The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 763 words.)