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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Suppression of Women’s Work 

Adrienne Rich’s “Planetarium” addresses the treatment of women, particularly women involved in some aspect of creative or self-directed work, by their peers and contemporaries. In her epigraph, she cites the life of Caroline Hersch as her inspiration but also points to “others” like her, who lived similar lives of devaluation and exclusion, as equal players in her discussion of female oppression. By alluding to Hersch, Rich broadly recalls all the great women whose achievements—however long or great their lives—have been overshadowed by the achievements of the men around them. Caroline Hersch is regularly a footnote in her brother's life; Rich puts her front and center in this poem, as her society never did. 

“Planetarium” offers a commentary on the lives of female creatives whose work suffered marring and avoidance at the hands of their male counterparts. This phenomenon radiates beyond Hersch and finds traction in Rich herself. Women’s work, in whatever form it may take, must bear the burden of male perception and evaluation. As such, women exist at a historical disadvantage, one Hersch felt then and her biographers replicate today, and one Rich must have felt, even while writing to much acclaim. The poem is steeped in rightful anger, upset at the confining position women and their efforts are so frequently relegated to. 

Disconnected Expectations for Women

“Planetarium” overtly discusses the moments of suppression and devaluation that women working and creating in male environments face. Beneath the surface bubbles an insidious truth that informs these moments: the social anticipation of conventional female performance. This expectation for women—how they must act, where they should work, the spheres available to them—is misaligned with their internal desires, a painful disconnect that the speaker makes abundantly clear. When women, as Rich and Hersch did, claw their way into male spaces and carve a place for themselves, their work is often undervalued or poorly judged. However, this suppression is itself a form of success, for so many women fail to reach such heights.

Women’s passions, their drive, and their internal selves are so often lost to the oppressive gaze of their male counterparts, erased from existence, and prevented from being. Rich dedicates the poem to Hersch, but she also dedicates it to a vast group of unnamed “others,” that conglomeration of devalued women whose work, rather than going unnoticed, was inhibited and forestalled. The poem addresses female oppression across its numerous forms and appearances; forced silence, indeed, is one of them.

Rejected Convention and Female Agency

If the poem is concerned with women's confinement and restriction, it is equally concerned with their circumnavigation of such boundaries to live for themselves. Though such lives may bear the burden of social condemnation or other inhibiting factors, they are lives led authentically and self-directed. As the speaker explains, the signals continue to bombard her, but she is now a "galactic cloud," conscious of the fact that these signals are "untranslatable." In the speaker's attempt to turn this confusion into "images," she disavows the recognition of a society that rejects her; instead, she privileges her wellbeing. She is an "instrument" in search of her own "relief" and on a quest for "reconstruction of the mind." Upon encountering the catalytic nova, she was shattered and exposed, forced to reconstitute herself as she pleases rather than as expected. “Planetarium” offers optimistic insight into a bleak reality, explaining the truth of women’s lives while detailing the possibility of a way out if one is so inclined to take it.

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