Poem of the Week: Mother’s Rebellion by Alice Duer Miller | Poetry


Mom’s rebellion

(“Every real woman feels…” – Speech by almost any congressman)

I’m old fashioned, and I think that’s right
That man should know, by the eternal laws of Nature,
The right way to rule, to win, to fight,
And exercise these so-called paternal functions;
But even I rebel a little
Seeing that he also knows my work.

At least he’s always ready to expose it,
Especially in the legislative hall,
The joys, the worries, the halos that surround him,
“How women feel” – he knows better than anyone.
In fact, his thesis is that no one can
Know what is feminine except a man.

I’m old fashioned and I’m happy
When he explains the world of art and science
And the government – to him divinely sent –
I drink it with feminine complacency.
But I can’t listen – no, I’m only human –
While he teaches me to be a woman.

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Alice Duer Miller, born in Staten Island, New York, in 1874, began her writing career after her father’s fortunes collapsed, financing her own studies at Barnard College by selling stories, essays and poems . Best-selling novels, plays and screenplays followed. Two years before her death in 1942, she published a popular verse novel, The White Cliffs, set in wartime Britain.

It was in the satirical verses she wrote between 1914 and 1917 in support of the American women’s suffrage movement that Miller found her true poetic tone – terse but surprisingly sharp. These short poems appeared in the regular column she contributed to the New York Tribune under the title Are Women People? and were later published in the Are Women People? A Rhyme Book for Suffrage Times. La révolte de la mère comes from this highly incisive collection.

Miller’s approach to the suffrage argument reminds us that she was a skilled playwright: changing characters and examining her subject from different angles. Here, the character is simply “Mother” – and, momentarily, a reader may wonder at the prim, correct voice about to utter her traditional values ​​at the beginning of the poem: “I’m old-fashioned, and I think it’s ‘is right…” Then the strategy becomes clear: Mother is not content to establish her uncontroversial rebellion against the man who sets himself up as an expert on women, women’s work and femininity in general. The first four lines of each verse expose man’s vanity and presumption in the various spheres of his mastery, supposedly bestowed “by the eternal laws of Nature.” By the time we reach the sixth line of the first verse, we’re listening for the devastating sarcasm inside the initially floating understatement: “But even I rebel a little / Finding out he knows too my work”.

The argument is developed despite the repetitive pattern, and the anger is audible in the heightened rhetoric of the compelling second verse. In the third, Miller again plays with reader expectations. The first line of the poem echoes this, with a rather startling little variation: “I’m old-fashioned, and I’m happy…” Again, we breathe. Is Mother even sincere in her assurance that male claims to supreme expertise in art, science, and government are acceptable? The statement “I drink it with feminine conformity” can be interpreted as additional sarcasm. At the same time, Miller, I think, wants to illustrate the limits of the traditionally respectful attitude that an indecisive woman might adhere to and which might stand in the way of political change.

Not all of the poems in the collection use rhyming verse forms, and Miller’s “poem lists” illustrate particularly vividly the need for clear political thought to focus the passion for justice. See, for example, Our Own Twelve Anti-suffragist Reasons, a paired set of conflicting opinions beginning “1. Because no woman will quit her domestic duties to vote/ 2. Because no woman who can vote will take care of his domestic duties. /3. Because it will create dissension between husband and wife. /4. Because every woman will vote as her husband tells her.” The lack of evidence-based reasoning is beautifully exposed – and a reminder that Miller had a gift for logic as well as words. In fact, she taught math for a while at her old college.

Miller’s work influenced the realization of American women’s suffrage. But she cannot simply be considered a feminist poet of a distant era. It is shocking and salutary to realize how his question “Are women people?” remains today in many social and religious contexts.

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