Breaking Gender Expectations in Millay’s “I, being born a woman”
In the poem “I, being born a woman”, Edna St. Vincent Millay focuses on the idea that women can exist outside of what men make them to be, including the idea that they are ruled by their impulses. She uses the poem to show that women can not only exist and survive without the support of men, but rather they can thrive in their own lives outside of the cultural mores. The poem has a matter of fact tone that may be perceived as sharp or condescending toward the way women are seen and also makes a mockery of the cultural perception of women.
“I, being born a woman” is arguably challenging the expectations of women. In the article, “‘Being Born A Woman’: A New Look At Edna St. Vincent Millay”, Klemans claims that the poem is “feminist.” The final couplet “I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again” (Millay) explores a lack of willingness to conform to the idea of how women should have acted. Instead of talking when the two lovers meet again, the woman plans on simply ignoring the man as if their encounter meant nothing to her. The man that is being addressed in this poem can expect no pleasantries from the speaker. Instead their encounter was purely sexual, and nothing more, no emotions attached. These lines and their accompanying explanation show that women do not need men the way men think they do, and women are not as unstable and needy as they perceived. Instead, women can function as sexual beings without having all of their actions being ruled by their impulses, thus illustrating the “feminist philosophy” (Klemans) through the idea that women do not need men and their approval, but rather they are equals and can function the same as men. Since the speaker of the poem is a woman as well, the final couplet shows that she is taking control of the relationship and that she is the one deciding that talking is not merited by their past actions. The control this woman has in the relationship also furthers the idea that this poem is ultimately feminist because it reserves the right of deciding the future of the relationship for the woman.
Additionally, the speaker’s curt words in the final couplet support the idea that the tone is sharp and looks down upon the culture’s idea of what women should be and how they should act and react. Hubbard also addresses the sexual component in her article “on ‘I Being Born a Woman’” through the idea that the woman “only submits to herself” and therefore is never controlled by a man and is instead ruled only by herself and her own desires. The lines “the poor treason / Of my stout blood against my staggering brain” (Millay) support the idea that the woman plays “both winner and loser” (Hubbard). The speaker must betray herself, thus losing, and succumb to her fleshly desires no matter what her brain is telling her in order to win by defying and showing the man that she has control and he is essentially powerless in the situation. He cannot argue her decision since he is not written into the poem, thus rendering him silent. However, arguably, since the speaker never falls under the control of a man, the woman always wins in the end and never truly plays the part of the loser, because the speaker can only lose if she succumbs to her feelings and relies on the man for approval and her emotional stability. This argument supports the thesis because it shows that while men expect women to submit to their authority, women are actually the ones holding the control over man and using it for themselves. The woman is able to walk away in the end leaving the man behind, showing that a woman may exist and thrive outside of man’s mold for her.
Not only does Hubbard argue that the poem is fundamentally about women taking control, but Dr. Ghani draws influence from Hubbard in her paper, “Feminine Revolt and Self-Expression: A Study of Selected Poems By Edna St. Vincent Millay” because she also believes that the speaker in the poem does not rely on “sexual coyness.” Ghani claims that the speaker does not associate sexual appeal with “youth and beauty” but rather quotes Hubbard in stating that “the body’s ruin as its badge of sexual authority…” This line illustrates that both authors believe that the sexual freedom that Millay wrote into her poems and gave to her female speaker was what gave the speaker authority. It had nothing to do with their age or appearance, but rather their rights to decide upon their own actions. The woman in “I being born a woman” plays not only the “distressed” mistress but also the “frenzied” and the “urged and undone” (Millay). Therefore the woman takes on numerous roles, supporting Hubbard’s idea that the woman is both the winner and the loser. The speaker is “distressed” and “urged and undone” showing how the lack of physical contact has left her. However, the use of the word “frenzied” illustrates that she also has control over her partner despite being out of control herself.
The final couplet then shows the speaker regaining control of herself once again after she is no longer “distressed” thus showing that while she did allow herself to submit to her own desires, in the end she overcame and took control of the situation. The speaker’s triumph shows that despite the woman momentarily proving the man’s predisposed ideas about her, she quickly overcame them and proved him wrong in the end. This provides an essence of trickery and mockery towards the cultural ideals of the time. All of these authors and their explanations and analyses of “I, being born a woman” support the ideas in the thesis that women are able to exist and be outside of man’s and the culture’s constructed views of them. The poem not only becomes condescending towards the views of the culture, specifically in the final couplet, but also creates a sense of mockery of the expectations of women. The speaker ultimately gets the last laugh in the poem and gets away with using the man for her own gratification.
Arguably, Millay’s representation of oppression is still valid in some senses. Despite being one of the most developed countries, the United States still lacks gender equality; women are expected to conduct themselves in specific ways and are often shamed for their desires or experiences. Ultimately, it will take generations with the aspiration to eradicate gender inequality for it to truly happen.
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In the poem “I, being born a woman”, Edna St. Vincent Millay focuses on the idea that women can exist outside of what men make them to be, including the […]