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Feminist Poems Published Before Most Ladies Could Vote

I thought I hated poetry and that I'd have to do a lot of skimming to earn my lit degree... NOPE.

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Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women, Aemilia Lanyer

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Published: 1611

On the Premise: Even if Eve was responsible for the fall of man – Lanyer refutes that; there are almost three stanzas asserting that Adam “was most to blame” – women have been redeemed through Pontius Pilate’s wife, who warned him not to condemn Jesus.

On the Poet: Lanyer was the first Englishwoman to publish a full volume of non-translated poetry, and was bold in her search for patronage. She played mistress to her wealthy patron until she got knocked up, at which point she was married off and she sounds pretty pissed off in the rest of her poems, which is fair enough.

A Quote by Which to Live: “Then let us have our liberty again, / And challenge to yourselves no sovereignty. / You came not in the world without our pain, / Make that a bar against your cruelty; / Your fault being greater, why should you disdain / Our being your equals, free from tyranny?” Talk about your poetic justice.

The Author to Her Book, Anne Bradstreet

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Published: 1677

On the Premise: Bradstreet compares her book of poetry, which was published in England while she remained in America, to a child. Her book is just as important, and perhaps more so, than her children, because she has created it without the help of a man. However, she didn’t know that her first book was being published, so it was as if someone had xeroxed her diary.

On the Poet: Bradstreet’s father saw that she was well-educated before she moved to the New World. She was often sickly, but had a strong enough constitution to give birth eight times, and even wrote a poem while her house burned, because there wasn’t a fire brigade back then, and what else could you do? Might as well make art out of a sticky situation, eh?

A Quote by Which to Live: “Yet being mine own, at length affection would / Thy blemishes amend, if so I could: / I washed thy face, but more defects I saw, / And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.”

The Disappointment, Aphra Behn

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Published: 1680

On the Premise: Cloris is vastly disappointed with Lysander’s ability to get it up. It seems a little problematic that she’s threatening to accuse him of rape, but I suppose we’ve all got our fetishes. But really, it’s just a failed sex scene, and it deals with the ever-present problem of women being unable to orgasm. It’s notable that this is technically a translated poem, but this focuses on the woman’s feelings, whereas the original clearly did not.

On the Poet: Behn was a very strong presence in the boy’s club that was British playwriting, and liked to call out her critics for her faults. Much of her life is a mystery, but she was certainly bold in her writing and favored progress in writing as an art form over tradition. Virginia Woolf credits Behn with giving all women the right to speak their minds.

A Quote by Which to Live: “The blood forsook the hinder place, / And strewed with blushes all her face, / Which both disdain and shame expressed: / And from Lysander’s arms she fled, / Leaving him fainting on the gloomy bed.”

To the University of Cambridge, in New England, Phillis Wheatley

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Published: 1773

On the Premise: Wheatley addresses the students of Harvard, essentially telling them to check their privilege and use it to make the world a better place, both in terms of knowledge and morality. If I can call you out, she says, y’all must be pretty bad.

On the Poet: Wheatley was a teenage slave living in Boston when her poetry was published in London. She was educated by the people that legally owned her, but was not freed until just before they died. She then married a freedman who did not do too well for himself – even in supposedly enlightened Boston, former slaves were still treated inhumanely – and she ended up in an unmarked grave with him.

A Quote by Which to Live: “Improve your privileges while they stay, / Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears / Or good or bad report of you to Heaven. / Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul, / By you be shunned, nor once remit your guard; / Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg. / Ye blooming plants of human race divine, / An Ethiop tells you ‘tis your greatest foe; / Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain, / And in immense perdition sinks the soul.”

The Cry of the Children, Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Published: 1843

On the Premise: Barrett Browning uses what little privilege she has to call attention to the crisis of child labor during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Since she is not a child herself, she begs her readers to listen to their cries rather than hers, but makes a good argument on the way. It’s very on brand about twenty-five years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first suggested that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t the greatest thing for the progression of society.

On the Author: Barrett Browning was the wife of fellow poet Robert Browning and was vastly more famous than he. She was first published at age thirteen (come ON) and didn’t get married until Browning blushingly told her he liked her work when she was about forty and eloped with him. She was a nineteenth-century SJW and inspired our next lady poet to write.

A Quote by Which to Live: “Do you question the young children in the sorrow / Why their tears are falling so? / … / And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering, / And the graves are for the old!’” Relevant.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun, Emily Dickinson

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Published: 1863

On the Premise: Okay, so if you read this very technically, it’s literally a riddle about a gun, but I choose to read a layer deeper than that, and that’s what poetry is all about. I see this as the speaker (probably not Dickinson herself) as an actual human female who empowers herself in a patriarchal society by doing the dirty work in upholding a lover’s or a husband’s or God’s honor and being content with knowing that she’s the real genius here.

On the Poet: Everyone loves our little white-wearing recluse who no one knew was a poet until they found her room bursting with oddly punctuated verses. Since she didn’t want to get married – Mulaney’s theory that she was a lesbian seems quite romantic to me – she was meant to be a missionary, but really disagreed with the Calvinist views of the lady who ran the female seminary in which she boarded. So she moved back home with her dad and was brilliant in her spare time. Iconic.

A Quote by Which to Live: “Though I than He – may longer live / He longer must – than I – / For I have but the power to kill, / Without – the power to die –”

In an Artist’s Studio, Christina Rossetti

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Published: 1896

On the Premise: Rossetti points out that male artists only seem to paint manic pixie dream girls. There is no sense of realism, and women are two dimensional-figures to their painters. This tone is really pointed right now because she often posed for her brother’s paintings.

On the Poet: Rossetti’s father was a conspiracist and her mother was a religious Anglo-Catholic. The family was well-off at first, but slowly sank into poverty, and yet Rossetti still occupied herself with charitable work. Like her mother, she was enthusiastic about Anglo-Catholicism and broke off an engagement when her fiancé reverted to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, I imagine her to be a secret radical feminist. Just look at this poem!

A Quote by Which to Live: “He feeds upon her face by day and night, / And she with true kind eyes looks back on him, / Fair as the moon and joyful as the light: / Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim; / Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; / Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”

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