illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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Was Emily Dickinson a feminist poet?

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Whether Emily Dickinson was a feminist poet depends on the definition of feminism one uses. In one sense, "feminism" means to participate in organized activity advocating for women's rights and interests. In another sense, "feminism" means simply a belief in equal rights and opportunities for women. There is no indication that Emily Dickinson was a feminist in the first sense of the word. Since she lived most of her adult life in a semi-reclusive state, she did not become involved in public efforts for women's suffrage, for instance.

However, one could build a case that Dickinson was feminist in the second sense of the word. Dickinson's poetry deals with a wide variety of topics that affect women and men equally. Her poems about death, grief, nature, faith, and other philosophical topics reflect a woman of high intelligence who was the equal of any male poets writing in her day, or any other day. Interestingly, Dickinson was not beyond assuming a male persona in her poems, as evidenced by "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (1096), but there are other poems in which the speaker is obviously feminine, such as "I'm wife - I've finished that -" (225). Because of her primary subject matter, her poetry could be considered feminist because it treats men and women equally in that all are equally affected by the issues she writes about.

As far as Dickinson's personal life, she never married but devoted her life to her writing career. Although she published only a few poems in her lifetime, she was an assiduous author, producing nearly two thousand poems. Upon her death, her family found 40 volumes of poems she had bound into fascicles by hand, so she was pursuing her writing career intentionally, even though no one understood at the time to what extent. 

By looking at the subject matter of Dickinson's poetry and considering her personal life, one could make the case that Dickinson was a feminist writer who believed in the equality of the sexes. 

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How does Emily Dickinson use feminism in literature in her poems?

Emily Dickinson has many personas in her poetry.  Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in "The Many Voices in Dickinson's Poetry" says:

One poem may be delivered in a child's Voice; another in the Voice of a young woman scrutinizing nature and the society in which she makes her place.  Sometimes the Voice is that of a woman self-confidently addressing her lover in a language of passion and sexual desire.  At still other times, the Voice of the verse seems so precariously balanced at the edge of hysteria that even its calmest observations grate like the shriek of dementia.

She goes on to to say:

No manageable set of discrete categories suffices to capture the diversity of discourse, and any attempt to simplify Dickinson's methods does violence to the verse.

So, just as Dickinson wrestles with complex notions of God, giving no consistent view of religion, so too does she wrestle with gender, giving no consistent feminist views.

Her work is paradoxical: it looks like the terse verse of a male.  Women, I guess, we supposed to be chatty social butterflies back then.  With all the dashes and ellipses and telegraphic lines, her poetry seems a far cry from anything from this planet, let alone gender.  All in all, her great theme in her poetry was that of mystery, and I think she would like it best if her socio-political views remained as such.

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How does Emily Dickinson use feminism in literature in her poems?

Emily Dickinson lived in a time when women were expected to play a very different role from the role they play today. Women above a certain class were expected to have thier place in the home, acting as wife,mother,hostess and ornament. They were not often expected or allowed to voice an opinion or independent view on things - especially in areas of perceived male expertise such as politics, career or social issues. Yet many women (including Emily Dickinson) were educated just enough to be suitable companions to their husbands in society events and these women obviously did have lively minds which questioned things they saw, such as injustice. They were denied a voice however, and in poems such as "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?" Emily may have been trying to make a point about the voiceless in society - including women.

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