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This essay is my first introduction to Adrienne Rich, a writer I have wanted to read for a long time.  It was written in 1971 for a conference and later published in College English 34.1 in 1972 (this is the version I am reviewing) and in Rich’s collection On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  There is also a revised version of this essay online.

What I know about Rich is very little.  Margaret Atwood describes her as a proto-feminist and, from reading this essay, I can see why.  Rich is one of these women who successfully managed to be both a writer and a woman in a society (the 50s) where the norm for a woman was still to change nappies and cook your husband’s meal. 

In this essay, she discusses how she managed to find her female voice.  She begins her essay by considering the exhilaration of living in a period of “awakening consciousness”.  This, she believes, can only come out of knowledge of the male-dominated structure of society and of literature.  She deplores the fact that too many women have adopted a masculine style of writing in order to be accepted as writers, men being the judging audience.  She argues that in order to find their own voice, women need to be aware of the myth of the woman as represented in past literature and need to then subvert these representations, what she calls “re-vision”.

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.  And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

It is therefore through this act of revision that women can affirm their place in society, not as submissive wives and muses for the male writer, but as female human beings able to express their own feelings and passion.  Women writers should not follow the tradition set by male writers, but should become aware of it, subvert it and create their own.

“We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us”

After discussing this need for re-vision, Rich takes as an example her own writing and explains the various steps she has taken toward finding her own voice.  She describes her own situation as a wife and mother in the 1950s and how difficult it was to write at the beginning. 

“But in those earlier years I always felt the conflict as a failure of love in myself.  I had thought I was choosing a full life: the life available to most men, in which sexuality, work, and parenthood could coexist.  But I felt, at 29, guilt toward the people closest to me, and guilty toward my own being.”

However, she explains that it was not until she decided to adopt her own style and be more experimental that she managed to find her voice.  She quotes a few of her poems and mentions others, some of which are reproduced at the end of the essay and illustrate the evolution of her poetics, such as her move from using the pronoun “she” to “I”.

“You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.  For writing is re-naming.”

At the end of her essay, she also notes the effect this “awakening consciousness” might have on men.  As women find their voices, men lose their muses.

“One thing I am sure of: just as woman is becoming her own midwife, creating herself anew, so man will have to learn to gestate and give birth to his own subjectivity – something he has often wanted woman to do for him.”

Indeed, time has shown that men have felt threatened by women’s affirmation of themselves as subjects rather than objects, as Robert Bly’s Iron John and the crisis of masculinity debate have highlighted.

I think Rich’s essay is an important text in the history of women writers.  It clearly emphasises the conflict in which many women found themselves as they were writing in a patriarchal society.  It also foregrounds the need for subversion of the masculine conventions of writing and the need to be experimental in order to find a voice of their own.  A technique many women writers have since used.

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