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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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”...

(The entire section is 742 words.)