What is the emotional feminine experience in "Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money"?

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The poem "Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money" was published in a collection of the same name in 1978. The era in which it appeared is important to an understanding of the emotional feminine experience described in the poem.

This poem captures the sharp division between...

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The poem "Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money" was published in a collection of the same name in 1978. The era in which it appeared is important to an understanding of the emotional feminine experience described in the poem.

This poem captures the sharp division between the role of women and men in the 1970s, especially in certain conservative traditional areas such as the Midwest, which it seems is the focus of the description. In this mindset, women's duties include shopping, putting groceries away, preparing food, and cleaning up, while men are responsible for working at jobs and bringing home paychecks.

At first, women are presented at peace with this arrangement: in slippers, sipping coffee, and taking time to stare out the window and think. They are happy to be alone and off work schedules. However, there is another side to this monotony. As Oates points out, their days are so similar and run into each other so that "everything is forgotten." The "relief of emptiness" of their routines is "simple" but also "terrible." These women go to movies with their men and feel uncomfortable because they know that their lives are not as ideal as those they see on the screen. They hear of topics that also make them uncomfortable such as abortion, meaningful work for women, and young people on the road, but when they return to their carefully delineated lives, nothing has changed for them.

In summary, in this poem Oates presents an emotional feminine experience that appears serene and fulfilling on the surface but in the end leads to emptiness. It's an example of the lives of "quiet desperation" that many people lead that Henry David Thoreau wrote about.

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Joyce Carol Oates' 1978 poem Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money addresses both the feminine and masculine experiences in her portrayal of modern, conventional American life. That said, her primary focus is the female experience, as this is where she starts and ends her poem. She begins with "she is staring/peaceful as the rain" in the poem's opening lines and closes with "mothers stoop/the oven doors settle with a thump . . . the relief of emptiness rains/simple, terrible, routine/at peace" in the closing stanza.

The association of the feminine element with rain is hard to ignore, and though rain is generally connected to melancholia or sadness, Oates acknowledges that rain can be "peaceful." Indeed, there is some comfort in routine. By extension, female lives can be conceived of as similarly routine and similarly peaceful, though not without the "terrible" simplicity.

The poem's title adduces a contrast between the male and female experiences. The male experience is also portrayed realistically and unromantically ("Wednesday evening: he takes the cans out front/tough plastic with detachable lids"). While Oates privileges the representation of women's experiences by means of the poem's structure, she presents men with an everyday heroism as they work typical 9–5 jobs ("the lunchbag folded with care and brought back home/unfolded Monday morning").

We get a bit more insight into women's domestic experience in the larger part of the poem. Women's lives are food, according to Oates, because they are relegated to the domestic sphere. They "break eggs with care," "scrap[e] garbage from the plates," "unpack groceries," and "rinse" and "stack" dishes. Women's engagement with society (outside the home) is presented as comprising "panel discussions on abortions, fashions, [and] meaningful work" (and here the word "meaningful" is fraught—the reader pauses to question what constitutes meaningful work). This rather sarcastic collection of events suggests that even the social sphere for women is less than fulfilling. By contrast, the "routine" and "simple" environment of the home is where women experience the world.

While there is a suggestion that women's domestic work is meaningful (as caregivers to the sparsely described "long-limbed children"), Oates is decidedly less optimistic concerning women's emotional experience, as the opening stanza describes a woman's house as having "floorboards [which] assert themselves" (unlike, we are meant to assume, women themselves). The final stanza finds a collective, generic group of women among stacked dishes. The reader is left to understand the female emotional experience as both "peaceful" and "simple," but nonetheless "terrible" for these familiar and restricted lifestyle qualities.

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