What the Women Said, Then and Now

What the Women Said, Then and Now


Poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970)

“The word feminism today conjures up rather happy and dowdy figures; the suffragette stands in most young people’s minds, I find, as a sort of large, formidable, virtuous virago. But it is a word which has its own honor and radiance; it was lived for, and sometimes died for, by members of several generations of disenfranchised individuals who, far from representing a persecuted minority, stood for one half of the human race.” Louise Bogan, "What the Women Said" (1962) 

Modern, intersectional feminism is the idea that men and women should be treated equally no matter their race, ability, socioeconomic status or sexuality. This concept, while seemingly reasonable and straightforward, still stirs up controversy. When feminism is brought into the conversation, it seems to carry the echo of an audible sigh, usually reverberating from the mouths of non-feminists. A sigh that seems to say; ‘Oh, this again? Let it go. Get over it already.’ I won’t. (You shouldn’t either.)

Louise Bogan’s comment on feminism above, from a speech she delivered at Bennington over fifty years ago, still rings true. The word 'feminism' itself conjures up stereotypical images of man-hating, hairy bodied, topless radicals burning their bras. (Sounds good to me, but somehow people find this threatening.) Men continue to be threatened by even the mention of feminism, proven out by the creation of words like ‘Feminazi’. (Classic.) Everyone seems to have their own definition and interpretation of feminism. Yet if feminism is so subjective, how can gender politics progress? The question now remains what it always has been; visibility and representation of women. The way women are represented fundamentally affects how we view their relative power in society. 

“Early in the 20th century, the power of women writers to introduce radical innovations into form comes clearly into view.” (Bogan, 1962)

Louise Bogan was the fourth American Poet Laureate and one of the most established poets of the 20th century. How she happened to give a lecture at Bennington College is unclear, but we do know that on October 11th, 1962, Bogan gave a speech in Dickinson. "What The Women Said" is Bogan’s own feminist manifesto; she speaks on behalf of herself and other female poets. While most of the feminism she espouses in the speech seems quite modern, there are some subtle reminders of the politics of her world. For example, she refers to Robert Graves when discussing a problem ‘unique to female poets’: they must be their own muse. What about a model of creative generation that doesn't follow the tired archetype of the artist and his muse? One could argue that Bogan--and Graves, by extension--is suggesting that only women can be muses, which objectifies women as artistic props. Bogan's comment seems unusually gendered for my modern feminist sensibilities.

I would argue, however, that this is not Bogan's meaning. In fact, she is referencing the historical representation of women as a whole. She goes on to talk about the prehistoric representation of the woman as the divine mother; the white goddess. Bogan compares this depiction to that of antiquity, were women are cherished and made to terrify. Continuing through history, the female image is warped, glorified and torn down as the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy fluctuates. This is why Bogan is so determined that women, especially women poets, ‘be their own muse.' The muses of the past are unreliable, seen only through the eyes of men 'alongside their marble blocks, paint brushes and lens.’ 

It is the responsibility of the female poet, Bogan argues, to speak honestly, and to challenge gender politics constantly. Bogan compares and contrast some of the great female writers, seeing if they measure up to her standards of feminism.

Of Virginia Woolf, Bogan says; 

“She had the faculty, however, of responding to, and absorbing, certain floating and pervasive notions in the literary atmosphere of her time, in a way that combined brilliance with subtlety… In these two novels her feminism is in abeyance--a feminism based, as I have said, on the classic (in her youth) concept of woman materially enslaved and creatively baffled by the unbreakable historic dominance of man.” (Bogan, 1962) 

The two novels she is referring to here are To the Lighthouse (1927) and Between the Acts (1941). We live in a patriarchal society. If that wasn’t clear (and it should be!). This affects female poets to varying degrees. Bogan comments on Woolf's tendency to ‘drop’ her feminism in favor of a dominant male narrative. Bogan's critique of Woolf is based on the reading that her narratives are often filled with shrill women and obsessive displays of masculine dominance. These conclusions about Woolf as a feminist surprised me, as I have held her close as one of my own feminist icons. Was Woolf’s success as a female poet related to her taking on the male voice to express her own sexuality? Perhaps her reflection on the patriarchal society is more rooted in her feelings towards women, not men, which Bogan seems to ignore. Bogan's dismissal of Woolf as a lesbian is an indicator of the feminism at the time, which was not yet intersectional. 

Bogan continues on in this vein in her lecture, challenging the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, The Brontes, and other women who we hold as feminist icons. Bogan goes around in circles, commending these women then putting them back under the microscope. While she offers an interesting critique of women writers, I can’t help but note the age of this piece, and nothing seems particularly different in feminism today. We are still dancing circles around the word ‘feminist,’ and judging the opinions of other women rather than sharing these deliberations with the other sex. This seems like an internal battle, one where progress is limited.

"I am not thinking of exceptional minds, like Cleopatra or Mrs. Carlyle or Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf; I am thinking of the 'ordinary' woman, undistinguished, often unintellectual and introspective. The minds of most women differ from the mind of most men in a way which I feel very distinctly, but which becomes rather indistinct as I try to describe it. Their minds seem to me to be gentler, more sensitive, more civilized. Even in many stupid, vain, tiresome women this quality is often preserved below the exasperating surface.” (Bogan, 1962)

I was first offended by Bogan's conclusion to her otherwise complex reflection of the female poet, but upon further introspection, I realized that while she presents female stereotypes, she is declaring women to be more advanced on an evolutionary stage. If I were to translate her wording, I would say that she is making the claim that women have higher emotional intelligence than men do, and that even ‘tiresome’ women are better than men. This statement in itself is problematic for many reasons, but in a way it iss Bogan’s own call to action. This is her response to the question of the progression of gender politics, and for Bogan it is rooted in the superiority of the female sex. Women are more civilized, and therefore even the ordinary woman is superior to a man. 

“Women still have within them the memory of the distaff and the loom - and, we must remember, the memory of the dark, cruel, wanton goddesses. But as she rarely has gone over, in the past, to low complicity or compliance in relation to her companion, man, we can hope for her future.” (Bogan, 1962)

There are many things to consider when looking at Bogan’s lecture in it’s entirety. By critiquing the feminism of female poets past, Bogan is balancing lifting these women up and tearing them down. My own feminism finds the invalidation of another woman's feminist practice problematic, as the key to intersectional feminism is understanding that one woman’s experience is not your own.

However, I think it’s important to look backwards and celebrate the work of those feminists before you, but also to acknowledge where they could have done better. I’m my mind, that is the future of feminism. Holding not only men accountable, but also women as well. In order to create progress, we need to stand by each other and learn from each others experiences. This is the power of the #metoo movement: women are standing by each other and standing up for themselves. And this is the future of gender politics: intersectionality, introspectiveness, and more wonderful, wild, female poets. 

Here is a link to the original text of Bogan's address from 1962. 

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