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What Are the Different Types of Feminist Poetry?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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From the 14th-century writer Julian of Norwich, who referred to God as her Mother, to 21st-century black American poet Maya Angelou, poets have often been on the forefront of the feminist movement, confronting and challenging poetic and societal expectations. Feminist poetry, like feminism itself, is a decentralized movement, making its classification into discrete types difficult. It can, however, be broken up along geographic and historical lines, beginning with pre-20th century first-wave feminists, the social activists of the early 20th century, the second wave of the 1960s and '70s and the global feminist poets of the late 20th and early 21st century.

The term "feminism" didn’t come into the English language until 1895, but nearly any female poet prior to the 19th century can be thought of as a feminist poet. Writing was not usually considered a proper occupation or avocation for a woman, so anyone who dared break that taboo could be seen as subverting the Western male-dominated society, even if her writing did not deal directly with women’s issues. The name "first-wave feminists" was given to 19th century women retroactively.

Well-known first-wave feminist poets in the West included the Victorians Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Mary Anne Evans — whose pen name was George Eliot — as well as the American Emily Dickinson. The writing of these women dealt with what was known at the time as the "woman question" — the role of the woman inside and outside the home, women’s voting rights and the intellectual capacity of women in comparison with that of men. Feminist poetry of the time rebelled against the dominant notions of the submissive housewife. Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh, for instance, features a strong female lead character who is a writer and social justice activist. Dickinson’s poetry, with its characteristic dashes and slant rhymes, challenged the strict poetic structures of previous centuries.

In between first-wave and second-wave feminist poets was a loosely aligned group of modernist writers, including Mina Loy. her controversial 1914 Feminist Manifesto, although it was in prose rather than verse, influenced feminist poetry through its insistence that women and men were enemies rather than equals. Some of her contemporaries reflected this hostility in their works, although others found her notions too radical.

Second-wave feminist poetry of the 1960s and '70s dealt largely with such issues as reproductive rights, self-expression and pay inequalities. A prominent sub-grouping of this movement was the black feminist movement, which dealt with concerns of race as well as gender. Following in the footsteps of previous generations of experimental women writers, Ntozake Shange blurred the lines between poetry, drama and dance in her 1975 play For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.

Of increasing importance on the global literary scene in the late 19th and early 21st centuries were self-proclaimed female peace poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Hissa Hilal. In war-torn areas around the world, these writers focused on the effects of war on women and children, especially gender-based violence such as rape. Beyond calling for the cessation of war, peace poets often focus on the systemic healing that is necessary to rebuild communities.

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Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Feb 21, 2014

@Ana1234 - I do think it is fair to be critical of feminists who marginalize women who don't want to celebrate things like that though. The whole point of feminism is to give women the chance and choice to be whoever or whatever they want to be while keeping the respect of those around them. Some women are just never going to want to talk about things they think of as icky. As long as it's not because it's part of the female experience that they don't like something, I don't see why they shouldn't have that choice.

But the thing is, reading poetry is a choice. So if you don't want to read about periods, then don't. It only becomes a problem if you try to shame people who write about them, or they try to shame you for not wanting to read about it.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 21, 2014

@bythewell - Often what they are trying to do is to de-stigmatize what has been traditionally a point of shame and fear for girls. A poem about someone actually blowing their nose would not even be noticed or commented on, while a poem that mentions a period always will be and that is what feminist poems are trying to change.

By bythewell — On Feb 20, 2014

All too often I feel like the feminist poetry movement tends to try and celebrate every aspect of being female without actually being inclusive of those who don't want to do that. Periods, for example. They seem to be a really hot topic for feminist poetry and they are always about life and beauty and so forth, but honestly I'd rather read about people blowing their noses. It's just a body fluid and not something that I really want to read about or celebrate.

I don't think it should be shamed either, but I do think that feminists can go too far.

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