What is the role of women in "Song of Myself"?  

While Whitman tries to offer women an inclusive and expansive role as a distinct part of his celebration of all of humanity in "Song of Myself," he also falls into the sexual stereotyping common in his period.

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"Song of Myself" is an exuberant celebration of all of humanity, all of which Whitman sees as a part of himself. Whitman specifically includes woman in this circle, stating:
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.
He also affirms female empowerment and sexuality, writing:
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
This seems to suggest that a woman let out of the confines of her "room" or a socially constricted role where she "hides," expresses a fullness and sexuality that loves men and is willing to "splash in the water" of life.
Whitman says as well:
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
This again affirms the active, vibrant, loving nature of woman, this time in the guise of the "twenty-ninth bather."
At the same time, revealing that Whitman is a product of the nineteenth century, he tends to celebrate woman in her traditional gender role, stating:
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
This would suggest that Whitman chiefly values a woman for her maternal role and for bringing men into the world. Although Whitman is aiming at a generous and expansive vision of womanhood, this line reads as cringeworthy today for women who wish to define themselves as more than mothers.
While Whitman tries to encompass and value women in all their complexity, he often reduces them to their bodies, such as when he writes that he is:
Pleas’d with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas’d with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks melodiously,
At the same time, he wants to speak to both men and women equally, saying:
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
...
each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
In sum, Whitman does his best to be inclusive and affirming of women, but he is ultimately hampered by sexual stereotypes and the limited vision of woman's role in the period in which he was writing.
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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