Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, 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.

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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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

The words pro femina are Latin, meaning “for the woman,” and the opening line is an imperative sentence: “From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.” This announcement of the topic is immediately followed by the exclamation in the second line, “How unwomanly to discuss it!” The implication is clear. Women are not to speak of their own history of oppression—or even to recognize it—for to do so might lead to a demand for change. That is precisely what the poem does demand: a change that will end patriarchal control of women’s lives.

Forging unity among women to create this change is central to Carolyn Kizer’s thesis, and throughout the poem she uses the plural “we” for the narrative speaking voice. “We” thus bonds the speaker and her audience (“real women, like you and like me”) as parts of a whole: women, who together can change the world. The poem develops the thesis through numerous references to traditional societal attitudes about women’s “place.”

Part 1 addresses the narrator’s anger at the way women have been treated. Women are entitled to the same freedom that men take for granted, but women who “howl” for “free will” are scorned and accused of being “cod-piece coveters.” Ignore such epithets, says the narrator. Men have denounced women for their vices, but in fact such vices were caused by women being set apart as inferior. Women have traditionally forgiven men or acquiesced and “worshiped God as a man.”

Now women are “freed in fact, not in custom,” and they can begin to change the customs and lead the world in a new direction. As mothers, they have developed respect for life and place life above abstractions such as “national honor.” If women are allowed to speak out and to be more than simply wives and mothers, they can teach society to adopt this attitude of caring; then “we might save the race.” Meanwhile, if given the chance, women will change, develop, and grow as they struggle for liberation.

Part 2 addresses the problems that have arisen from man’s treatment of woman. The poet announces her theme here as the “Independent Woman” (non-male-identified). Women have been “maimed” in their efforts to expand the roles alloted to them, for men disdain their unladylike behavior and choose instead the “full-time beauties” (as defined by men). Both women and men need “well-treatment,” but men pretend that only women are dependent and use that as the excuse to keep women out of “the meeting,” the decision making.

Women are fitted into roles designed for them by men, thus masking women’s true selves and their true participation in humanity. The superficial obsession with women’s physical appearance, with all the cosmetics and restrictive clothing (including “shoes with fool heels”), keeps women occupied with trivial vanity while men, in functional “uniform drabness,” conduct the business of the world. If a woman refuses to play her male-assigned role, if she uses her mind instead of her looks, men reject her. If she acts out the role of posturing, ravishing sex object, she will not develop her talent and intellect. Women must escape this double bind; the independent woman will have to create herself.

Part 3 specifically addresses the problems that male dominance has caused for women writers. The narrator refuses to accept a continuation of this dominance and declares: “I will speak about women of letters, for I’m in the racket.” The successes, she says, have been single women; the failures have been women who married for security, gave in to self-pity, played helpless to win men’s favor, or disparaged other women “to stay in good with the men.” Some are “traitors” who say with men that women should remain passive.

Women’s writing should not be some “prettily-packaged commodity” but should speak the truth, for women “are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret:/ Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.” Men ignore or patronize women who speak this truth, and some women respond by aping the ways of men. Others use the positions they attain to “flog men for fun, and kick women to maim competition.”

Change is underway, however; there is hope of ending the old roles that warped and bound women. If women work hard, join together to stand up for their rights, speak and write the truth they know, and take pride in their freely chosen lives, nothing can stop them. Men and children will share in the luck of living in a world with such women; all humanity will benefit.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

Like much contemporary poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, “Pro Femina” is written in free verse. There are no syllabics or rhyme to use as a defense between the author and the material. As in any lyric poem, there is a clear sense of the author speaking through the narrative voice to express her own thoughts and feelings.

Kizer assumes an educated reader (audience) familiar with her allusions and references. She assumes, for example, that the opening mention of Sappho, the sixth century b.c.e. lyric poet, will suggest to the reader the long history of women writers and will also suggest their “fate”; Sappho’s works were deliberately and systematically destroyed by men who equated “Sapphism” with lesbianism. The numerous references throughout the poem resonate with meanings and connotations that do not lend themselves to easy synopsis. They provide a compressed rhetoric that gives the poem its force and wit. The individuality of Kizer’s writing style exemplifies her central argument that women have a right—a responsibility—to create their own works and their own lives.

Central to the thesis is the use of the first-person-plural pronoun “we.” It is a shifting referent, variously meaning we feminists, we women writers, we women in general, but always in the sense of seeing women as the half of humanity whose emerging voices must be heard.

The tone is one of acerbic irony. Mixing the colloquial with suavely elegant phrases, the narrative voice is both tough and insistent. The word choices reveal the problems that rigid gender roles have caused: women maimed, scorned, neutered, turned into “cabbageheads”; women made into scabs (like the scabs who betray striking workers by taking their jobs) who “kick” other women “to stay in good with the men”; women whose lives and writings have been denigrated, denied, and destroyed.

Women have developed qualities that men should adopt: respect for life, caring for others, and “keeping our heads and our pride.” Women are asserting the need for new attitudes, and if they “defect to the typewriter” and honestly tell their “secret,” all humanity will benefit.

Alliteration, a caustic wit, and punning wordplay (paronomasia) add zest to the argument throughout. “So primp, preen, prink, pluck and prize your flesh,/ All posturings!” says the narrator, scornful of such superficial goals. She speaks of the “toast-and-teasdales,” making alliterative and punning reference to Sara Teasdale, the American poet who wrote slight, “sensitive” verses expected of female writers. “But the role of pastoral heroine/ Is not permanent, Jack. We want to get back to the meeting,” laughs the narrator warningly. When she says, “even with masculine dominance, we mares and mistresses/ Produced some sleek saboteuses,” she at one stroke succinctly suggests that much more could be accomplished if women were given full opportunity, alludes to men’s view of women as either wives or mistresses, carries out the image of horses and mistresses as sleek, objects to derogatory feminine endings (such as poetess) by coining the word saboteuse for saboteur, and makes fun of men who cannot even recognize when their beliefs are being attacked.

The poet uses vivid images throughout, as in the three stanzas which critically summarize the way women of the time were expected to dress. Lines such as “Strapped into our girdles, held down, yet uplifted by man’s/ Ingenious constructions, holding coiffures in a breeze/ Hobbled and swathed in whimsey, tripping on feminine/ Shoes with fool heels” catalog literal restrictions and lead to the conclusion that such emphasis on appearance keeps women “in thrall” to their own surfaces and trivializes their lives.

The poem uses satire to show the cost exacted from women who insist on more than superficial beauty: “So, Sister, forget yourself a few times and see where it gets you:/ Up the creek, alone with your talent, sans everything else./ You can wait for the menopause, and catch up on your reading.” Here as throughout the poem the elliptical allusions (being up a creek without a paddle, or waiting for menopause, when supposedly men would not choose you even if you tried to be a beauty) combine with the sharp and outspoken wit to give a rich texture that implies more than the words first seem to say.

The time to insist upon more is here, Kizer says. It is time to “stand up and be hated” if that is what it takes to break the cycle of devouring and being devoured.

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