The idea of women empowerment was set in motion during the mid-19th century and early 20th century. Movements such as the Seneca convention shook the archaic notion of “Cult of womanhood” which defined a true woman to possess four cardinal virtues: to be pious, pure, domesticated, and submissive. The rights which were once not accessible to women, such as the right to education, property ownership, child custody in case of divorce, the right to vote, and breaking glass ceilings at workplaces, took wings after a considerable number of private deliberations and public discourse over the coming decades. Slowly, but steadily, these movements cast ripple effect on other social spheres too, most noticeably in the field of literature, and especially poetry. Women writers began to emerge, from diverse backgrounds, from various corners of the world. Of particular interest during this transformational period is the story of three women poets whose life and work had profound influence on several women and even men writers, in the years to come.
The first poet at the heart of this period was Adela “Violet” Nicolson. Adela was born in 1865 in England, and married to Colonel Malcolm Nicolson in 1889, who was then twice her age. The coupled lived in India and had a penchant for Indian culture and food so much so that, when Colonel Nicolson retired, they chose India as their retirement place. During their retirement years, the couple was drawn to Malabar and particularly Calicut, and for a brief period they lived in a bungalow in Feroke, a few miles away from the Calicut town. During her time in India, she wrote poetry extensively, her subject was about unrequited love, loss, and death, and is considered as one of the most popular romantic poets of the Edwardian and Victorian England. Her poetry was often considered to be explicit and sensitive in nature, and since it was coming from a woman, it was not something the England of her times accepted. Hence, she wrote under a male pseudonym, “Laurence Hope” and her first book of poetry titled “India’s love lyrics” was published under that name.
“I would have rather felt you round my throat,
Crushing out life, than waving me farewell!”.
Excerpt from India’s Love Lyrics, by Laurence Hope
Adela found a lot of admirers for her work, one of her early admirers was Somerset Maugham, who wrote “Colonel’s Lady” loosely based on her experiences. Some of her other admirers were Thomas Hardy and renowned Indian writer and poet Kamala Das.
Another name of poet that strikes chord with the feminist movements of the 20th century is that of Sylvia Plath. The name Sylvia Plath does not need much of an introduction to poet aficionados. Born in 1932, in America, she was one of the most brilliant and gifted poets of all time. With the loss of her father at an early age, she suffered clinical depression most of her adulthood. Things got worse with the marriage to her husband Ted Hughes. Her illustrious writing was marred with a rocky tumultuous marriage with her unfaithful husband. Throughout her poems and other writings, there echoes agony, loss, and hope narrated in a manner that would slice the conscience of a reader.
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
Excerpt from The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
After Plath took her life at the tender age of 30, there was hue and cry in the literary circles and feminist movements, several incidents of protest followed Plath’s untimely demise, so much so that Radical feminist poet Robin Morgan in her literary works openly condemned Hughes brutality towards Plath. Plath’s work is still revered as one of the finest among the literati.
Like Sylvia Plath and Laurence Hope, who broke glass ceilings in the world of literature and poetry, the one name that stands out for resilience as a woman who battled odds to come out successful in the world of poetry is that of Maya Angelou. Born in 1928 in America, life wasn’t kind to Maya, she was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend, did odd jobs during her adulthood as a sex worker and a nightclub performer, before she took to writing and struck back at life with her pen and her words. She is considered one of the most successful and celebrated women writers of all time, with accolades including a Pulitzer, 3 Grammys, more than 50 honorary degrees, a Presidential medal of freedom and several others. Her life and work has inspired many writers and artists, most notably the famed singer Beyonce, who launched a feminist fragrance called “RISE” inspired by her favourite poem of Maya Angelou, titled Still I Rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Excerpt from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou