us see the first wave where concerted efforts weretaken in the early twentieth century. The first achievement of this first wave was voting rightsfor women in 1918, in the UK and 1920, in the US and rest of the world did not have toworry too much because of these achievements.What is achieved in one country is also reflected, of course with a lag of time in othercountries as well. With this voting rights, women started moving further and they cametogether with their united efforts in the 1960’s and 70’s. And they were fighting for the equalpay and also, they were still further fighting for equal rights that is why these two acts werepassed in the US, The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and The Civil Rights Act of 1964.But as usual with many Acts, women did not get this equal rights. They got equal pay butthey did not get equal rights; that is why in the third wave, daughters of the second waveFeminist started further fighting with the oppressive forces with the help of technology, that
is information, communication technology. These daughters are called GenXers and we alsohave the fourth wave, where many different kinds of women, earlier in the f irst wave onlywhite, European woman had these voice.Then when it came to the second wave, still black women and the others coloured woman didnot get that equal right that is why they participated in this equal rights moment. And when itcame to the third wave, they got equal pay, they got some rights; still many othermarginalised groups from different kinds of immigrant sections and also from differentsections of the people like post-colonial countries in Africa or India or Asia, many otherplaces people did not have their voices.That is why; in the fourth wave, women from different parts of the world belonging tovarious groups they are able to express their voices. But we know well, there are someproblems which continue still today across the world, particularly violence against womenhas not stopped, it continues in some form or the other.(Refer Slide Time: 09:03)
Now, let us pay some more attention to the individual waves of Feminism,from f irst to thefourth. This first wave of Feminism can be noticed before nineteenth century. So, this kind ofwriting about women’s voices or writing about women’s needs; we have before fifteenthcentury but one recorded document we have through this French Feminist philosopher,Christine de Pisan. She advocated the female education as early as fifteenth century. Andthen in the sixteenth century, we have the English pamphleteer Jane Anger, who discussedwomanhood in Her Protection of Women, in 1589. Unless we come to this area of f eminist
studies, we may not come to know who this Jane Anger is. We may study sixteenth century,English poetry or American Poetry or any other Poetry but we would not come to know aboutJane Anger unless we enter this area of Feminist studies.That is why this women’s writing has to be studied separately with due attention. In theseventeenth century, the English philosopher Mary Astell wanted education f or women notjust marriage or some kind of service in religious convents. In the eighteenth century wehave this French dramatist Olympe de Gouges, who asserted the equal rights of women in a“Declaration of The Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.”There was a French declaration of Rights for Man and the Citizen and this female wasomitted and that is why, this dramatist specifically wrote this kind of “Declaration for theRights of Woman and the Female Citizen.” And the same eighteenth century, we have theEnglish author Mary Wollstonecraft, who demanded equal opportunities for women in “AVindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792.Of all this, we know Mary Wollstonecraft is somewhat well known whereas others are notthat much equally known because Wollstonecraft lived in a time and she was associated withcertain writers and she could get some kind of recognition, whereas others did not get anysuch recognition. It takes long time twentieth century or twenty first century to learn aboutthem.(Refer Slide Time: 11:35)
The First Wave of Feminism is very dominant in the nineteenth century but to achieve theirgoal, main goal of voting rights they have to wait till the next Century. In 1848, the middle-
class German novelist Louise Otto published the “Speech of a German Girl” with her ownname, that itself was an achievement. A woman cannot write something and publish it in herown name, that was the condition in nineteenth century. In the same year 1848, we have theFrench Feminist Eugenie Niboyet, who founded The Voice of Women, a daily newspaperthat was important for spreading the message about the voice of women.Then in the same year, we have Lucretia Moot, Martha Wright and the others who organisedThe First Women’s Rights Convention in New York. The main agenda of this conventionwas the right to vote. In 1865, The American Civil War did not help the cause of thisWomen’s movement. The Women’s movement was derailed for sometime but later in 1869,Stanton and Susan B Anthony established the National Women Suffrage Association ,specifically for the cause of getting this right to vote.And in 1898, we have Charlotte Perkins Gilman who exploded the domestic mythology ofwomen in Women and Economics. The moment women started thinking about Economics,they were able to see some light. So, at home women maybe working but they do not get anykind of pay for that or remuneration for that and that was a payless job and so she startedemphasising that women must work and earn money, so that they could get some kind ofeconomic independence.(Refer Slide Time: 13:36)
To represent this First wave of Feminism, we have an extract from Elizabeth BarrettBrowning’s epic novel in verse ‘Aurora Leigh.’ Let us read this extract from which we can
understand women’s capacity for originality, writing, intelligence, creativity, aspirations andmany other things. Now, let us read this extract from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s LeighAurora, a novel in verse;
“For me,Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say,Of work like this! ... Perhaps a woman’s soulAspires, and not creates! Yet we aspire,And yet I ‘ll try out your perhapses, sir;And if I fail ... why burn me up my strawLike other false works - I ‘ll not ask for grace,Your scorn is better, cousin Romney. IWho love my art, would never wish it lowerTo suit my stature. I may love my art,You ‘ll grant that even a woman may love art,Seeing that to waste true love on anything,Is womanly, past question”
So, here we have this man Romney who the lady address and she loves art, she expresses heraspiration and she wants to take a chance to write and express herself and that is whatElizabeth Barrett Browning did. She did it successfully, more successfully than Tennyson andBrowning but she could not get that kind of recognition that her husband could get or LordTennyson could get primarily because of this gender discrimination.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:19)
Now, let us see the second wave of Feminism in early twentieth century. In 1903, the radicalfeminist Emmeline Pankhurst adopted a militant approach through boycotts, bombings andpickets. Can we imagine a woman in early twentieth century, attempting all these militantapproaches? and in 1918, the British Parliament approved the voting rights for women overthe age of 30 years.So, what many other feminist or rights or activists could not do in the nineteenth century,Emmeline Pankhurst and her friends could achieve in 1918 and things did not wait for solong in the US. In another two years, in 1920 the radical American feminist Alice Paulorganised mass demonstrations achieving voting rights by the nineteenth Amendment to theAmerican Constitution.After achieving this voting rights, women tended to become complaisant and they have theirown individual agenda’s and so many organizations disintegrated into different kinds offorces under various groups. Of course, we have had some kind of Women’s JointCongressional Committee, The League of Women, Women’s Trade Union and all that but theunited strength was missing after that.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:49)
The Second wave of Feminism continued in the mid twentieth century. There was a kind ofunrest among educated women. The Civil Rights Movement was emerging very strongly atthis time. In 1961, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, headed by EleanorRoosevelt, reported discrimination against women in employment and pay. And so, the EqualPay Act was passed in 1963. Similarly, after this Civil Rights movement, The Civil RightsAct was passed to give equal opportunities for all kinds of people.But then this Act did not ensure Women’s Right, that is why Women’s Right Movementbecame popular. Many organisations like The National Organisation for Women wereestablished. As a result, many Health and Rape Crises Centres were established and womenput their heads together and started rewriting Children’s books to eliminate stereotypes. Awoman is not meant to be domesticated and kept in the kitchen. This kind of stereotype theyremoved from textbooks and also, they were able to get many job openings which weredenied for them until then.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:13)
Many Theoretical Developments took place during this Second wave of Feminism. In theFirst wave, intellectual enquiries were directed at the origin of woman’s oppression. Thenature of gender and the role of the family what is gender? where did this oppression arisefrom? and how does family contribute to this kind of discrimination? these are the questionsthat were addressed in the first wave. But in the second wave, more theoretical understandingof woman’s oppression took place and they directly went into the crux of the matter that is,enquiry into the power relationship between men and women.First, we have Kate Millet’s book “Sexual Politics” published in 1970 which regarded thepersonal as political. Everything is political; everywhere we have power relationships; that ishow she argued. And then Shulamith Firestone’s, “The Dialectic of Sex” published again inthe same year 1970 stressed that love was a disadvantage for women, as it created personalprisons. Love is a kind of trap into which women were drawn and then oppressed f orever.That is a kind of argument we have in Firestone’s book.Further, in Germaine Greer’s book, “The Female Eunuch.” We have the revelation thatwomen could not use their own creative energy for self fulfilment due to sexual oppression.A creative woman is not able to express herself very well realise her full potential because ofthis sexual oppression. This is a kind of insight Greer pointed out in the book, ‘The FemaleEunuch’ in 1971.
(Refer Slide Time 20:02)
Within this Second wave of Feminism, we have three groups of women representing variouspoints of view. First, we have liberal feminist, these feminists focused on practical changes insocial institutions and government, strict equality, support services for women. They did notwant to disturb the existing system, they wanted to work with the existing system. But wehave another group of women called Radical Feminist, who did not agree with the liberalfeminist.Radical feminists on the other hand attempted to restructure the inherently patriarchal so cialinstitutions. They were also trying to reorganise the hierarchical and traditional powerrelationships into non-hierarchical ways. And we also have one more group of women calledCultural Feminists, they did not adopt any radical position. They were also not happy withthe liberal position. That is why they called themselves cultural feminists. They recognisedand celebrated the difference between men and women. It is a given, they are different, whybother about it. Instead of that they said we have to showcase the concern for affectiverelationships and nurturing qualities in women. That is a position of cultural feminists. Allthese different positions will not be accepted by all people, so, one group may f ocus on onething; another group may focus on another thing. Ultimately, all of them were interested inthe rights and opportunities for women.
(Refer Slide Time: 21:43)
For the second wave, we have a well-known poem called “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. We havejust one extract from this again. This is a famous poem by Plath,
“You do not do, you do not doAny more, black shoeIn which I have lived like a footFor thirty years, poor and white;Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time-Marble heavy, a bad full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toeBig as a Frisco seal.”
Plath’s father died when Plath was about eight, and she felt guilty about it and she livedthrough her life with this kind of sense of guilt. And it is a very complex poem aboutpsychosocial dynamics between a daughter and the father. So, this poem is considered to be a
very good example of the Second wave of Feminism, addressing the power relationshipsbetween the woman and the man; the man maybe father or husband or any oth er person, sowe have this enquiry into power relationships.(Refer Slide Time: 22:58)
Now, let us see the Third Wave of Feminism in the later twentieth century. This movementstarted with the women who were born in the 1960’s and 1970’s who became GenXers. Theywere saturated with media and all kinds of diversity. They achieved Economic andProfessional Power and Status which was made possible by the ICT revolution. Some ofthese women were actually daughters of the Second Wave Feminists.One notable example is Rebecca Walker, who was the daughter of Alice Walker. Sheestablished the Third Wave Foundations to help women. We have a manifesto in J.Baumgardner and A. Richard’s “Manifesta,” which published in 2000. This manifestorefashioned the sexual division of labour at home. It also suggested raising daughters withself-awareness and also it further suggested development of the concept of gender continuum.Gender is not something associated with woman; there is a kind of female experience andmale experience. There is a continuum between the two, nothing is isolated. This is a kind ofsharing of responsibility, understanding of life that the Third wave of feminism has attemptedto convey to the people.
(Refer Slide Time: 24:28)
At the close of twentieth century, the Third Wave of Feminism took different shapes. Womenparticipated in the institutional power structure. They could redefine themselves as assertiveand powerful. Most importantly, they could take control of their own sexuality. Do they wantto remain women? or do they want to be somebody else? they could decide on their own.They could take their own position with reference to sexual orientation. They appeared assmart and independent women in media and many other spears of life. They also popularisedthe notion of girl power.Third wave of feminism advanced Kimberle Williams Crenshaw’s concept ofintersectionality. That means race, gender, class and so many aspects of lif e have differentlayers of discrimination and they are all inter connected; that is the idea of intersectionalityadvanced by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. Third Wave of Feminism further democratizedthe feminist movement through the internet and its allied technologies. Some women couldbecome iconic cultural figures. We have this famous example of singer Madonna. There aremany others, this is only one example.
(Refer Slide Time: 25:56)
We have a poem here to discuss the Third Wave of Feminism. We have an extract from CarolAnn Duffy, a British Poet. Her poem is “Miss Havisham.” Miss Havisham is a character inCharles Dickens novel great expectations. And she has rewritten this character in this way.
“the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did thisto me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.Some nights better, the lost body over me,my fluent tongue in its mouth in its earthen down till I suddenly bite awake. Love’s
hate behind a white veil; a red balloon burstingin my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.Do not think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.”
Miss Havisham was isolated and lived a lonely life. She had a hatred for men and her hatred,her thoughts and the ideas are expressed in this. She was like this because her heart broke and
that is why we have this last line, “Do not think it is only the heart that breaks” everythingelse breaks when a woman is discriminated, oppressed.(Refer Slide Time: 27:21)
Now we have the Fourth Wave of Feminism in twenty first century. With all theseachievements in power, in relations and all that still feminist questions remain. Sexual abuse,rape, violence against women, unequal pay, shaming, the pressure on women to conform to asingle and unrealistic body-type, little female representation in politics and business continueto draw our society.We have powerless centers for women in academics and politics or many other organisations.The dream of equality is still a question, that is why we continue to have movements like,The Arab Spring and the MeToo movement which was started in 2017. So, such movementsstill continue to arise because the equality, the rights of women have not been fully ensuredyet.
(Refer Slide Time: 28:29)
We have a poem for the Fourth Wave of Feminism, from Dorothy Lasky’s “The Birth,”
“The birth isn’t about poetryIt is about screaming pain on a SundayHailing a cab and head racingTo the hospital, now so close to the new apartment.
I had a baby inside of meBut no one expected it to happen so fastOr then at least they said they didn’t.Maybe they expected it to happen so fastAll along.”
The basic problem of women is addressed in this Birth, something happens against the wishof the women. Then she has to endure this for her whole life, the pain of a woman is her pain,nobody else’s.
(Refer Slide Time: 29:15)
From all these theoretical discussions on various waves of feminism and the examples thatwe have discussed, we can arrive at a few features of Feminist Poetry as listed here.Expression of women’s experiences, challenge to patriarchy, search for a new language,experiment with poetic forms, exploration of new images and metaphors, identification of afeminist literary tradition, recovery of forgotten/ repressed poets and authors, revision ofstereotypical images of women, self-awareness and self-assertion, continual struggles againstregressive forces. And lastly, creation of a feminist taste among the reading public. That is allthe more important, when we read writings by women, we have to read differently. Not likewhat we used to have as patriarchal readings.
(Refer Slide Time: 30:14)
To give a summary of the presentation we have had on Feminist poetry, we looked into thehistorical and literary context of Feminist poetry, discussed different kinds of feminism withreference to the first wave, the second wave, the third wave, and the fourth wave. We alsoread samples of poems for all these four different waves and finally, listed the features offeminist poetry, which we will further discuss in the poets we have chosen for our course.(Refer Slide Time: 30:52)
Here are a few references, we can find lots of references on feminism, the waves offeminism, everything else but these are some, I think will be useful to beginners. Thank you.