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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“Women” by Alice Walker is a free-verse poem of twenty-seven short lines. The lines are never more than six words or seven syllables long and often consist of a single heavily stressed monosyllable. The poem is printed as a single stanza, without punctuation, except for a concluding full-stop.

The poem begins on a nostalgic note:

They were women then

This first line packs a great deal of meaning, reference, and subversion into four words. It echoes the cliché of harkening back to the proverbial time “when men were men,” a reproof to the comparatively effete young men of any given generation. In literary contexts, this trope goes back as far as the book of Genesis, 6.4:

There were giants in the earth in those days...

Ancient formulations of this idea, however, if they mentioned women at all, would say that the men were strong and masterful, while the women were submissive and beautiful. As Milton puts it in Paradise Lost:

For contemplation he and valor formed,

For softness she, and sweet attractive grace.

In “Women,” Walker’s speaker inverts these tropes. She recalls “my mama’s generation,” when women were not sweet and attractive but strong and determined.

There is robust alliteration in “Stout of / Step” and an emphasis on traditionally masculine strength, even violence, in the assertion that these women had “fists as well as/Hands.” The phrase suggests that their hands were used for violence as well as for dexterity, and perhaps just as often. Two illustrations follow: the women battered down doors with their fists and ironed shirts with their hands. The fact that the former image is principally a metaphor does not detract from the force of the image, or of its contrast with the more literal “ironing.”

The subsequent image is not only violent but martial. These women were “Headragged generals” who led armies across minefields. The epithet “Headragged” to qualify “generals” counteracts the term’s elitist connotations in two separate ways. First, these women literally have their hair bound up in rags or dusters for housework. Second, the type of actual general who might wear a similar type of headgear is one of rebellious forces, whose ragged appearance contrasts with the smart peaked caps and freshly pressed uniforms of government forces.

The imagery here is particularly evocative: great leaders will give their lives for their cause and their troops. These women—the generation of the speaker’s mother—gave their lives for their children not by fighting and dying on a literal battlefield, but by devoting their lives to their children’s success. Beyond the metaphorical minefields and booby-traps, there are desks and books. These are symbols of all the tools children need to better themselves, to climb out of poverty and live fully-realized and self-directed lives.

Because these women have not had the advantages of an academic education themselves, they are ignorant of what the books contain. Yet they nonetheless possess crucial knowledge. Like generals, they have an overview of the plan (“general,” after all, is not only a military title, but also the opposite of “specific”). They know the type of things their children “Must know,” and in this sense are ready to lead them to a success they could not achieve for themselves.

Alice Walker has said that she wrote this poem for her own mother, who worked as a maid and was determined that her children would achieve better lives. There is a large area of African American and Asian American literature devoted to the ambitions of mothers for their children. Some of these works are ambivalent in tone, with a certain degree of exasperation at the pushiness of women who seek to fulfill the unlived portions of their own lives through their children. Here, however, Walker’s imagery and diction are consistently admiring, portraying her mother as exemplary in her strong, heroic, self-sacrificing character.

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