Gender discrimination is a grave injustice and happens all over the world. So what to do when the patriarchy is getting you down? Try reading some poetry! Poetry has been used as one of the many forms of artistic expression for centuries as it can often do what little else can. It inspires, it rallies, it makes you feel, making it a force to be reckoned with. This is a selection of some powerful words by some powerful women who explore the intersections of race and gender, or gender as a standalone, expressing their relationship with themselves and others and their personal and historical storylines. If you have never really found yourself reading poetry but would like to, this is a good place to start (if this is not the case I’m sure you’ve already delved into the works of the women I’m about to mention). Sometimes a few meticulously sculpted lines can say so much. Try reading some of these excerpts out loud. Maybe these women will even inspire you to write something yourself.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a great introduction into the wonderful world of feminist poetry!
Dr Maya Angelou
Dr Maya Angelou, image from poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou
Born in Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri into an America bursting with racism and misogyny, Maya’s works are very much shaped by the historical and cultural contexts in which she evolved. One word will not do her justice as she was not any one thing. A prolific woman of many talents and a compelling character, Maya danced, sung, was an actress, wrote and directed plays, essays and poetry, and has been termed one of the most influential women of the 20th century. As well as campaigning tirelessly in the Civil Rights movements alongside the likes of Martin Luther King. She used her poetry to raise her voice against all forms of discrimination, not solely as a woman but as a black woman. Her writing has inspired and shaped opinions and understandings of history across the world. To Maya!
Here is an excerpt from her poem Phenomenal Woman (1978):
Phenomenal Woman (1978)
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Read the complete poem here.
Another compelling poem In All Ways A Woman can be read here.
Also not to be missed is her doco Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise which you can watch on Netflix or Vimeo. It is brilliant.
Ali Cobby Eckermann
ALi Cobby Eckermann, image frpm abc.net.au/news/2017-03-20/ali-cobby-eckermann/8369878
Yankunytjatjara woman and acclaimed poet Ali Cobby Eckermann grew up on Ngadjuri country, South Australia, and has been gracing our minds and spirits with mighty and moving works across the last decade of her poetry career. She addresses the history of the Stolen Generation and her journey to reconnecting with her once lost family, the ever persisting discrimination faced by Indigenous Australians and the ongoing impacts of european colonisation. Her writing necessarily political as she draws attention to repeated, relentless maltreatment, a product of an inherently racist society. She often uses elements of the natural world, the sun, moon, water, sand as central characters in her poems, drawing you into her mythical representations.
From her most recent poetry book Inside My Mother (2015) she speaks of the strength of womanhood:
my mother is a granite boulder
I can no longer climb nor walk
her weight is a constant reminder
I sit in her shadow
gulls nestle in her eyes
their shadows her epitaph
a pebble of her in my pocket
Rosario Castellanos, image from zocalopoets.com
Rosario is thought to have been one of the most influential female voices in Mexico, paving the way for other forms of expression to take the creative stage. A space women were traditionally and are still encouraged to shrink away from. She eloquently analyzes issues of gender oppression, in an honest and somewhat confronting manner. Her courageousness very much necessary in a country like Mexico were gender based violence is rife. She boldly rejects gender stereotypes or ‘what is expected of her as a woman’, thus forging revolutionary words in the face of such oppression, creating a lasting legacy for female writers.
She reflects on the struggles of all women’s being her own in this poem (excerpt):
The Joyful Miseries (translated from Spanish)
…This place I am, like sand with rivers,
has long known visits from the sky.
A whole procession of birds crosses my face
And I follow ecstatic,
Not feeling the stones that strike me, break me, reject me.
I walk without measuring my strength or step.
Ah, but I shall reach the sea and the sky will fly beyond my grasp…
Read the full poem here.
Adrienne Rich, image from nytimes.com
Born in Baltimore in 1929, Adrienne wrote poetry from a very young age and continued to publish works until she passed away in 2012. Her early adulthood was spent in the midst of civil and feminist rights movements, with the Vietnam War looming in the background, war and racism are recurring themes in her poetry. Her finely tuned verses provocatively questioned perceptions of women’s societal role, as well as powerfully challenging sexual assumptions, bringing the struggle of women, gay and straight, to the forefront for centuries to follow. Her sorrowful, complex and largely experimental style encourages readers to read and read again in search for answers and deeper understandings.
Adrienne once said “the most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.”
You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language
Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she’s a woman of my time
with Love, our subject:
we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power…
Complete poem here.
Tip: The Fact of a Doorframe features some of her best poetry. Do check it out!
Kishwar Naheed, image from wikipeacewomen.org
A feminist Urdu poet from Pakistan, Kishwar Naheed is considered within her vast literary and political circles as the matriarch of culture and resistance. She fought for the right to girls’ education in a nation where this basic human right is denied and as witness to the bloodshed associated with the partition, Kishwar felt compelled to join the universal struggle for equality through her fearless poetic expression and bold activism. Her gutsy writing opposes the injustices in Pakistan, namely violence, terrorism and the suffering of women and girls. Forever daring to fight all forms of oppression, Kishwar is a true queen.
She once said: “Creativity cannot be regulated nor should it be. Who would know this better than a woman writer or artist who has to struggle all her life to be able to express what she feels and thinks, to be able to articulate the way she wishes to articulate, to be able to present to the world what she wishes to present in her own unique way.”
It is we sinful women (excerpt)
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together…
Read the full poem here.
– Happy reading! –
Alice Claire Chambers
Alice is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a graduate from Melbourne University where she completed her BA. When not fighting for gender equality, she enjoys pizza and obsessing over long faced, skinny dogs.