Power in Poetry: Feminist Poetry, Its Roots, and Present Influence
by Allison Hritz, Point Park University
Abstract: Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Maya Angelou. What these individuals have in common is that they are all women, they are all poets, and they are all feminists. Throughout the last hundred years since the 19th Amendment was signed into law, women have still struggled in various ways to have their voices heard. Yet, one of the ways that women found their voice, specifically during the Women’s Liberation Movement from the 1950s to the 1980s, was through feminist poetry. In its origins, poetry was one of the limited forms in which women could have their stories heard and a way for them to raise consciousness about the Women’s Liberation Movement. Over time, every word written on napkins in restaurants to poems published in Anthologies accumulated into power that led to legislation such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law. It is clear that the voices of these women through poetry has had an impact on the lives of many, but so few know this impact. Therefore, this raises questions such as do college students still find meaning in the work of these women, and is there a way for individuals to still tell their story by these means to generate power? In my essay, I will discuss the roots of feminist poetry and its impact on past and present culture and politics, including an event conducted at Point Park regarding the topic.
“When the going becomes really tough, things no more bearable, well, she'd set to, sharpening the 'blade of her pen (Narasimhan).” This activist vision penned in the poem ‘Pyarr’ by Varrey Rani depicts the power and vision of female poets, especially in the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The movement’s origins were rooted in the fight for Women’s suffrage and gained traction in the 1960s. One of the cornerstones of the movement was poetry. Poetry was a medium by which women were able to reclaim their stories, make an art form their own, and to give birth to the art of consciousness-raising in subset cultures of women. However, while feminist specific poetry has changed overtime and some mediums have been lost, women in the feminist community believe that feminist poetry still has a place to influence the lives of individuals today. Based on the success of a feminist poetry event organized at Point Park University, the mechanics and design of feminist poetry prove its impact on the Women’s Liberation Movement as well as its modern influence.
Origins of Women’s Liberation
The Women’s Liberation Movement was born from the fight for women’s suffrage, a fight that began long before the foundation of the United States. In fact, even Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband John Adams to remember the ladies in the new independence of the nation and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all Men would be tyrants if they could (Meacham).” However, this plea for female independence was set aside and even further pushed to the back burner in the rise of slavery as a social issue. In the early 20th century, women began to take a firm stand in the progressive fight for their right to vote. Alice Paul led the movement and the suffragette hope was not only to gain the right to vote, but to gain safety at home, the right to use birth-control as a means of agency and workability, and so much more (Meacham). According to the NRHC, “Women around the country protested, picketed and were imprisoned to secure their constitutional right to vote in an effort to create a more equal and just society (“Albany”).”
After a long fight, the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote was passed on August 18th, 1920. Yet, despite gaining voting rights, women were subjected to a fight for social, political, and economic rights that would last to this day. During World War II, women gained a glimpse of equality. Julia Parsons, who was a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) said that women in the war time were “never looked down upon and were well treated (Parsons).” They were able to work in the service and were able to take jobs domestically, giving them a taste of freedom in the public sphere (Unger). But after the war, a hard reality hit. Women were not socially or politically equal to men under the law. The taste for freedom was false, their work would not be recognized though recognition was well deserved, and they were sent back to a life of being secretaries or housewives. Something needed to be done.
These sentiments gave birth to Women’s Liberation. While this was a part of a global fight, its primary influence in the United States lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s. Looking back, there are a variety of issues for which women were fighting. Among these were equal pay, welfare, education, birth control, maternal health, abortion, marriage, and divorce (“Politics”).
The first battle would be to rally and unify women. When reflecting on the generational participants in the movement, Deborah Phillips discussed that there were general tensions among women. From things as broad as sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity, to minor issues like age and variations of radicalism, there were many causes for disunification (Philips). But there was something under which all women could unite: they were all women and they all had stories.
Feminist Poetry: Storytelling, Consciousness-raising, and Unification
Women have stories. They carry the weight of harassment, discrimination, abortions, but also the beauty of femininity, motherhood, and empathy among other things. While today, women discuss these things more openly (and there is much more to be done), this was not the case prior to the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The first wave of the movement recognized the need for unity. In their eyes, there was no better way to do this than poetry. To feminists, poetry was essential to telling the stories of women and describing the nature of feminine consciousness (Juhasz). In the words of Suzanne Juhasz, “Poetry by feminists has been a powerful and essential articulation of feminist consciousness and concerns.” Furthermore, feminist poet Adrienne Rich stated that poetry was crucial for “breaking down the public and the private” in the lives of women as well as intertwining the stories of women with their social and political aspirations (Rich). To do this, feminists constructed a mechanism that would be a cornerstone in feminist poetry: consciousness-raising.
Consciousness-raising was a process used by feminists to raise awareness of the issues women dealt with in their daily lives (What Women). These issues could be about anything, from war, family, to being politically oppressed. While summarized differently by analysts, authors, etc., T.V. Reed describes the process in four steps. The first step was “opening up,” which translates to telling one’s own story and being vulnerable with one’s experiences. Second, “sharing,” meaning telling one’s experience to a group that understood the specific issue at hand, such as racial microaggressions or sexual assault. Third was “analyzing,” meaning viewing the issue, one’s role in the issue, and the role of those surrounding the issue. Finally, “abstracting,” meaning applying the situation to the movement of women’s liberation and the roles that all individuals play in the mission of the movement (Reed).
The circle of consciousness raising was crucial to the movement. Reed further depicts that regular housewives would write poems on napkins if that was all that they had at their disposal and take them to circles of feminists for discussion. In these circles, women would critique each other’s work and would discuss its applicability to their cause. An example of a poem that might have been used in one of these circles is a poem by Susan Griffin titled “Is the air political today (Griffin).
Is the air political today?
The air, my thoughts,
is this a
choose a political
chair to sit in; was
my logic political, were my
eyes, did they
show a political grief or
was it personal; would my
political self have been happy
when I was not; would they
have fought over me
struggling over the tongue; is my tongue
political when it rests still
between my teeth and I dream;
what was birth the placenta that was pulled from me
was that political?
-Susan Griffin, “Is the air political today”
For the women in this movement, the art of consciousness-raising was critical in understanding that their problems were of a political nature and that they were not alone. The groups of feminists that gathered were also able to break cultural boundaries. Enid Dame, when reflecting on the process, described how consciousness-raising groups meant a lot to redefining cultural stories and retelling stories in the light of the movement. In her words, “I became a Jewish poet - a Jewish feminist poet (Dame).”
These poems, combined with the second wave of feminist poetry, were instrumental in unifying women. The second wave, while less relevant to the present topic, is still crucial to understand in the collective influence of feminist poetry. The second wave was more abstract and harder to quote. It strayed from the literal and more so engaged the consciousness, mystery, and emotions of women (Juhasz). An example from the second wave is “The Know” by Kathleen Fraser.
Collectively, poetry unified feminists in their various causes. Some poetry went on to be published in anthologies to reach broader audiences and gave poets such as Maya Angelou, Audrey Lorde, and Muriel Ruseyker notoriety. Furthermore, feminist poetry was influential in the fight for women in legislation such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, and Roe v. Wade (Reed).
Present influence of Feminist Poetry: Personal applications
At a Women’s Conference, speaker Steph Green asked “whether the model of consciousness-raising [and feminist poetry collectively] could have new applications in youth (Philips).” As I concluded my research, I asked a similar question: could this topic still engage individuals and help them tell their stories?
From this question, I formulated an idea. I decided to reach out to several organizations at Point Park University to see if the campus would be interested in hosting a feminist art gathering which would primarily center around education and application of consciousness-raising. Three organizations responded, being the The Factory (an art organization), HerCampus (a feminist media publication), and Campus Cursive (a non-profit that writes anonymous letters on campus). The leaders of these organizations, Cortnie Phillips, Jess Dillon, and Cecelia Alves all agreed to collaborate for the purpose that students would have an opportunity to not only learn about feminist poetry, but to also interact with it via art projects, writing, and media.
After months of planning, the event was held on November 19th, 2019. Our hope that this event would empower our community and that, perhaps, it would generate a voice for those on our campus, similar to how poetry gave a voice to our feminist predecessors.
Not only was this desire fulfilled, but the results of the event exceeded our expectations. Approximately 50 students were in attendance. With more supplies, the attendance would have been higher. Campus publications turned out to report about the event, including the campus news station and the newspaper. At the last minute, Strong Women Strong Girls, a community mentorship program, joined us with a black-out poetry activity. Students were able to make their own journals, write letters telling words of strength and their own stories to place around campus, and entered in giveaways by HerCampus. After the event, conversation was stimulated for weeks in preparation for the New Year, being the centennial anniversary of women's suffrage. It was then clear that feminist poetry still has an impact that resembles its original intent, can be applied in new ways, and can engage youth as it did for original feminists.
Feminist poetry was and still is a powerful form of art. During the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Movement, it was crucial in the effort to unify women to the feminist cause. Furthermore, it was important to help women tell their stories, bring light to shared experiences, and give way to the quintessence of what Maya Angelou would describe as phenomenal women. Finally, though the momentum of the movement slowed in the 1980s, the influence of feminist poetry and the beliefs of the women who led the movement still influence the lives of individuals today. Beyond the “Feminist Art Gathering,” the reach of these women can be seen in yearly women’s marches and the work of women from day jobs to political offices. So, as Varrey Rani would say, let women continue to sharpen the blade of their pens and influence the world.
Photos of the Feminist Art Gathering:
“Albany, NY 2020 FAQ.” NRHC. NRHC. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Dame, Enid. “Poetry and The Feminist Movement.” Bridges 9, no. 2 (2002): 6–7.
Fraser, Kathleen. New Shoes. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1978.
Griffin, Susan. Like the Iris of an Eye. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Meacham, Jon. The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels. New York: Random
Narasimhan, Raji. “Feminist Poetry Today.” Indian Literature 55, no. 5 (2011): 167–73.
Parsons, Julia. “Veterans' Breakfast Club.” Veterans' Breakfast Club. March 10, 2020.
Philips, Deborah. “Women's Liberation at Forty.” History Workshop Journal, no. 70 (2010):
“Politics, Legislation and the Women's Liberation Movement.” The British Library. The British Library, October 29, 2014. https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/themes/politics-and-legislation.
Reed, Thomas V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971/1972. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Unger, Irwin. These United States: the Questions of Our Past. Vol. 2. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011.
What Women Said in 1970s Consciousness Raising Groups. Youtube. Patreon/ David Hoffman, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d40GOzcNy9o.