Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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."

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