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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

Published as part of a chapbook (or pamphlet) in the year 2000, Carolyn Kizer’s “Pro Femina” addresses the history and urgency of feminism. The Latin title mimics legal language in ancient texts, and can be translated as “In defense of the feminine.” The poem is divided into three parts. The first part heartens back to the Greek poet Sappho and the Latin writer Juvenal. Sappho is the poet’s starting point, as she is historically the first known female poet. Juvenal was an ancient writer of satires, in many of which he caustically derided women. Kizer uses Juvenal as evidence to the fact that women have been viewed as deplorable specimens. Rather than combat this view head-on, Kizer makes the claim that women are in fact hyenas, but follows with a different interpretation of why. The poet, too, claims that famous women like Jane Austen and Joan of Arc are the exception within their gender category, and so are not the real women that the poet seeks to investigate.

If the first stanza addresses the theme of historical women, the second discusses self-avowed “Independent Women” who, the poet suggests, are not as independent as they would seem. These women are, instead, overly concerned with their appearances. In the final stanza, the poet returns to “women of letters,” in which she argues that art and femininity should neither be regarded as mutually exclusive, not equated. The poet considers whether successful female artists and poets are more likely to become spinsters. Overall, the poem is an oblique survey of the status of feminism throughout history, rife with historical allusions and metaphorical language. She concludes that it is in the best interest not only of women, but all of society, that women be free to cultivate their artistic sensibilities. However, women must be willing to accept this freedom, letting the dishes stack up in favor of devoting themselves to their work. Also, women must believe in themselves, and believe, too, that their families are better off when they themselves are educated and enfranchised.

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