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As one of the most widely read female poets to this day, Emily Dickinson has been analyzed for generations. Her poems touch on profound human issues such as death, religion, and, perhaps most subtly, gender. While Dickinson’s predominantly homebound and domestic lifestyle and may initially suggest otherwise, her works, in both their content and their very existence, reveal her as an early feminist.
The fact that Dickinson even attempted to write poetry, let alone shared it with her friends and family, manifests her more progressive views on female ingenuity and empowerment. During Dickinson’s lifetime (1830-1886), the creative sphere was dominated by men, and would continue to be until the mid-to-late 1900s. After all, women did not even have the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Women like Anne Bradstreet had previously gained attention for poetic endeavors, but Bradstreet’s works were vastly different from Dickinson’s–they were extremely pious and focused on relatively tame and superficial subject matter, such as a predestined house fire or Bradstreet’s everlasting love for her husband. In contrast, Dickinson, who refused to attend church, penned several poems that revealed her disillusionment with Christianity. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –/ I keep it, staying at Home,” she boldly declares in “324 [Fr 236]” (Belasco 1052). Instead of amounting to simple declarations of subservience to God or a husband, Dickinson’s poems are philosophical and eloquent, utilizing sophisticated diction and figurative language to communicate sometimes elusive messages and themes.
An intriguing detail about the publication of Dickinson’s poems is discussed in Martha Nell Smith’s “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson.” Smith asserts that certain segments of Dickinson’s poems were changed or excluded by her male editors and publishers, particularly those of a more polarizing or sexual nature. With this knowledge, the reader can further understand why some of Dickinson’s references to gender may initially appear to be convoluted or extremely subtle: she had to frame them in such a way in order for them to slide by the scrutinizing eyes of her patriarchal overseers.
In “199 [Fr 225],” Dickinson discusses the subject of marriage (Belasco 1047). She begins by plainly stating “I’m ‘wife,’” which can be interpreted as showing how women’s domestic roles controlled their lives and defined their perceptions of themselves (line 1). A few lines down, she asserts that “it’s safer so”–that is, that society is more accepting of women who choose to marry and settle down, as opposed to those who do not and are destined to become bitter and lonely “old maids” (line 4). Perhaps the most telling phrase in this short poem is “How odd the Girl’s life looks/ Behind this soft Eclipse,” which most likely refers to the way in which women at the time were overshadowed by their husbands (lines 5-6). Dickinson concludes by once again repeating “I’m ‘Wife,’” followed by “Stop there!” (line 12). It is as if that is all a woman could hope to be at that time–a wife, and nothing more. Though she herself never married, through this poem Dickinson showcases the gender issues that were applicable to most marriages at the time, and even to some today.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (“288 [Fr 260]”) is one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems and has thus been examined in a number of ways (Belasco 1051). From a feminist perspective, one can postulate that Dickinson might have been alluding to women’s lack of power and privilege by calling herself–and consequently, her female contemporaries–a “Nobody.” Evidence for this claim can be found in the poem’s second verse, when she mentions that “to be — Somebody” is to be “public” (lines 5, 6). During Dickinson’s lifetime, men tended to exist more in the public domain, working outside of the house and acting as breadwinners for their families, while their wives stayed home to cook, clean, and care for the children. If the reader chooses to read the poem with this state of affairs in mind, Dickinson’s work can viewed as a light-hearted and even sarcastic take on the harsh discrepancies between men and women’s identities and duties in the 1800s.
Another reference to gender in this selection of Dickinson’s works can be found in “401 [Fr 675]” (Belasco 1053). Dickinson describes women as “Soft — Cherubic Creatures,” explaining that “One would as soon assault a Plush –/ Or violate a Star,” which at first seems like a stereotypically sexist viewpoint (lines 1, 3-4). Later in the poem, however, she states that women possess “A Horror so refined/ Of freckled Human Nature” (lines 6-7). These lines could be suggesting that the subjugation of women is a “horror,” but one which is so ingrained in society that it has become “refined.” This statement renders the previous lines somewhat ironic. Dickinson’s personification of human nature as “freckled” could also be meant to show that humans are imperfect, which has led to this imbalance between men and women. She concludes by saying “Be so — ashamed of thee,” a message to those who allow this injustice to continue to take place (line 12).
Cheryl Walker’s “Locating a Feminist Critical Practice: Between the Kingdom and the Glory” contests the belief that Dickinson was a feminist. Walker cites Dickinson’s “fearfulness and dependency on others late in life, her choice of conservative Judge Lord as a lover, her dismissal of most women and admiration of powerful men, [and] her mental breakdowns” as proof for this claim (Walker 10). However, to only consider Dickinson’s personal life and not her poetry seems to be a grave oversight on Walker’s behalf. Also, many people, men and women alike, become dependent in their later years. It strikes the reader as unfair to assume that, simply because Dickinson became weak and needed assistance in her old age, she is not a feminist or even a feminist sympathizer. In mentioning Dickinson’s so-called dismissal of women, Walker does not appear to consider that Dickinson preferred to exist separate from the mass of society, men and women included. In fact, one of the few individuals she felt closest to was her brother Austin’s wife, Sue. It is also essential to note that positions of power were usually held by males during Dickinson’s time period, so that it makes sense that she tended to admire these men. If women had been less subjugated and more empowered, she would have no doubt looked up to them as well. Lastly, to insinuate that the occurrence of “mental breakdowns” makes Dickinson less of a feminist is quite misguided; mental health issues are on the same plane as those of the physical variety in that they are not the choice of the people subject to them and, in many cases, have no relationship to ideologies or beliefs.
It is apparent through both her poetry and her personal life–her choice to never marry or have children and thus be forced into the domestic role of “wife”–that Dickinson was indeed an early feminist figure. A final display of this progressive mindset can be found in the poem “Could I but ride indefinite”–a shining example of Dickinson’s convictions. It begins: “Could I but ride indefinite,/ As doth meadow bee,/ and visit only where I liked,/ and no man visit me” (lines 1-4). This shows her yearning for more freedom and less stasis for women, as well as less dependence on men. In the next verse, she wishes that she could “Flirt all day with buttercups,/ And marry whom I may,” which serves as a call for more equality when it comes to marriage, as women were oftentimes auctioned off to the highest bidder–a man whom a woman, perhaps, did not truly love (lines 5-6). Dickinson ends the poem by exclaiming “What liberty! So captives deem/ Who tight in dungeons are.” (lines 17-18). One can assume, based on the context of the preceding lines in the poem, that these captives serve as a stand-in for the disenfranchised women who are kept down by the patriarchy. Overall, this poem points out the inequality of socially constructed gender roles and calls for a change in the way women are treated.
Surely, if Dickinson were alive today, she would be impressed and perhaps even astonished by the tremendous progress that feminism has made in modern society. Although we still have issues to remedy, contemporary women are far more liberated and empowered than those who lived during in the 1800s, thanks to feminists like Emily Dickinson.
Belasco, Susan. “New Poetic Voices: Emily Dickinson.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 1043-069. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. “102. Could I but Ride Indefinite. Part Two: Nature. Dickinson, Emily. 1924. Complete Poems.” 102. Could I but Ride Indefinite. Part Two: Nature. Dickinson, Emily. 1924. Complete Poems. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2014.
Smith, Martha N. “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 19.3 (1991): 78-111. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
Walker, Cheryl. “Locating A Feminist Critical Practice: Between The Kingdom And The Glory.” Women’s Studies 16.1/2 (1989): 9-19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
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