Posted by: Erin Longbottom | 6th Sep, 2009

Erin for September 8th.

This week’s reading is giving me a clearer sense of the America Whitman is envisioning through his poetry. “Song of the Broad-Axe” shows a nation that has been built by the working man, and is still being built by the working man. Whitman describes it as a place “where the citizen is always the head and the ideal” and “where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as men, where they enter the public assembly and take the places the same as the men” (p.335-336). This is where Whitman’s I begin to become suspicious of this so-called “ideal.”

Obviously Whitman is a supporter of women’s rights, I don’t doubt that. He is clear when addressing the reader that he means “man or woman,” “he or she,” etc. Something that bothers me though is the lack of women taking part in Whitman’s America. He writers that “a great city is that which has the greatest men and women” (p.335). There is no mention though of women ever helping to create that city. Whitman writes of “the six framing-men, two in the middle and two at each end, carefully bearing on their shoulders a heavy stick for a cross-beam” but where are the women helping to lay the foundation? There is no reference to men and women building the nation together. Furthermore, as far as I have read, Whitman never takes women out of their traditionally assigned gender roles of being mothers, housewives and shop girls. While you could argue Whitman was portraying life as he saw it, I believe there’s more to it than that. I think that Whitman does believe women are equal to men, and that their voices should be heard and listened to in earnest, but he doesn’t suggest that women should work alongside men. He keeps them in the home, or working at sewing machines. Even when he tells the reader in “Song of Occupations” that “the wife, and she is not one jot less than the husband…the mother, and she is every bit as much as the father” (p. 356). There is no mention of simply the woman being equal to the man. He writes of men building up the nation, and then they will eventually raise women and slaves to be their equals.  Where is the woman fighting for her right to vote? Where is the woman fighting for equal pay or job opportunities? Why are these not images he included in his sweeping and romantic descriptions of America? Even when referring to slaves, he portrays them as downtrodden people who he must nurture and care for, who could do nothing, achieve nothing without his help.

In my opinion, Whitman likes the idea of women and slaves having equal rights, but he writes about it more as a passing interest than something he is deeply convicted of. I hate to end another blog in suspicion, but Whitman leaves me no choice.



I have to agree with you. Margaret Fuller was writing around the same time as Whitman, and in her texts, she often advocates that women need to be completely equal, and that sometimes, motherhood and wifehood are not necessarily fit for all women. Rather, she suggests that some would be better off to be things like sea captains. Now, granted, these ideas were completely radical. The Feminist movement had just begun (with Seneca Falls in 1848), and the idea that women could be more than shopgirls was nearly unheard of. But shouldn’t that radicalism be right up Whitman’s alley? Especially since he wants a united, equal nation.

On the other hand, though. I can’t completely discredit him. He never says specifically that women -can’t- be those things. In “Song of Occupations,” he actually names women first sometimes, and with the exception of things like “shopgirl,” most of the jobs aren’t gendered.

From what I gather, women have been somewhat divided throughout the ages on what to think of Whitman for the very reasons you outline here. I would imagine that you’re right in saying that equal rights for women was probably more of a passing interest for Whitman, something he believed in but did not devote as much time to as he might have. That’s just how things go for all of us; we support many different causes, but only have enough time/energy to actively work for a small number of them.

I like how you ended your post, because it is so true. I too do not think Whitman fully takes a stance on his equal rights positions. In one instance he is including all people and states, “The black with his wooly head, the felon, the diseas’d , the illiterate person, are not denied” (298). But in the next page, Whitman mentions an America where people are excluded when he writes, “No diseas’d person, no rum- drinker or veneral taint is permitted here (Whitman 303). As a reader, this can be very confusing. However, I feel that contradictions are such a big part of Whitman’s poetry because throughout the years that Whitman was writing the American way of thinking were constantly changing and developing so contradictions could have been very common.

This really does lead to an interesting conundrum here because I have to agree that the double standard is definitely apparent here. And to agree with Megan, the argument that Whitman is conforming his vision of America to just what he sees around him somehow falls flat. I tend to see that Whitman does not attempt to ‘conform’ America, but rather he attempts to ‘form’ America into something greater, yet, at least at the points of his writing we have made it to, he seems to have a very distinct idea of everything in it’s place. I’m still wrestling with exactly what this means, as he talks congenially about the slave still in bondage and the freed slave, and speaks of things in the masculine and feminine but of women as shop girls. I’m just not sure. We’ll have to see what develops.

-Ben Brishcar

Leave a response

Your response:


Skip to toolbar