Women Respond to Whitman

Toward the end of his life, Whitman told his friend Horace Traubel:

Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman's book—the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it: it speaks out the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and wrong of the woman sex—of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all—of the feminine: speaks out loud: warns, encourages, persuades, points the way.

We know that Whitman was sensitive to women and to women's issues. His love of his mother and other strong women was intense. As he told Horace, "It is lucky for me if I take after the women in my ancestry, as I hope I do: they were so superior, so truly the more pregnant forces in our family history." And as he wrote, "I am the poet of woman as well as the man ... and I say there is nothing greater than to be a mother."

In 1889 he described his friend Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe as "quite a great woman in her way—a true woman of the new aggressive type." He celebrated the strength and intelligence of women's rights activists and freethinkers like Frances Wright, Abbey Price, Paulina Wright Davis, and Ernestine Rose.

He was sensitive to women's issues, from as early as the 1840s:

There is a class of pert, thin-brained fools in society ... who think they do something very smart, when they say bitter things of women, or when they collect what some other sour-minded ones have uttered, and parade it before the world to tell against the same gentle sex. It has, indeed, come to be a fashion with this class, to lose no opportunity of decrying the character and talents of women. Dolts! It is their own impure hearts which make the ones they insult, appear low. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 24, 1846).

He is also well aware of history's partiality to men.

... because women do not appear in history or philosophy with anything like the same prominence as men—that is no reason for treating them less than men ... Mention to me the 20 most majestic characters that have existed upon the earth, and have their names recorded.—It is very well.—But for that 20, there are millions upon millions just as great, whose names are unrecorded.—It was in them to do actions as grand—to say as beautiful thoughts—to set examples for their race.—But in each one the book was not opened.—It lay in its place ready.

It's no wonder that Whitman was picked up again by feminists, beginning in the early stages of the movement in the 1970s. Let's look at three leading, living female writers who have responded directly to Whitman.

Erica Jong

Erica Jong

Jong is a poet and novelist. Though she is best known for her best-selling novels, including Fear of Flying, she came out with a book of poetry entitled Love Root. The first poem in this collection is called "Testament, or Homage to Walt Whitman." It is an extraordinary exchange between a man and a woman past and present... she finds her own in Whitman's voice, despite the fact he's male and of the past. There is a crucial moment in which she talks directly to Walt and acknowledges his influence on her changing work. The final stanza alludes to several Whitman ideas (including the book as a physical place, a meeting spot for reader and writer) and poems (including "A Noiseless Patient Spider "). Jong declares herself ready to embrace the Whitmanic spirit for joy. Jong is able to look beyond the boundaries of gender and connect with Whitman and his democratic ideas of poetry.

Erica Jong

Alicia Ostriker

Ostriker is a poet and critic who turns to Whitman's politics for inspiration. She wrote the influential study Stealing the Language: The Emergence of

Women's Poetry in America (1986), in which there is an essay entitled "Loving Walt Whitman, and the Problem of America." This essay best speaks towards how Whitman has had the ability of liberating women's work. Ostriker mentions, "If women poets in America have written more boldly and experimentally in the past thirty years than our British equivalents we have Whitman to thank." In the essay Ostriker notes that Whitman "permitted love, that was the primary thing that I noticed."

Later in the essay she proposes that not only was Whitman ahead of his time with regards to gender politics, but that he may still be ahead of us today. Ostriker speaks of how Whitman's inclusiveness has made American woman poets feel like they are part of a traditionally patriarchal tradition of literature.

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