The period caught amidst the turn of the century that is , on the cusp of the nineteenth century and the emerging twentieth century , was grappling with predominant notions of identity and struggle between what it meant to simultaneously be an individual as well as a part of a nation, a product both of their own time and of history. The literature written during the era encompassed a wide variety of voices, wherein a significant number of these belonged to women.
These voices arising from what otherwise was considered as the ‘submerged population’ held special significance as the women writers were bringing forth a discourse on what constituted the female experience in a nascent, first person voice. The women were consciously attempting to shed off the conventional, Victorian stereotype and by putting their feelings and ideas into words confronting the popular, patriarchal notions from a distinct female perspective.
These women writers were largely trying to separate and isolate the “feminine” that came to be inadvertently associated with the “women”.
They were problematizing the interchangeability of using femininity and womanhood but rather, asserted how the former was more of a social construct and not innate as was largely espoused to be. Herein, as one is focusing on the women writings in the early 20th century America, there was another symbolic thread of both shedding off the colonial, Eurocentric lineage and trying to etch a unique, separate identity both isolated and distinguished in form, subject of the literature as well as of the Victorian conventional image of women embedded deep into the mindsets of the society at large.
Within this wave of experimentation, the women writers interestingly introduced an amusing and subtle form of writing poetry that came to be introduced in popular journals and magazines. In their quest for women emancipation and enfranchisement, women began writing poems rich in rhyme and carrying forth a subtle message to the people in power. For instance, on Valentine’s Day in 1916, US women suffragists sent more than a thousand illustrated rhyming poems to legislators in an effort to gather support for woman’s suffrage amendment.
This literary innovation came to be attempted as the women activists thought that “the rhymes may influence the politicians where the other forces did not.” (Renker, Elizabeth. Nineteenth–century American women’s poetry)
There is no denying the fact that this was remarkable ingenuity of women poets to use rhyme powerfully in their poems as poetry rich in rhyme inevitably lingers and creates a deeper imprint on the minds and thus, in an amusing manner leaves forth a powerful message. There seems to come the inspiration for the woman writer that is one’s predominant concern in this paper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
A feminist writer at the forefront of the cause, Gilman dedicated her life to the “woman question”, which in those times was the predominant discourse amidst both feminists and the anti feminists. Flustered by the stigma of being born as a secondary creature in the society as well as a victim of first hand personal experiences in a male dominated space of marriage, motherhood, home and sexuality, Gilman did more than just eking out her suffering in a literary ivory tower.
On the contrary, she rebelled against the male hypocrisy and inequalities which every turn of the century women had to face. Her writings were deeply concerned with exposing the then social life as extremely sexist, hypocrite and artificially created so as to deliberately enforce gender stereotypes and facilitate male domination sans any accountability whatsoever.
Although Gilman was bringing to table plethora of feminist discourses ranging from inequality in marital union, stereotypical restricting of women to domestic spaces and the problem with the imagery of “the Angel in the house”, herein we restrict our concern to Gilman’s approach on the gendering of women in the social space and restricting them to a singularity of the so called feminine purpose with reference to her poem Feminine Vanity .The poem, both through its concise title and subject consciously aims to problematize one of the leading arguments put forth against women emancipation and equality of rights with that of men.
Ask for women suffrage rights, or demand equal opportunities in the field of education or employment, the argument and the answer always revolves around this limited and limiting perception of women’s feminine obsessions with beauty and material pursuits. Most patriarchal arguments reduce “the woman” to her body and sexuality which has to be their singular pursuit throughout their lives. This very Victorian gendering of the “fairer sex” as it was alluded to came to be the predominant weapon to oppose any scope of widening their intellectual horizons and providing them a pedestal equal to that of men.
This very internalization of the concept of femininity in body and mind be it through dressing styles, vanity, etiquettes and deeply entrenched ideas of dependability upon the other gender had been glorified since eons. Gilman vivifies and problematizes this very argument in her poem Feminine Vanity. Although, the title seems to forebode a description of a vain, narcissist and typical Victorian woman, yet ironically Gilman delineates this sense and existence of feminine vanity amidst the male members of the society as well and that too since ages.
It is a remarkable subversion of the very argument at the heart of male dominant discourse and Gilman, diligently counters and traps the male members of the society in a subtle manner. After reading the poem, the male members must have been caught in a tight position wherein if they still associated vanity and material pursuits as feminine then they themselves would have been emasculated as Gilman substantiates with vivid examples within history and thus, renders this argument obsolete.
This poem is like a “checkmate” to the male psyche restricted to this gendered notion of beauty and obsession with external appearances as the Hebraist pursuit of women solely. Gilman is then subverting this argument and exposing the equality within both male and female members of the society at least in this aspect. It is as if she is mockingly telling the male members that, “See, you yourself have been caught up in this feminine vanity! And now, shall we also reduce your entire individual self to this sole aspect of yours?”
This artificial gendering of women and enforcing this Hebraism of aim to nurture their bodies and sexuality in one singular direction of perfection was the predominant cause that restricted women’s pursuit of education, rationality, enlightenment and equal representation in the public sphere. But Gilman conspicuously raises the concern that if men can balance both their pursuits of vanity as well as education and work, then why are women thought incapable of doing the same?
Also, the reading of the poem even in one go, conspicuously brings forth the underlying flustered tone of the writer. At the very outset, the line,
“Feminine Vanity! O ye Gods! Hear to this man! ” ,
brings forth the mockery and the hypocrisy of the man who sans any logic just puts forth one argument of feminine vanity so as to reject and oppose any women emancipation. It is as if the poet is annoyed beyond point by listening in to this senseless refrain of ‘Feminine vanity’ time and again and now, is answering back with the same. Throughout the poem, Gilman vivifies her resentment and annoyance at the naivety of man who irrationally justifies his dominance and rebuttal against women equality and enfranchisement. For instance, the lines,
“Where is his memory? Let him look back- all
of the way !
Let him study the history of his race
From the first he-savage that painted his face,
To the dude of to- day!
These lines are an amusing mockery and belittling of the man himself as she appeals him to at least act rational and not be senselessly verbose in his arguments and rather do a detailed research into the behaviors and mannerisms of his own race before pointing fingers at others. Gilman also amusingly dehumanizes the male segment as is evident in the line,”he- savage that painted…” by using the pronoun ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ which is usually used to indicate human beings.
Subsequently, she moves to mock and question the notion of masculinity per se. For instance, the lines
“Look at the soldier, the noble, the king!
Egypt or Greece or Rome discloses
The purples and perfumes and gems and Roses
On a masculine thing! “
Herein, she alludes to the very high rung amidst the masculine members in the society i.e. the soldier, the noble and the king who are the quintessential archetype of masculinity. She alludes to the greatest of men from the greatest of civilizations and how they themselves were obsessed with perfumes and gems and obsession with their appearances since antiquity. She further dehumanizes and mocks the male entity as she refers to them as “masculine thing”.
Thus, the poem repeatedly asserts that what has now been reduced to a sole feminine pursuit and responsibility had been a concern for the so called quintessential masculine members of the society since ages. There’s nothing novel when women raise concerns about the impracticality of wearing corsets and padding themselves to fit into the gendered constructs of beauty but has been there within the male community as well since ages wherein kings and soldiers were heavily dressed in voluminous costumes.
Yet, such men of consequence could afford to both be vain as well as partake in all the other activities. The female counterparts of such men did not take upon themselves the onus of enforcing such elaborate costumes and paraphernalia upon such men. It was up to them and their own choice to dress or not in a particular manner and this precondition did not interfere into their routines and active lives.
But now, as one looks into representations of the relationship between man and woman in literature and public discourse, there is an enforced belief that the man ought to persuade the woman in his care to dress up in a particular manner and pushes her towards an obsession and narcissist complex regarding her outward appearance solely.
Be it Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre who feels that marital union would entitle him to ‘doll up’ his wife inspite of her wishes or even in children’s literature such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland wherein Alice is purposely made conscious of her hat and attire more so than her intellectual pursuits. Thus, Gilman is bringing forth a very significant part of the discourse in this poem as she stirs up thoughts concerning this unjustified and irrational quest for inequality and restriction of woman to a gendered, stereotypical singularity of purpose.
At the close of the poem, the tone entirely assumes that of chiding men like an infant. This is evident in the line when Gilman puts it as,
“Don’t speak of the time when a bran- filled bunch,
Made an English gentleman look like Punch-…”.
Then in the end, in a tone evidently encompassing all patience and tolerance, Gilman universalizes this virtue of vanity which is indiscriminate towards gender. She ends her argument and her poem by incorporating the image of the very archetype and epitome of beauty and vanity that is the peacock which invariably is a male.
Also, the heavy use of catchy rhyme such as fur-her, race-face, ages -pages etc in an abba rhyme scheme is a reflection of the predominant Jazz Age within America in the twentieth century. Such jaunty, jazz rhymes, often in combination with such poignant subjects to explore gender roles and sexuality was a novel way of rebelling against the norms, old fashioned attitudes and hypocrisy about the nature of human experiences. These catchy rhymes would in an amusing way carry forth subtle, strong message without drawing flak towards the writer per se.
This poem can also be looked as an appeal not just to male readership but also women writers themselves. Gilman might have been targeting the women writers of the century, along the lines of George Eliot’s essay titled Silly Novels By lady Novelists, wherein Eliot too problematizes this stereotypical portrayal of women as narcissists, vain and ‘damsel in distress’ persona.
Gilman may also be seen and this poem be delved into as not just as a mockery of male attitude and perception but also to the women writers who espouse and glorify such superficial concerns of dressing and beauty amidst their poetic as well as dramatic persona. Gilman is also subtly shedding light on the existence of vanity equally amidst men and women both and it is not just a feminine domain as most literature would have us believe to be.
Thus, Gilman through such poems is consciously trying to subvert the popular notion that to be a woman is inevitably to be feminine and that a woman’s identity is limited solely to her sexuality and her body, not the intellect. She resents this furtherance and encouragement towards displaying a woman’s individuality only through her bodily realm, by being vain and obsessed with outdoing the others of her sex in jewels and dresses rather than intellect and intelligence which women are no less endowed with.
She is diligently exposing the hypocrisy and manipulation within the society that are selectively reducing women to a singular pursuit of external beauty and depriving them of rationale and intellectual pursuits by enforcing such internalizing and culturing of gender. Thus, through this poem, Gilman diligently aims to subvert the belief in the interchangeability of feminine and women and problematizes reducing all women into this generalized niche and notion of femininity.
Herein, ‘the woman question’ revolves around the misconception that, “to be a woman inevitably means to be feminine” and questions whether the ideas associated with femininity are gender neutral or not. Gilman, thus aptly espouses that femininity is a choice not a norm or Hebraist pursuit of all women at large and thus, must not be enforced so.