In the baleful female infant this ferocity we spy,
It glares in bloodshot fury from the maiden’s dewy eye,
But the really deadly female, when you see her at her best,
Has two babies at her petticoat and a suckling at her breast.
Yet hold! there is Another! A monster even worse!
The Terror of Humanity! Creation’s direst curse!
Before whom men in thousands must tremble, shrink and fail —
A sanguinary Grandma — more deadly than the male!
—“More Females of the Species”
Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman, was an early American feminist who wasn’t particularly subtle about her opinion of the treatment, neglect, and suppression of women in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th—or the many other social issues of her day.
I knew this, because my high school English teacher made us read the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which remains more frightening to me than anything that ever stemmed from Stephen King’s imagination,* and later, I read parts of her autobiography for a college class** and a few poems, too, which were as grave and pointed as the prose I’d read.
So I already knew she was strong, brilliant, and could write like whoa.
But I didn’t know until recently how beautifully sarcastic she could be:
I Would Fain Die a Dry Death
(Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman)
The American public is patient,
The American public is slow,
The American public will stand as much
As any public I know.
We submit to be killed by our railroads,
We submit to be fooled by our press,
We can stand as much government scandal
As any folks going, I guess,
We can bear bad air in the subway,
We can bear quick death in the street,
But we are a little particular
About the things we eat.
It is not so much that it kills us —
We are used to being killed;
But we like to know what fills us
When we pay for being filled
When we pay the Beef Trust prices,
As we must, or go without,
It is not that we grudge the money
But we grudge the horrid doubt.
Is it ham or trichinosis?
Can a label command belief?
Is it pork we have purchased, or poison?
Is it tuberculosis or beef?
There is really a choice of diseases,
To any one, little or big;
And no man really pleases
To die of a long dead pig.
We take our risks as we’re able,
On elevator and train,
But to sit in peace at the table
And to be seized with sudden pain
When we are at home and happy —
Is really against the grain.
And besides admitting the poison,
Admitting we all must die,
Accepting the second-hand sickness
From a cholera-smitten stye;
Patiently bearing the murder,
Amiable, meek, inert, —
We do rise up and remonstrate
Against the Packingtown dirt.
Let there be death in the dinner,
Subtle and unforeseen,
But O, Mr. Packer, in packing our death,
Won’t you please to pack it clean!
Her poem “Christian Virtues,” which presents a mocking, pearl-clutching excuse for keeping the Have-Have Not status quo, is even snarkier—and still sooooo applicable today. Go on, have a look.
Ms. Gilman loves rocking the status quo, she does. She also seems to have had a particular hatred for stasis, complacency, and any kind of suppression, whether it be of individuals, socio-economics, or even science.
This next one, which was the first to make me realize that she could totally bring the funny, takes on evolution,*** underdogs,^ creativity, and human civilization.
I also find it personally encouraging:
But of course, Ms. Gilman’s major crusade was to better the lot of women—which needed a lot of bettering—and to encourage all women, even those who were living comfortable lives, to transcend the status quo and help each other. She wrote several more serious poems to that end, as I mentioned way up there somewhere.
However, the stanzas at the top of this post—and the title—are from a poem that, in my opinion, takes all of her frustrations and irritations with the dismissal of women and lets it all go, full blast. And I love it.
“More Females of the Species” was written in response to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Female of the Species” . . . though to tell you the truth, I don’t know how Mr. Kipling really felt about women—jungles, inner fortitude, and manly strength, yes, women, no—and I don’t know how he meant his poem to be taken, because I’m too lazy to look up other people’s opinions and this post is pushing reasonable length as it is. I mean, the last few lines could be a jab at men who are afraid of women’s political opinions, but maybe the whole thing is simply about mistrust . . .
And without knowing, I can’t tell for sure if Ms. Gilman’s poem was meant to be a knife-edged sarcastic response or if she’s simply taking his point of view to the next level. It could go either way.
So I’m going to ask you.
What do you think?
*Seriously. Not only did it put me off wallpaper and the color yellow for a long time, it made me extremely angry. It still does, not only because it’s based in reality—Ms. Gilman’s own “treatment” for postpartum depression—and crap like this still happens.
**Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” she recovered from her “hysteria,” moved to California, and divorced her husband (whose name was Stanton, in case you come across any first editions of her earlier work). I cannot fully express how much I admire this woman’s strength.
***I’m not sure when this poem was written, but the Scopes Trial was in 1925 and Ms Gilman passed in 1935, so maybe.