Poetry and Feminism

Tracing the fight for equality and women’s rights through poetry.
Illustration of women in history.

In 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published Aurora Leigh, a “novel in verse” that follows the title character, an aspiring poet, through several pot-boiling twists. In one revealing passage, Aurora’s cousin and would-be suitor, Romney Leigh, summarizes his attitude toward her and women writers of that era:

Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doting mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,—and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

As starkly sexist as the above passage might seem to contemporary readers, the idea that women and female experience were incompatible with poetry continued to hold sway for the next 100 years, until second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s brought a political and cultural watershed. Women fought for equal treatment and civil rights; meanwhile, women poets created structures to support one another while profoundly changing poetry itself.

To accompany the podcast mini-series A Change of World, which examines the intersections of second-wave feminism and poetry, the Poetry Foundation gathered a selection of poems by women poets from the past five centuries. Though by no means comprehensive, these poems roughly track how women poets turned, twisted, and blasted open poetry’s forms, subjects, and institutions to make room for their experiences and their voices.

To contextualize these pieces, we listed the poems in order of date of publication. Though the notion of feminism occurring in “waves” is somewhat problematic, we used it as an organizing tool to demonstrate the longer history of English poetry’s relationship to questions raised by feminism.

The poems collected here range from considerations of female sexuality, authorship, motherhood, and gender to formal experiments, such as Barrett Browning’s, in the epic, the essay, received forms, and political speech. Many have appeared in influential anthologies, including No More Masks!, Lesbian Poetry, This Bridge Called My Back, Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, and Amazon Poetry. To suggest further additions, please contact us.

1st Wave
2nd Wave
3rd and 4th Wave
Essential American Poets: Archival Recordings