Term Paper: Feminism in Early American Literature

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¶ … Feminism" of Bradstreet and Wheatley

Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley have the unique distinction of being two firsts in American Feminism. Bradstreet was the first American female poet to have her work published, and Phillis Wheatley was the first black female poet to have her work become known and published. Because of their bravery and fame for breaking these gender and race barriers to the expression of women's voices, Bradstreet and Wheatley are intrinsically feminist artists -- for no other reason than that they were female and they were influential in the advancement of female art. That said, neither Bradstreet nor Wheatley could particularly be considered revolutionaries in their own time (both catered to the existing system rather exaggeratedly) and in this time would certainly not even be considered feminists. Both Bradstreet and Wheatley conformed to what was expected of them, with a "paradoxical notion of finding freedom through conformity... these women's creation of a subtle resistance." (Schlotterbeck, emphasis added)

With their subtle way of being feminist by conducting themselves within their proper gender roles and imitating male forms in their art, these two prefigured the entire vein of feminist thought and action which attempts to win a place for woman by acting professionally male and privately feminine.

On the surface, both authors are very submissive, and particularly "subtle" in any critique. Sometimes this subtlety borders on complicity in their own repression. This is particularly visible in Wheatley's poem "On Being Brought to American from Africa,"in which she actually goes so far as to express gratitude that she was brutally kidnapped from her native land and sold as a slave in America. In response to this, she writes "Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land..." Certainly these do not seem to be the words of someone who is rebelling against the patriarchal and racist system in which she is confined. Even the continued words, "Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train" not only limit the proposed equality to a time after death, and not only suggest that black people will need to be refined before they can enter heaven, but additionally subscribe entirely to the religion of her oppressors, adopting their belief that the color of her skin derives from the fratricide of Cain. Of course, some measure of Wheatley's submissiveness may be owing to the fact that she was a slave at the time she was publishing most of her work -- it may not have been particularly possible or advisable for her to publishing abolitionist materials when her physical well-being was entirely in the hands of a Master or Mistress who could, on any pretense, beat or sell her. So it is possible that Wheatley's conformity was insincere and inspired by fear. Bradstreet's conformation could not have had quite the same excuse, though she too seems very willing to accept a system which denigrates women. She is passionate about her Puritan faith, despite the fact that it does not highly esteem women. Frequently, she denigrates or disparages her own talent -- a technique which is admittedly common among all authors of her period, but in her text often seems like an admission of female weakness. Additionally, Bradstreet is particularly passionate about her marriage, despite the fact that as a married woman she faced many restrictions. She writes of belonging to her husband, speaking of the way a "wife was happy in a man" (Bradstreet) of course, to her credit it does seem true that she had a particularly good and supportive husband, and it does not need to be true that every feminist is against the institution of marriage.

In any case, the argument can be made that this posture of submission is a facade of the subtle rebellion of their work, and that other subversive elements are to be found if one looks for them. This is certainly true in places. For example, despite writing in one poem about the mercy of being made a slave, in another poem addressed "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth," Wheatley speaks of being stolen away by "seeming cruel fate...from Africa's fancy'd happy seat..." And refers to this action as reflecting a steel'd soul and causing inhuman sorrow and grief to her parents. She ends this with a prayer that "Others may never feel tyrannic sway." (Wheatley) in this poem, the young poet may have a certain license to be critical of her captors in a way she did not enjoy in the formerly discussed poem because such criticism is not the bulk of the work but rather a side note defending her ardent American patriotism and support for the Revolution. Because it is set in the framework of supporting rights for whites, this momentary confession of racial injustice is accepted. So the reader may begin to see what is meant by a subtle rebellion, which is to say that it is a rebellion that pays close attention to the proper and improper formats and forms of addressing its grievances. Bradstreet reflects a similar set of complaints against dominant culture under the guise of elegizing a recognized cultural hero. When Bradstreet writes a long poem "In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen ELIZABETH," she stands in an unassailable position as someone speaking highly of a departed sovereign. In the middle of her sweeping mythologized lines regarding the majesty of Queen Elizabeth, Bradstreet includes the polemic: "Now say, have women worth, or have they none?

Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long," She continues from there to explain that though the Queen is dead now, her power and grace prove that women are capable of ruling and of thinking, and those who say otherwise deserve punishment.

Let such as say our sex is void of reason... Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason." (Bradstreet)

Like Wheatley, though Bradstreet may else suggest that women are powerless, here she can lay claim briefly to great power, because to do so promotes a pressing cultural concern to give honor to the dead queen, just as in Wheatley's case the protest of racial injustice could be subsumed in a great patriotism. Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that Bradstreet only speaks positively of women's abilities when to do so can be cloaked in the guise of patriotism. She also speaks of the injustice of the art world against her work, saying: "such despite they cast on female wits. If what I do prove well, it won't advance; They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance." (Bradstreet) However, this too is within a socially acceptable venue for expressing this concern -- it was in her prologue to her book, and served more as an introduction and defense against critical review than as a polemic or positional poem.

One of the critiques that has been consistently leveled against both Wheatley and Bradstreet is that their work is derivative and lacking in innovation. In their own era, this charge was used to suggest that women were incapable of high poetic flights of genius. In later eras, it was further used to show that both were overly conformed to "The standard poetic conventions used by men" (Schlotterbeck) of the era and thus failed to find authentic female voices. It is certain that "Bradstreet and Wheatley used the poetic conventions of the day, which is evident in the form of their poetry. It is not too adventurous stylistically." (Schlotterbeck) the critique that women are not capable of poetic brilliance is certainly false, for these women no doubt could have had originality in their form and adventurism in their choice of topics had they not needed to conform to male standards in order to be published. It is impossible to estimate how many female nonconformists went unpublished and were discouraged by all around them. "Their appropriation and use of poetic forms reflect a keen understanding of how the literary sphere operates." (Schlotterbeck) So it is unfair to blame these two breakthrough writers with their lack of originality as it is particularly this that let them break through. However, it may also be unfair to later feminists who broke later barriers to suggest that the voices of Bradstreet and Wheatley were openly feminist. It may be better to interpret their work from a feminist perspective (honoring their experience as "firsts") which understands the historical limits under which they created, rather than trying to invent authentic "feminist" voices for them.

In some ways, in their submission to the gender roles and writing conventions of the era, Bradstreet and Wheatley are forerunners of the sort of feminism that requires women to be masculine in order to compete in a masculine world, while accepting continued marginalization of authentic female experience. Bradstreet and Wheatley both separated the conventions and subject of their writing and made those masculinized while reinforcing to everyone that they themselves were model females of their race and religion. This recalls to mind… [END OF PREVIEW]

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