Whitman and Women

Sherry Ceniza’s article, “Women as a Theme in Whitman’s Writing” asks if Whitman’s writing was enabling to women.  Sherry says that the answer lies in the details and they are “so abundant and intricate that to do justice to the topic one would have to write a complete book.”  She proceeds to break the details into categories, including “ways Whitman went about inscribing the new woman, the democractic woman into his writing.”  Although I would agree that Walt includes women in the poems she cites, I do not agree that they necessarily enable women.  “Song of the Open Road” is one of her selections.  Although he speaks of women in the poem and invites them, along with men, to join him on the open road, I do not see any statements of enablement to them.  Women had been traveling the open road for hundreds of years prior and were used to accompanying their men into the frontier, working just as hard as they did to survive.  Once a settlement was formed, women took their dutiful places in the home while men ran the town.  I find nothing here to say that Walt is enabling women to be empowered to liberation and equality, except the equality that comes from mutually trying to survive in nature.  He does not invite them into politics, business or academia anywhere in this poem.

Again, I do not see Ceniza’s choice of section 11 of “Song of the Exposition” as speaking to the public image of women.  When taken in the scope of the entire poem, it is speaking about the quintessential mother who has unconditional love for her son.  If you read the entire poem, each section stands alone, yet is built upon what came in the previous section.   In the last stanza of section 10, the last two lines speak about the son who leaves home all “confident and puff’d up” and returns home “diseas’d, broken down, without innocence, without means.”  When he enters the door again he finds her.  The “her” Walt is describing in section 10 is explained in section 11 and is a mother.  That sense comes from the whole section, especially the last two lines where he says, “She receives them as the laws of Nature receive them, she is strong, She too is a law of Nature – there is no law stronger than she is.”  That does not speak to me of a woman in the public spear, but one who is God like in her strength and ability to uphold the greatest spiritual command, to love unconditionally.

In one of the other poems Ceniza sights, “A Woman Waits for Me,” Walt clearly states that he feels women are physically capable of doing the same things men do, but he does not write anything that sounds as if he is endorsing the feminist movement or  enabling them to stand up and fight for a public place in society.  I have not read all of Whitman’s work, so I cannot say that he did not write works that were enabling to women; I just do not see Ceniza’s point in these selections.

One Response to “Whitman and Women”

  1. Carol Singley says on :

    I appreciate your critical examination of this article and note your ability to go beyond it with your own insights. Will be interested to see what the rest of your research into Whitman’s feminism turns up.

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