March 27th, 2007
Adrienne Rich: The Limited Perspective Portrayed in Her Work
Adrienne Rich has been, and continues to be, an important poetic icon of the post-World War II era, and perhaps, is one of the most significant. Her large body of work, including a number of essays, read as socially conscious lyrics which have two prevalent themes: feminism and lesbianism and the questioning of traditional societal institutions.
In addition to pondering the existence of traditional roles and conventions placed upon all members of society—women in particular—Rich also challenges the traditional poetic form itself by combining her interpretation of the more usual formal articulation paired with a what was perceived as a revolutionary form of free verse. A literary critic, Alice Templeton, elucidated upon this idea of straying from conventional form in The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich's Feminist Poetics: "Adrienne Rich's poetry has always raised important, difficult questions about the cultural uses of poetry and the ideology of poetic and critical tradition. For over forty years her work has provided the occasion for critics to comment on the art of poetry, its political significance, the character of poetic tradition, and the value of poetry as a critical and creative cultural activity" (12).
The nature, form, and perspective of Rich’s poetry has fluctuated throughout her career and has often reflected the changing social awareness as it has grown and mutated throughout recent decades. Even her style of writing has undergone dramatic change over the course of her career. Some of her earlier works, A Change of World for instance, contain a more formal and rigid style, often following the traditional iambic pentameter, while later works such as Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law show the transition into what would become known as her more independent free verse. Her work has progressively become more revolutionary—both at the stylistic and subject levels—and by the time infamous works, such as Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence, were published, Rich was well-known for a trademark style of discussing confrontational societal and political beliefs, often interweaving a primary theme of rejecting patriarchal culture. One critic, Claire Keyes, discussed this point: “As a poet, Adrienne Rich makes certain choices regarding diction, syntax, imagery, musical values, and prosody […] governing these choices is her womanhood” (Aesthetics 10).
By continuously discussing this last theme and making it the central focus of many of her works—poems and essays alike—Rich has essentially marked herself as a literary feminist crusader. In works such as Diving into the Wreck, she has provided a continuous feminist critique of women’s roles within society, relationships, families, and the workforce. Although Rich has been touted as a feminist literary icon and initiated positive and essential conversations for women in our contemporary society, by placing such a strong emphasis on the feminist perspective, she is actually creating a limited, one-gendered ideal, which is exactly the idea that she was working against through her essays and poems.
Adrienne Rich has not always been seen viewed as such a prominent feminist crusader. Her evolution of work began, as mentioned above, with a more formal construction, and this distinction was not limited to solely the poetic structure. In writing the forward to Rich’s book A Change of World, W.H. Auden noted that her work, “are neatly and modestly dressed, speak directly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs” (Aesthetics 17). Indeed, Auden noted his interpretation of her modesty several times throughout the introduction and praised her for such feminine duties as dutifulness and self-restraint (Aesthetics 17). However, the fact that Rich’s work and ideologies have altered to such a great extent throughout her career has resulted into almost as much of an uproar in disagreement in critics as her controversial works themselves. In “The Road Taken”, literary critic Carol Bere notes: “Advocates of the earlier Rich now mourn the loss of her more "comfortable" poems; radical feminist (and largely favorable) critics of Rich have divided some readers; for others, she has been a bellwether of women poets' potential for power and influence” (1). Indeed the critics varying opinions are spread over her ever-changing content as much as chronology. An article of criticism in The Literary Index expands on her flux of topics and focus in her writing:
Critical commentary has reflected the polemics of her poetry: critics who adhere to Rich's politics often commend her work unconditionally, while those who dissent from her radical feminism usually disavow her writings. A conclusive appraisal of Rich's canon has remained elusive, despite several attempts since the early 1990s—a testament perhaps of the poet's continuous revision of her views and approaches to contemporary issues. (Thomson 1)
The dissent of opinion as how to classify Rich as a poet is one facet of her stronghold and appeal, but by far, she is best known and classified as an avid feminist who is continuously advocating for equality in women’s lives. When referring to her own work and message, Rich noted that, “Whereas man can express the energy of his ego, woman must hold within in order ‘to survive’. Such withholding is negative in that it turns against the self and prevents the development of the woman’s potential and humanity” (Aesthetics 18). The inequities among the genders were always forefront in Rich’s mind as she worked, as noted by Keyes: “For women, restraint and disguise bring on, of course, envy and resentment of man’s powerfulness. Adrienne Rich’s creative energies as poet offset this catalog of debilities” (Aesthetics 18). Her awareness to the inequalities that have and still exist has been crucial, and in the cases of her more popular works, she has presented an elegant and powerful voice to a necessary and a once-taboo subject. She notes in one of her most female-driven essays, Compulsory Sexuality, the need to have to discuss this once taboo subject:
Whatever its origins, when we look hard and clearly at the extent and elaboration of measures designed to keep women within a male sexual purlieu, it becomes an inescapable question whether the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple "gender inequality" nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere "taboos against homosexuality,” but the enforcement of
heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical and emotional access. (Poetry 191)
However, by presenting women’s rights, sexuality, and power to such an exalted level in an effort to parallel women’s lives to the freedoms that men experience, Rich has actually created another form of dominant oppression, but this scenario, men have become the subservient class. In addition, by continuously campaigning for women’s rights on such a grand scale over a number of decades, Rich has moved from discussing the obvious inequalities that do indeed exist to helping perpetuate these very inequalities by presenting the injustices to new generations of readers in such a forceful and dramatic voice.
One of Rich’s preeminent pieces for presenting such a dominant feminist standpoint is her Compulsory Heterosexuality essay. Written mid-way through her professional career, in 1980, she discusses a number of pressing and ongoing topics concerning the oppression of women including the traditional female role in the home and workplace. In addition, one of the most powerful pieces of the essay focuses on eight different aspects of male power and the different ways in which this power is utilized to suppress women’s sexuality and rights. Rich has several key portions that—while supporting women’s rights—carry this aspect of equality to an over needed extreme. Although this essay is now dated over a quarter of a century, and assuredly issues have evolved regarding the female perspective and power structure, the extremities that Rich carries her views to are, and were, too limiting, regardless of the place in history.
One of the first aspects of Rich overtly displaying an overabundance of feminist equality occurs immediately after the opening of the essay and centers around two of the most basic aspects of human nature: sexuality and acknowledgment of self. Here, Rich is focusing on the direct issue of compulsory heterosexuality and the idea that all members of society, but women in particular, are lacking choices in sexual behavior and are forced to desire and live with what is perceived to be “normal”; therefore, the logical conclusion is that the suppressed voice would be lacking from print and discussion. Rich begins the discussion with these concerns in the essay:
How and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writing, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here (Poetry 205).
These addressed issues are logical and valid concerns, and indeed, they are worthy of discussion due to the common oppression and victimization of women. However, after a few brief passages, she makes the extraneous leap to a female-centered perspective:
If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical, from a feminist perspective at least, to pose the following questions: whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women: why in fact women would even redirect that search (Poetry 206).
By stating the opinion that both men and women should naturally, by a stereotypical nurturing standpoint, be led to seeking and desiring only female love, Rich is going beyond advocating for female acknowledgement and rights. Instead, she is presenting a view of female prominence and superiority by promoting a limited stereotype and asking what could be better than to bask in feminine love, regardless if it is a man or a woman that is seeking that love.
One initial problem with this assessment is that it seemingly limits the romantic and sexual options to just one gender, that of a woman, and in doing so, Rich has created the alternate form of compulsory sexuality that she is battling in the essay. In addition to this fallacy in logic, in an effort to open the discussion to the falsities that currently exist surrounding many female stereotypes, Rich is erroneous since she is basing her argumentative assumptions upon two stereotypes. One stereotype concerns the views society holds toward men. In “Compulsory Heterosexuality”, she lists Kathleen Gough’s eight focal points of male dominance, including the power of men, that discuss the various and sundry ways in which men objective and marginalize women, and Rich adds her own views to each section. While all eight points contain factual instances of female oppression, the discussion is based upon stereotypes that all—or most—men in society react and treat women in such demeaning manners. This obviously is not the case, but without casting men in such a negative, opposing light, the entire basis for the argument she presents in the essay would be obsolete.
The second erroneous stereotype Rich portrays concerns the loving nature of women. Just as misleading and narrow as the views presented of men, by classifying all women as nurturing, loving, and compassionate, Rich is as guilty of presenting an untrue statement and misconception regarding women as she was regarding men, even though the feminine view was presented in a positive light. By presenting these fallacies to such an extreme, Rich has risen above simply bringing the view of female roles to a level ground and instead shown an ideal of female superiority that places men in the typical, objectified “female” role.
A second aspect of feminist perspective that is carried to an extreme by Rich occurs with her viewpoints concerning women’s role in the workplace, whether that work occurs at an actual location of work or in the home. Rich states:
The fact is that the workplace, among other social institutions, is a place where women have learned to accept male violation of their psychic and physical boundaries as the price of survival; where women have been educated […] to perceive themselves as sexual prey (Poetry 211).
Rich continues this thought and expands it to the perceived traditional female role of the work done in the home that is taught, as she states, by romantic literature and pornography and leads to women viewing themselves as sexual prey, waiting to be objectified by men:
A woman seeking to escape such casual violations along with economic disadvantage may well turn to marriage as a form of hoped-for protection, while bringing into marriage neither social nor economic power, thus entering that institution also from a disadvantaged position (Poetry 211).
While cases of male violation and harassment do definitely occur in places of work and home, can perceived male domination be blamed for this situation? Rich mentions an interesting source of objectification when she includes romantic literature and pornography. A couple of interesting questions come to the surface when examining this statement, the first of which is who creates such media and literary sources? Even if the answer were solely men, and that is assuredly not the case, then where and how did the ideas of female inferiority begin in their minds?
Common stereotypes are not passed along from solely one sex, and in this particular case, women can be just as guilty of disseminating fallacies as men. When women tell their daughters and then next female generation to be cognizant of the previous generation’s female role and the limiting attitudes and behaviors of that generation’s men, these good-intentioned female are actually placing the seed of doubt—about both their own roles and the roles and the men around them—in these young girls’ minds. Thus the stereotype is perpetuated, for when one expects and looks for a particular behavior in another, it is likely to be observed. A Rich critic, Elizabeth Groz, echoes this though when she states that, “This patriarchy as the system of universal male right to the appropriation of women's bodies" opens the way for a "victim discourse" (Volatile 9). Groz continues with:
Similarly, many theorists have claimed that radical feminist accounts of compulsory heterosexuality and "sex-right" define heterosexuality in terms of male desires and aggression, and therefore, significantly fail to account for female agency (Volatile 2).
This limited bias that, once again, presents a negative stereotype concerning men’s behaviors toward women is Rich’s further projection of a blatant fallacy. By again exalting the majority of men to such a harassing level of conduct, Rich has created an opposing dichotomy between the sexes in an attempt to show the inequities that women face at work and home, but instead, she once again reverses the sex roles that she is trying so hard to equalize.
Rich’s discussion of female oppression extended beyond the home and workplace; in fact, the dominant ideology reached into all aspects of our society, including the political and theoretical realms, according to Rich, and the fact that most women are “innately heterosexual” is a stumbling block for the feminist movement in these arenas (Poetry 216). Rich continues to say that by society—mainly the heterosexual sect of society—has failed to acknowledge the lesbian lifestyle throughout history, which she feels is as integral as examining as any single other portion of our life, work, and government. And until female homosexuality is examined and accepted, these women cannot progress through history and from theoretical standpoints until they have been seen and acknowledged by the rest of society (Poetry 216). As Rich sees it, women have been essentially forced into heterosexuality for the pleasures and benefit of men since it is a “means of assuring male right of physical, economic, and emotional access” (Poetry 216) to women. One way that this male “right” is maintained is by limiting and downplaying the role of lesbianism in our society, she contends.
In presenting another facet of fallacious female oppression, Rich has once again structured an extreme, opposing dichotomy between the sexes that is simply not representative of society as a whole. Rich gives the notion that most women are not born as heterosexuals, and seems to indicate that lesbianism—if it were not for these stifling societal standards—would be the norm among women. By this assumption, she is creating the same standards for women, albeit different, that she perceives men have—that there is a “natural” sexual tendency for the majority of women, and thus, she has positioned herself in the same limiting perspective against the male-dominated section of societal beliefs that she is advocating against.
In addition to this skewed perspective, Rich again shows the structured opposition when she discusses the rights that males obtain by holding women to levels of being prey. Similar to the points mentioned above, Rich has created an extreme generalization and stereotype for both sexes in order to create a good vs. bad, female vs. male configuration that places a focused look on the minority of cases, rather than the majority.
These views of Rich’s limiting perspectives are echoed by other critics, particularly those promoting gay and lesbian rights. One such critic, Stephanie Olson, states that “A post-modern critique of Rich's description of compulsory heterosexuality questions its assumption that it is possible for any identity to exist naturally” (Compulsory 1). She continues with another common criticism of the ideas that Rich presents:
Rich places too much emphasis on woman-identification as the basis for lesbian activity and almost ignores sexuality. In her essay, sexuality is seen as masculine and not a part of woman-identification, thus perpetuating the idea that women are not naturally sexual (Compulsory 1).
Another critic of Rich’s perceptions is Gayle Rubin, a cultural anthropologist, activist, and writer. In Olson’s article, she includes Rubin’s views which mirror her own:
Although the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality is a powerful force in the social construction of lesbianism as "deviant," the feminist insistence on regulated sexuality even between women is equally powerful and also oppressive (Compulsory 1).
Similar to the points I have already discussed, many others see a female-dominated sense of superiority exhibited by Rich, similar to many other feminist writers of her time, throughout Compulsory Heterosexuality. Rather than questioning what should have been the natural question of is there indeed a correct form of sexuality that society should accept, by placing this quandary within the realms of feminism, the power is actually moved to the opposition, placing the majority of the power within the female spectrum. As Olson notes, “Rubin believes that this type of lesbian-feminism continues to regulate women's sexuality and thus works against the feminist goal of liberating women from all forms of oppression” (Compulsory 1).
Regardless of whether critics prefer Rich’s earlier, formulaic work or her later, free verse form, and whether they agree or disagree with her controversial subject matter, overall a general consensus concerning Rich’s works acknowledge the creative and powerful contributions she has given to poetry, and namely to societal and feminist issues. "There is no one whose poetry has spoken more eloquently for the oppressed and marginalized in America, no one who has more compassionately charted the course of individual suffering across the horrifying and impersonal growth of recent history," fellow poet and professor David St. John has said, adding that Rich's works "continue to be essential writings in the ongoing feminist struggle in [the United States] and throughout the world. (Thompson 1). One critic, Cheri Langdell, adds that Rich may be viewed as an American philosopher, “a gadfly stinging complacent citizens of the Republic from time to time, challenging everyone to think harder, longer, and more creatively about political questions long ignored” (Moment 5). However, in adopting the philosopher form of directly addressing pertinent societal issues, Rich takes the discussion of female equality among a male-centered society too far; the end result is perceived as her advocating for female superiority rather than balance among the sexes. Many of her poems and essays, but Compulsory Heterosexuality in particular, clearly indicate Rich’s ability to put too much emphasis on the women’s rights in our society and eliminating and generalizing the role that men play; thus Rich ultimately presents a societal perspective that is still one-gendered and biased—it’s just the opposite of what she is arguing against.
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