Rachel Ossip Displaying Activism Then and Now: Making an Exhibition for Social Justice 4 April 2011

In her poem “Kathe Kollwitz,” feminist poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser asked the question, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?”1 Women adopted guises society deemed the norm, fueled by complex layers of expectations and practices that disallowed the freedom to act and speak in a candid manner. To be completely, bluntly honest, and disregard these expectations would radically shift women’s relationship to their political, personal, and societal situations. Rukeyser’s subsequent answer, “The world would split open,” indicates the extremity of a change that would reveal the previously hidden lives of women.2 The depth and strength of “second-wave” feminism, emerging in the 1960s as a result of a new focus on the rights and power of women, was complexly entangled in Rukeyser’s notion of telling truths. Silenced, distorted, and trivialized for centuries, the voices of women finally emerged. With speech and verbal communication as central principles of the women’s movement, poetry, considered “one of the richest tools for exploring the dynamic meaningmaking processes of language,” quickly became both privileged and radically altered by feminism.3 The relationship of poetry and feminism resulted in many chiastic statements and questions. As poetry changed the women’s movement, the women’s movement also began to change poetry. Women poets began to gather for readings and compile anthologies, many of which were not based on a uniformity of style but merely on “a common need to understand and change not only how women wrote poems, but how they used poems, and how they lived.”4 At the same time, poetry exemplified the emergence of what was considered the “new language” of feminism. 5 It may not have been new linguistically, but was unprecedented in the ways in which it was used, most notably to speak the truths Rukeyser mentioned, by sharing the


Kathie Sarachild, "Conciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon." Duke University, 2 Ibid.

Reed, The Art of Protest, 91.



realities of the lives of women. Poetic language became “the vehicle for disruption,” revealing all that was hidden beneath the layers of silence.6 The suffering of women finally surfaced. As “the stuff of experience rendered into speech,” contemporaneous feminists considered poetry an authentic translation of a woman’s life and being into language.7 These disruptive realities were quickly spread, aided by the ease of proliferating poetry and its “economical” nature. Not only does poetry use a fairly conservative number of words to make a significant point, but it also requires very few materials to produce and distribute. Poems could be “nailed to trees and telephone poles, taped to windows, and slid under doors.”8 Anywhere a simple sheet of paper could reside, a poem could be placed with the hopes of inspiring, informing, or encouraging both women and men. Even if paper was unavailable, poetry could still be shared through performance, either as dramatic recitation or as a song. With poetry as one effective method, women began to proclaim both issues of the movement and truths of their lives, often one and the same. Though exemplified by poetic practice at the time, a comfort with articulating truths emerged with the idea of “consciousness-raising, ” a technique developed by the early second wave feminists of the 1960s. At the time, women felt their initial mission was to create an understanding of and develop theories surrounding male domination and its effects on women, in hopes that it would lead to greater organization and action. Previously isolated and conditioned to accept a culture of competition amongst each other, women were unaware that much of their suffering was part of a widespread phenomenon. Dissatisfactions, frustrations, and distresses were written off as personal ineptitudes, faults, and insecurities, and thus suppressed and ignored. The aim of formal consciousness-raising was neither for pure catharsis nor merely to share experiences. The primary goal was to foster abstract thinking in women in order to promote the creation of theories that would “clarify and clear the ground for action,” such as protests against rape and violence or attempts to reform inequalities in wages.9 A formal consciousness-raising group consisted of four distinct steps, “opening up (revealing personal

7 8 9

Jan Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing (Chicago: Pandora Press, 2004), Ibid., 3. Reed, The Art of Protest, 91-92. Reed, The Art of Protest, 89.


feelings); sharing (through dialogue with other group members); analyzing (seeing general patterns by comparing to other experiences); and abstracting (creating a theory).”10 All this was predicated on the notion that the formation of a theoretical foundation would strengthen revolutionary action. While formal consciousness-raising sessions did not traditionally include poetry, they promoted open discussion between women and produced recognition of a large body of new issues. In particular, sharing instances of battery, previously endured by women in isolation, evolved into an analysis of domestic violence by the collective. A pervasive sense of inadequacy led to demands for an acknowledgement of women’s rights to sexual pleasure. The list of what were seen as fears and failures transformed into issues that needed further address, developing names such as reproductive rights and sexual harassment. With a more concrete idea of the problems women experienced, the desire for change found direction, as women were able to focus on specific arenas that needed attention.11 These concepts became the subject matter for a great deal of poetry, and women began to write about resisting abuse, “sisterly solidarity and unsisterly betrayal,” “men as oppressors or men as lovers or men as loving oppressors,” sexual pleasure and sexual discomfort, “sterilization…and the sterile lives of upper-class women,” “reform and revolution,” “women’s history and women’s future,” a virtually endless list of feminist concerns.12 Feminists began to consider and analyze the social norms that drive behavior, developing fodder for new poetic work. Second-wave feminism strove to reshape elements of culture, such as societal misconceptions of women’s inequalities, which required an acute awareness of all aspects of life, particularly those previously taken for granted.13 “Culture…[was] not a luxury for feminism; it [was] a material force at the heart of the movement,” with social change considered a result of the “bringing into visibility and audibility of new thoughts and feelings,” called “cultural poetics.”14 It was not as simple as merely adopting subject matter, though. Poetry not only reflected

10 11 12 13 14

Ibid. Reed, The Art of Protest, 89. Reed, The Art of Protest, 90. Ibid, 79. Ibid, 80.


“feminist issues,” but, more significantly, was considered “one of the main tools used to identify, name, formulate, and disseminate those issues.”15 Feminists regard poetry, itself, as enlightening, though different from the formal consciousness raising groups. Moving beyond its historical role as art or a method of storytelling, poetry in the women’s movement “was feminist practice."16 It became part of a continuing discourse about the character, or characters, and purposes of the women’s movement and its many subsequent divisions. Feminists considered poetry more successful in communicating the ideology of the women’s movement than purely political forms, like manifestos, as the movement, itself, was far from purely political. The phrase “the personal is political,” coined in 1970 by Carol Hanisch in her eponymous essay, became a cornerstone of the feminist movement.17 Realms originally deemed private shifted to become political issues, driven by the theories developed in consciousness-raising groups. Relationships and interactions between males and females in their homes, motherhood, solidarity between women, and self-image became the stuff of speeches, manifestos, slogans, and poems, rather than hidden diaries. As the transformation and integration of private and public spheres occurred, it was not only that the personal became political, but also that the politics of the women’s movement became clearly personal. Cherríe Moraga, a lesbian feminist poet whose poetry is featured in the article “If Not Now, When? – Obstacles to Outrage, Part I,” included in the exhibit, attributes her awareness that "political oppression is always experienced personally by someone" to feminism in her second introduction to her collection Loving in the War Years.18 The interconnectedness of these two spheres, though exemplified by the women’s movement, is a natural aspect of activism, as passion generally originates from personal experience, and is then articulated in public. In hopes of stirring others to action and inciting change, one brings forth the force of personal fervor. Kathy Kozachenko’s “Invocation for Inez Garcia,” featured in the exhibit’s Cultural Voices section, is exemplary of women’s movement poetry as a form of activism, using the medium to signify import and call others to action. Inez Garcia was convicted of murdering the

15 16 17 18

Ibid, 92. Ibid. Carol Hanisch, "The Personal Is Political" Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000) iv.


man who held her down while his partner raped her. Garcia’s story turned from tragedy into a triumph of the feminist movement when she eventually received a retrial and was found not guilty. In the time between her conviction and the retrial, women spoke out, employing various forms of protest including poetry to act against what was seen as an obvious injustice.19 Kozachenko’s poem illustrates many of the tenets typical of poetry produced by the women’s movement. The opening statement reads, “Dedicated to Inez Garcia, to every woman who has ever been raped, or who has ever feared being raped.”20 Though it focuses on a specific instance, in this case the experience of Garcia, the poem extends to encompass what some might consider the entire female population. In the great chain of feminist association, one can track the manner in which Garcia’s personal experience of the horror of rape and subsequent violence became political as women around the country adopted her struggle as their own and spoke out. Kozachenko continually suggests that the connections between women are strong, that Inez is every woman, and every woman is Inez. Her discussion of the “rape” of the speaker’s “spirit” argues that the violation of rape is felt physically and emotionally, that even those who were not physically assaulted have felt similarly abused on an emotional level.21 The statement, “If this is done to one woman,/so it is done to all,”22 continues to promote a sensation of solidarity, which feminists believed gave the movement power. Though creation of commonality was a strong precept of the women’s movement and was often a featured element in women’s poetry of the time, some feared that with it came the possibility of homogenization. Thus, tension grew out of a need to view many of the distresses of women as a significant and universal problem, while refraining from suggesting that all women were essentially alike.23 Yet the impetus for writing was not merely confined to women hoping to use poetry as a means of creating solidarity, or purely for the promotion of a cause, such as Garcia’s freedom. The poet Marge Piercy also engaged with the tragedy of Garcia’s story, in her piece “For Inez Garcia,” which, though inspired by the same struggle as Kozachenko’s “Invocation,” can be

19 20 21 22 23

Monteray, "Inez Garcia Freed," The Longest Revolution, 1977. Kathy Kozachenko. "Invocation for Inez Garcia" Longest Revolution, February 1977, 9. Ibid. Ibid Reed, The Art of Protest, 90.


distinguished as the result of a more polished use of language and poetic devices. Piercy’s poem is populated with metaphors and similes of a more refined nature than Kozachenko’s “the mind of a woman/is like the glistening blade/of a silver knife.”24 Both authors use questions to engage the reader, though the power in Pierce’s blunt “Am I everyman’s urinal?”25 dwarfs Kozachenko’s inquiry of “Where is the man/who dares/to touch a woman.”26 Though Pierce’s sarcastic and authoritative tone contrasts Kozachenko’s confessional yet calm voice, both authors ask such questions, make declarative statements, and employ similar techniques. The line between “women’s movement poetry” and the “feminist poetry movement,” is often incredibly blurry, and some claim any such distinction is largely artificial. The subjects of poems both by feminist poets and in women’s movement poetry are often identical, and there is frequently linguistic beauty in the raw exposure of the writing of women not considered professional poets. Many considered the differentiation to lie in the distinction of a “central purpose.” While the feminist poetry movement focused primarily on poetic craft and the desire to establish “a new kind of poetry,” poetry of the women’s movement existed to serve the movement, itself.27 Feminists considered poetry an ideal medium for challenging what were considered “two crucial dichotomies” of the women’s movement: the persistent gap between personal and public spheres, and the tense division of emotion and intellect.28 While the emotions of women were clearly linked to the movement, which was fueled by the great power of individual and collective sentiments, women recognized that power came with knowledge. In his book The Art of Protest, Thomas Reed claims, “no movement [had] a more sweeping need for epistemological transformation, for transformation in the nature and scope of knowledge.”29 While much of this transformation began in the consciousness-raising groups, the effects extended beyond the movement itself. Women’s challenges of masculine-dominated traditions in various academic fields began to shift paradigms, as seen in the radical alterations of professional poetic practice.

24 25 26 27 28 29

See note 36 above Marge Piercy. Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy (Wellfleet, MA: The Leapfrog Press 1999), 62. See note 36 above Reed, The Art of Protest, 95. Reed, The Art of Protest, 91. Ibid.


The relationship between poetry and the women’s movement began with the use of poetry as a tool of expression, but soon transcended the limitations of that perception. Feminists not only recognized the strength and authority of knowledge, but that knowledge was largely related to language.30 Thus poetry, with its “linguistic and affective precision,” became a powerful resource in the movement.31 Simultaneously, poets such as Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks participated in “the poetry establishment” as women, and experienced difficulty finding recognition in a world conquered by men. As the women’s movement progressed, female poets began to recognize the ways the male-dominated tradition marginalized and stifled women as a result of their gender. Women poets of the time were straining to be heard as they struggled against oppressive institutions and practices. Feminists regarded traditional form, itself, as being based upon an assumption of fixed gender roles, in which the poet was assumed to be male and the muse female. Thus, women writers were automatically subverting and contradicting cultural patterns, radical in their mere existence.32 Feminists considered past forms of love poetry particularly problematic, as the subject was nearly always a man speaking to or about a woman. This gendered construction was inherent in the organization of many poetic structures, like the sonnet, in which the male speaker traditionally addresses an idealized female other, whose purpose is to reflect the self-image of the male ego.33 Though a woman poet could simply avoid such structures, the troubles of poetry and gender may have been even more intrinsic. Some feminists claimed that the English language, itself, privileges males through the construction and use of pronouns. Jacques Lacan’s philosophy of language suggests that language exists only as a result of the human subject’s submission to a “binary system of sexual difference.”34 Once moving beyond the ‘I’ and ‘thou’ construct, one must identify a third person through the assignment of gender, choosing either ‘he’ or ‘she.’35 Lacanian feminists suggest that the necessity of selecting a gendered pronoun

30 31 32 33 34 35

Ibid. Ibid, 99. Ibid. Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, 109. Ibid, xvii. Ibid, 99.


forces a speaker to participate in the division of males and females, creating a seemingly indomitable divide.36 Though problematic in the confines of feminism, this, of course, would create even greater issues in the context of language and the queer rights movement. As seen in the exhibit, these movements often share specific concerns, occasionally fueled by the strong ties between lesbianism and feminism. Regardless, feminists claimed that, to some degree, poetry could transcend these linguistic problems and presuppositions by creating concern for the rhythm and sounds of words, valuing elements of language outside of words’ explicit symbolic meanings.37 Through poetry, women could own language in a new way. By rejecting long-established poetic symbols and allusions proliferated and utilized by men, women poets began a new tradition of poetry. The feminist poetry movement was, as stated by Reed, “a cultural formation by and aimed at professional poets and the cultural institutions...surrounding them.”38 It was both an element of and an entity beyond the women’s movement, “an intellectual or cultural school of thought” which existed and developed alongside the activist agendas of second wave feminism.39 As a result, the relationship between poetry of the women's movement and feminist poets created a difficult question of how to gauge the value and understanding of a poem. Many female poets, such as A.S. Byatt, argued that they did not want to be read merely as a result of their gender.40 Conversely, men and women alike often claimed that feminists placed too high a value on work that was mediocre, merely because women wrote it. The counter argument, that such claims could be made out of sexism and masculine bias against women, complicates the debate further. Further complexities in regards to value resulted from the emphasis on the sharing of experience in women’s movement poetry, as it spread the justified fear that the biography of the poet would overcome the inherent worth of their poems. For instance, Sylvia Plath’s life story is

36 37 38 39 40

Ibid, 98. Ibid, xvii Ibid. Ibid. Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, 64.


often said to overshadow her work, her talent obscured by her well-known suicide and marriage. Thus, female poets became concerned with the need to differentiate poem from autobiography.41 Yet issues of value were only one category of the many complex worries that existed for female poets in such a time, many of which were propelled by the women’s movement. Montefiore supports the claim that “the woman poet must in some sense become her own heroine,” continuing to suggest that women poets were forced to enact the role of either “witch or wise woman,” resulting in what she calls a figurative “melodramatic death at the crossroads of tradition and genre, society and art.”42 Though this seems a dramatic declaration, itself, it expresses a good deal of truth. Women poets in the 1960s and 70s took a multitude of substantial risks as they countered not only the societal limitations fought by the women’s movement, but also such lofty entities as art, itself, attempting to prevail blatantly as a woman in many worlds dominated by men. With so many other art forms available for use, several of which were employed, one may ask why the women’s movement “privileged” poetry, in particular.43 Even women with little to no education or training were encouraged to compose poems, and the strong ties between poetry and feminism remains today. Events for International Women’s Day and Take Back the Night marches often feature the recitation or performance of poetry. 44 How has poetry retained such primacy in the movement? Different from prose, which often exists as experience, itself, rearticulated, poetry is said to be “the stuff of experience rendered into speech.”45 Rather than a mere retelling, poetry, as the lauded feminist Audre Lorde suggests, is the “revelatory distillation of experience,”46 in which the “stuff” is the true matter of the occurrence, made up of emotion and sensory intensity. As suggested by the tension between concepts of knowledge and emotion in the movement, the sensitivity of women was often a subject of contest both within feminism and feminist poetry. Members of the women’s movement objected to sensitivity’s association with

41 42 43 44 45 46

Ibid, 5. Ibid, xi Iqo Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, ix. Ibid. Ibid, 3.

Audre Lorde. "Poetry Is Not A Luxury." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 36 – 39.


fragility, and fragility’s with weakness, as these correlations resulted in the tendency to diminish women. Similarly, women poets of the time were caught at the crux of stereotypes and gendered assumptions of femininity, in addition to blatant discrimination, “taxed for both triviality and sententiousness, for both silly superficiality and melodramatic "carrying on" about profound subjects.”47 Yet, in both cases it was sensitivity, in terms of an intensity of feeling, that propelled both the women’s movement and feminist poetry forward, allowing the degree of success of seen today. Thus, women of both movements considered poetry a “revolutionary medium,” as a result of its “linguistic intensity” and “privileged relation to [women’s] consciousness.”48 Derived from the power of the this “linguistic intensity,” poetry is a concentrated language, and some, like Montefiore, assert it is “ultimate relation to everything in the universe.”49 An integral part of the women's movement, poetry fulfilled a multitude of functions, acting as a tool for consciousness-raising, creating a sense of unity, and spreading ideas and theories. At the same time, poetry often severed as a reflection of activism within art, as women poets struggled to break free of a gendered and discriminatory tradition, both hindered and benefited by poetry’s associations with the women’s movement. Poetry’s simultaneous emergence as a tool of feminism and feminism’s as a theme of poetry solidified the connection between women and the medium, resulting in poetry’s privileged status in the women’s movement.


Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Shakespere's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1979) xviii. Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, 7. Ibid.

48 49


Bibliography Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1979. Kozachenko, Kathy. "Invocation for Inez Garcia" Longest Revolution. February 1977. Lorde, Audre. "Poetry Is Not A Luxury." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. 36 - 39 Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing. Third ed. Chicago, IL: Pandora Press, 2004. Moore, Honor. "Introduction to Poems from the Women's Movement." Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000. Piercy, Marge. Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy. Wellfleet, MA: The Leapfrog Press, 1999. Reed, Thomas Vernon. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis, MN University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Sarachild, Kathie. "Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon." Duke University, Savren, Shelley. "Poet in the World: A Handbook on Art and Action " The Longest Revolution, 1978, 13.


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