Feminism was really a product of the late nineteenth century: the word is first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1895 (although ‘feminist’ is found from 1852). However, there were obviously figures before the second half of the nineteenth century who argued for reforms in women’s rights and in how women should be treated in society. So below we’ve picked ten of the best feminist statements in poetry; although they may not all be banging the drum for equality or making a clear political point, these are ‘feminist’ poems in encouraging us to think about the experience of women.
1. Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’.
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less …
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
This sonnet from Rossetti seems like a good place to begin our pick of feminist poems, since it can be read as both an endorsement of the male gaze and a subtle critique of it. In the poem, Rossetti describes a male artist (almost certainly inspired by her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti) painting a female sitter or model, who is transformed through the power of the canvas into a saint, an angel, a queen, a peasant girl, and much else. Is the male artist granting the woman power to ‘live’ all of these different lives through art, or is he objectifying her, offering unattainable ideals concerning how women should be?
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘They Shut Me up in Prose’.
If prose is male, poetry is female – at least, in the rather reductive and old-fashioned binary that Emily Dickinson certainly would have been aware of, growing up in a Calvinist family in New England in the mid-nineteenth century. The poem, which can be read in full by following the link above, begins:
They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me ‘still’ —
3. Mina Loy, ‘Songs to Joannes’.
Loy (1882-1966) is a true original among Anglophone poets, but she still hasn’t had the readership or recognition she deserves. She drafted – though never published – her own ‘Feminist Manifesto’ in 1914, in which she argued that the only choices women faced in society were ‘parasitism’ (i.e. marriage and dependence on a man), ‘prostitution’ (remaining independent, but selling one’s body to live), and ‘negation’ (i.e. what used to be called ‘spinsterhood’).
Her remarkable 1917 poetic sequence ‘Songs to Joannes’, about her relationships with the Futurist writers F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini (‘Giovanni’ becomes ‘Joannes’), puts into poetic practice a number of these ideas outlined in her manifesto, which was only published 16 years after her death. Do women risk losing their individuality and selfhood if they give themselves to a man? Loy seemed to think so.
4. H. D., ‘Eurydice’.
Although this is a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife of Orpheus – the musician from Greek mythology – like many of the poems of Hilda Doolittle or H. D. (1886-1961), the poem clearly had its origins in Doolittle’s own life.
Written during the First World War when H. D. lost her brother and her marriage to Richard Aldington began to fail (their first child was also stillborn in 1915), ‘Eurydice’ is about the myth involving a woman sent to the Underworld. Orpheus travels to Hades to ask that Eurydice be returned to the land of the living, and Hades grants his wish, on condition that Orpheus doesn’t look back at his wife as they leave the Underworld. Orpheus can’t wait, and looks back at Eurydice before she’s clear of the Underworld, and as a result she is destined to remain in Hades forever. H. D. saw the feminist potential for such a story, and here gives Eurydice a voice, as she accuses her husband of thwarting her chances at life.
5. Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’.
This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Watch out for the play on the word ‘fallout’: both the quarrel between husband and wife (Adam and Eve) and nuclear fallout from the war, as well as summoning the Fall of Man. This is both an anti-war poem and a feminist poem: as Eve says at the beginning of this poem, she wasn’t the one who started it – despite the centuries of blame that Eve has endured for her part in the Fall.
6. Sylvia Plath, ‘Ariel’.
One of Sylvia Plath’s most widely discussed poems, ‘Ariel’ describes an early morning horse-ride towards the sun, using imagery that is loaded with significance, suggesting the desire to take control of one’s life and ride away. Published in October 1962, just four months before Plath committed suicide, ‘Ariel’ became the title poem in Plath’s posthumous 1965 volume, publication of which was overseen by Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes.
7. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and striving to achieve, even in the face of adversity, was used for an advertising campaign by the UNCF in the US, but the poem’s message is one that applies equally to issues of gender as well as issues of race.
8. Audre Lorde, ‘A Woman Speaks’.
This poem forms a nice companion-piece to Angelou’s poem, even though it is spoken by a very different voice. However, Lorde (1934-92) was also an African-American female poet, whose concluding words in this poem (‘I am woman and not white’) provides a clue to its dual status as a feminist poem and a poem about women of colour in the twentieth century. Drawing on ideas concerning witchcraft (a common smear against women who refuse to toe the line, of course) and oceanic and moon-imagery, it’s a powerful and stirring rallying-cry for women the world over.
9. Margaret Atwood, ‘Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing’.
This 1995 poem from the author of the bestselling feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) takes a figure from mythology, like H. D.’s ‘Eurydice’ above, and gives her a voice through the dramatic monologue form.
Here, though, Helen of Troy, the beautiful woman whose abduction caused the Trojan War, becomes a tabletop dancer in North America, whose decision to parade her body for money is greeted with derision by some women. As Helen says at the end of the poem, ‘You think I’m not a goddess?’ Think again…
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Mrs Midas’.
Taken from Duffy’s themed collection The World’s Wife, in which the female partners of various famous male figures from literature, culture, and myth speak out, this poem sees the wife of the mythological King Midas call out her husband’s greedy and foolish actions.