While I blogged about Adrienne Rich, surely the best known poet of the WLM, so far I’ve only written as Susan Griffin as an essayist. As I poked about in her earlier work, which is much sparser than Rich’s because Griffin worked in publishing for most of this period to support herself and her daughter, while Rich quickly secured numerous academic appointments which basically paid her to write, I did discover this gem, I Like To Think of Harriet Tubman (c 1973). In reading it, I was reminded of the uses to which Sojourner Truth was also put by the women’s liberation movement (see also this and this).
Griffin uses the historical figure as inspiration and model for the poet addressing contemporary issues. Harriet Tubman
had no use for the law
when the law was wrong,
who defied the law. I like
to think of her.
I like to think of her especially
when I think of the problem
of feeding children.
The rebelliousness of Tubman, and presumably the narrator, is juxtaposed against men obsessed with the abstractions of the law.
I am tired wanting them to think
about right and wrong.
I want them to fear.
I want them to feel fear now
This notion of women doing, men thinking presages the theories expounded by Carol Gilligan In A Different Voice (1981) with the marked difference that Griffin’s poem is about inspiring women to direct political action in the face of a school lunch program which she views as absurd as the men’s notion of female hysteria.
to the problem of feeding children
is ten free lunches every month,
being equal, in the child’s real life,
to eating lunch every other day.
Monday but not Tuesday.
men who sit in paneled offices
and think about vacations
and tell women
whose care it is
to feed children
not to be hysterical
I find it interesting that Rich, in “When We Dead Awaken” also alludes to “women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children” this oddly 19th century notion of the sacrificing mother of starving children calling to mind the moral reform work which white middle class women justified as aiding the poor. However, the models taken from this era by women’s liberation weren’t the white lady bountiful.
It is truistic to say that women’s liberation emerged from civil rights and black activism, which it both did and did not, but the influence of black nationalism and black history clearly provided examples, models and inspiration for women’s liberation activists. A poem entitled “I Like to Think of Sarah and Angelina Grimke” would not covey the sense of militancy than Griffin wants to express, although the Grimke’s too broke laws, of the unwritten social and religious sort. Griffin, and the other authors drawing on Truth and Tubman, want a more revolutionary past that white female abolitionists had to offer.
It is also truistic to slam women’s liberation as a “white” movement, which is an insult to the Latina, African American, Asian American, and Native American women who participated in the movement. However, the movement of self-identified women’s liberationists itself certainly was composed primarily of white women, for reasons a host of scholars have documented (I love lots of analyses, but really like Benita Roth’s Separate Roads to Feminism). So the issue of white women using black historical figures offers some fascinating moments to look into The Politics of Women’s Cultur, which like the movement, was not created only by white women, but certainly had a lot of white women advocating for it.
Still in the arena of women’s culture, black women writiers, in particular gained prominence early on. One of the major players in The Politics of Women’s Culture is Audre Lorde, advocate, gadfly, and all around kick ass woman, about whom I will write more later!