Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364
One major theme of this poem is that though women have been oppressed throughout history and continue to be oppressed now, women have the ability to liberate themselves from this oppression through their own behavior and unwillingness to participate in the behaviors and practices which perpetuate their oppression. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker encourages women to be willing to work hard rather than feel sorry for ourselves and our lot, to respect ourselves and our boundaries and limits, to stand alone and proud, to marry and refuse to feel guilt when our houses are not as tidy as they could be or when we have interests other than housework, and to become mothers who believe in our children with our whole hearts but refuse to allow our concerns for our children "to devour us." If we can do these things, then we subvert the system and take back our power.
Another theme of this poem addresses the existence of double standards for men and women. Women are tied to their biology in a way that men are not, and women's ability to bear children and feed those children with their own bodies threatens to keep women out of "the meeting" permanently. Women are compelled, especially when they choose motherhood, to play the "pastoral heroine" and are often not permitted "back" into the figurative boardrooms where society's norms and standards are decided upon. Further, women are taught that we must wear high heels and lipstick, with perfectly coiffed hair and wrapped in girdles and lace. We always have to check our "masks," making sure that they don't show any wear and tear, "check[ing] in the mirror" and remaining in thrall to our appearances. Men, on the other hand, have an "impersonal envelope"; the "drape of the male is designed to achieve self-forgetfulness." Women are often compelled to spend a great deal of their personal energy on maintaining an appearance that is pleasing to men rather than developing their talents or using their brains. Men are not assessed on their appearance, but women who refuse to participate in this system are "aced out by full-time beauties/In the race for a male."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662
The poem is a feminist manifesto for change. The first-person narrator creates a feminist analysis of the history of women, focusing on women writers, which shows the ways women have been warped by trying to fit into the script that patriarchy has written for them and the challenges that continue to face women as they insist on equality, autonomy, and “free will.” The liberation of women is a vital cause whose goal is nothing less than to save the human race. Women make up “one-half of humanity,” and their new stories must be lived, spoken, and heard. Society as a whole will gain from this fuller definition of humanity. As Kizer says, “Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance/ In a more temperate climate.”
Kizer is one of the generation of American women poets who were the first group to dismantle existing views of women and speak for a revolution against patriarchal control. Kizer and other poets such as Denise Levertov, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath lifted the constraints on women writing the truth about their lives. They both refused to accept the place society had assigned women and refused to “write like a man.” Above all, these poets and others who have followed them think of women as “we.” They recognize the need for unity and love among women in the common cause of ending sexism. Carolyn Kizer and her sister poets, like all the most enduring writers, question their society and insist on the creation of a better world.
There have always been exceptional women who recognized and spoke against male dominance. In a 1984 author’s note in Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women Kizer thanks the earlier French writer Simone de Beauvoir for inspiring “Pro Femina.” Such thanks could extend back through the nineteenth century women who struggled for suffrage and women’s rights, to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, or back farther than male-dominated history has allowed women to see. Never, however, have so many women writers spoken out at the same time and gained such a wide and receptive audience as in the last third of the twentieth century. “Pro Femina” was published in 1963, half a dozen years before the contemporary women’s movement gained widespread momentum or public attention.
Kizer’s poetry was in the forefront of that movement; it served as a prototype of what subsequently became a rising tide of women’s consciousness. “Pro Femina” is indeed “for the woman” in all senses of that phrase. Its message is for (directed toward) women; for women in the sense of seeing women as a category for discussion; for women in urging women to become fully functioning independent beings. It speaks for women, telling women’s story with a directness that shocks and enlightens, and it urges women to tell their own stories. The message of the poem is female, political, and revolutionary.
In Mermaids in the Basement, the poem “Fanny,” from Kizer’s book Yin (1984), appears in sequence as “Four: Fanny” in the section entitled “Pro Femina.” While not following the form of parts 1, 2, and 3, it can be said to present a specific example of the theme. Fanny, the narrator, took care of Robert Louis Stevenson in his last years of life on the island of Samoa. While Stevenson writes, Fanny endlessly plants trees and crops and vegetable gardens to sustain them. She tries to keep a journal, but finds that Stevenson is marking out passages and making changes. She starts censoring herself, then abandons the journal entirely. She is one of the “mutes,” unable to write the truth of her life, like the “millions/ Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen” mentioned in part 1. Kizer re-creates Fanny’s life through this poem and lets Fanny speak. The poem ends with Fanny’s proclamation that now that Stevenson has died, she will “leave here” and “never again succumb.”