Essay

A Change of World

An oral history of poetry and the women’s movement.
By The Editors
Black and white photograph of a woman holding a sign that says "Judge women as people not as wives."

When French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” she voiced what became second-wave feminism’s central argument: that gender is social and not essential and that its meanings are constructed and imposed by a dominant—male—culture. First published in France in 1949, Beauvoir’s classic was translated into English and published in the United States in 1953. But it was another decade before feminism was widely recognized as a serious political and cultural project in the United States, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

Friedan’s book was aimed at affluent white housewives: “the problem that has no name,” she called them. And her recommendations for female empowerment, including choosing employment outside the home, were recognized early as elitist. For many working-class women and women of color, work (usually poorly paid) was rarely a “choice,” let alone a path toward self-fulfillment. But Friedan, like Beauvoir before her, helped articulate the underlying tenets of a political and cultural watershed that reshaped—however unevenly, problematically, and incompletely—the horizons of women everywhere.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, women who had joined radical and leftist political movements, including the civil rights movement and various anti-war and student-led coalitions, were advancing critiques of power that often challenged those groups’ gender assumptions and male-dominated organizational hierarchies. Forming networks and coalitions of their own, such women-led groups were instrumental in achieving political and social change as well as reorienting culture toward female experience. Books, marches, consciousness-raising groups, labor organizing, anti-racist actions, the opening of universities to new disciplines and departments, global solidarity movements, and coalition politics all might fall under the rubric of the “women’s movement.”

There were, and remain, multiple feminisms and many women’s movements in the world of poetry as well as in the world writ large: a plurality of scenes, groups, and affiliations happening across the United States and the globe. Titles such as Beauvoir’s or Friedan’s can almost come to stand in for this history, but numerous groups and communities formed in advance of such books. Many worked far afield of the mainstream focus on anti-sexism and were motivated by anti-racism and by issues of class and sexuality, which received less attention from upper-middle-class white women for whom the movement’s primary focus was on achieving political, economic, and social parity with men. Women’s poetry in these decades was also riven along issues of race, sexual orientation, and class. Yet many powerful stories—including the joint acceptance of the National Book Award in 1974 by Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde “in the name of all women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world”—suggest that poetry presented opportunities for solidarity among groups of women whose experiences were marked unevenly.

To illuminate these pivotal decades in history and poetics, the Change of World podcast series explores the books, readings, workshops, presses, and—above all—the poets and poems that contributed to this watershed moment in American poetry. Though our series title refers to Adrienne Rich’s first book of poetry, A Change of World (1951), these episodes, published in our Poetry Off the Shelf podcast, tell stories not captured by publication histories or biographies, no matter how detailed and fine-grained. They trace how women formed communities—on the page and beyond the book—that helped develop and disseminate poetry during the height of the women’s movement. A series of recurring commentators and guest poets provide insight into the roles friendship, mentorship, and community played in the burgeoning women’s poetry scene of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Each episode is grounded in poets’ personal reflections and reminiscences of this period.

Women continue to be underrepresented in poetry journals and magazines; they win fewer prizes and hold fewer positions of power in the world of poetry than men. But as Carolyn Forché notes in episode three of this series, “Shattering the Blue Velvet Chair,” the first decades of the 21st century have witnessed the “flowering of seeds that were planted some time ago.” How women went from demurely seated tokens in the group portraits of American poets at the beginning of the 20th century to central figures in American poetry at the start of the 21st is one story this series begins to tell.

 A Change of World strives to let the histories of women’s poetries unfold in the words of the poets who lived, wrote, published, and performed during these years—and to use as frequently as possible the words of the poems that inspired them to do so. But we consider this an ongoing story as women poets of all ages, orientations, backgrounds, experiences, and identifications continue to draw inspiration from one another both on the page and off. “From Audre Lorde’s voice, not just the poems on the page,” says Joan Larkin, “I felt I had permission to speak strongly, to speak out, to be proud.”

The editors thank Honor Moore and Hannah Brooks-Motl for their generous help and guidance in compiling this series. We invite you to listen.

SUGGESTED FURTHER READING ON POETRY AND FEMINISM

There are too many important books on 20th-century feminism and the second-wave women’s movement to include here, but the following reading list further explores the roles that poetry played in second-wave feminism and that feminism plays in contemporary American poetry. This selection is offered as a starting point to the important prose that traces these connections as well as to the seminal anthologies that changed the poetry landscape. If you would like to suggest additions, please contact us.

 

CRITICAL ESSAYS AND PROSE BOOKS

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute Books, 1987).

Bryan, Sharon, editor. Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (W.W. Norton, 1993).

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee (Tanam Press, 1982).

Drake, William. The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. (Macmillan, 1987).

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990).

Frost, Elizabeth A. The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2003).

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (Indiana University Press, 1979).

Grahn, Judy. The Judy Grahn Reader (Aunt Lute Books, 2016).

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (Harper & Row, 1978).

Hewitt, Nancy editor. No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism (Rutgers UP, 2010).

Hinton, Laura. Jayne Cortez, Adrienne Rich, and the Feminist Superhero: Voice, Vision, Politics, and Performance in U.S. Contemporary Women's Poetics (Lexington Books, 2016).

Hinton, Laura and Cynthia Hogue, editors. We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2002).

Howe, SusanMy Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books, 1985).

Jordan, June. Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan (Basic/Civitas Books, 2002).

Keller, Christoph and Jan Heller Levi. We’re On: A June Jordan Reader (Alice James Books, 2017).

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women (University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Keller, Lynn and Cristianne Miller, editors. Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory (University of Michigan Press, 1994).

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Knopf, 1976).

Kinnahan, Linda editor. A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry (Cambridge UP, 2016).

Kizer, Carolyn. “The Art of Poetry Interview No. 81,” Paris Review, Spring 2000.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1984).

Mayer, Bernadette. The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (Hard Press, 1994)

McQuade, Molly, editor. By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2000).

Morgan, Robin, editor. Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (Random House, 1970).

Morgan, Robin, editor. Sisterhood is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology (Feminist Press at CUNY, 1984, 1996).

Morgan, Robin. The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches, 1968-1992 (W.W. Norton, 1992).

Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing. (Pandora/HarperCollins, 1987).

Moore, Honor. “After Ariel: Celebrating the poetry of the women’s movement” in Boston Review, 2009.

Myles, Eileen. Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (OR Books, 2016)

Nelson, Maggie. Women, the New York School, and other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007).

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. (Beacon Press, 1986).

Rich, Adrienne. “Directed by Desire: An IntroductionThe Collected Poems of June Jordan. (Copper Canyon Press, 2006).

Rich, Adrienne. “Someone is Writing a PoemWhat Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. (W.W. Norton, 1993).

Rich, Adrienne. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008. (W.W. Norton, 2008).

Rich, Adrienne. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. (W.W. Norton, 1993).

Riley, Denise. Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History (University of Minnesota, 1988).

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. (Viking, 2000).

Sewell, Marilyn, editor. Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women’s Poetry. (Beacon Press, 1996).

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Harcourt, 1983).

Whitehead, Kim. The Feminist Poetry Movement (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

 

POETRY ANTHOLOGIES

Bambara, Toni Cade, editor. The Black Woman: An Anthology (New American Library, 1970).

Bulkin, Elly and Joan Larkin, editors. Amazon Poetry: An Anthology of Lesbian Poetry (Out & Out Books, 1975).

Bulkin, Elly and Joan Larkin, editors. Lesbian Poetry (Persephone Press, 1981).

Laura Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, editors. Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (Saturnalia, 2010).

Howe, Florence and Ellen Bass, editors. No More Masks!: An Anthology of Poems by Women (Anchor Press, 1973).

Larkin, Joan and Morse, Carl editors. Gay & Lesbian Poetry in Our Time. (St. Martin’s, 1988).

Moore, Honor, editor. Poems from the Women’s Movement (Library of America, 2009).

Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, editors. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Persephone Press, 1981).

Juliana Spahr and Claudia Rankine, editors. American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan UP, 2002).

Stetson, Erlene, editor. Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980. (Indiana UP, 1981).

 

POETRY FOUNDATION ARTICLES

Creighton, Jane. “Writing War, Writing Memory: Remembering June Jordan.” Poetry Foundation, 2006.

Finch, Annie. “Visiting Carolyn Kizer,” Poetry Foundation, 2014.

Marshell, Kyla. “Mother of Black Studies,” Poetry Foundation, 2016.

O'Rourke, Meghan, J. Allyn Rosser & Eleanor Wilner. “Exchange: Meghan O'Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser & Eleanor Wilner on ‘Women's Poetry’Poetry magazine, 2006.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Learning to Breath under Water: Considering Muriel Rukeyser’s Oceanic Work” Poetry Foundation, 2013.

Porter, Lavelle. “Dear Sister Outsider” Poetry Foundation, 2016.

Smith, Patricia. “Gwendolyn Brooks: In the Mecca,” Poetry magazine, 2012.

Originally Published: November 16th, 2017