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Poem of the week: The Housewife by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, circa 1896.
‘Bound with the bands of Duty, rivetted tight’ … Charlotte Perkins Gilman, circa 1896. Photograph: Fotosearch/Getty Images

The Housewife
Here is the House to hold me – cradle of all the race;
Here is my lord and my love, here are my children dear–
Here is the House enclosing, the dear-loved dwelling place;
Why should I ever weary for aught that I find not here?

Here for the hours of the day and the hours of the night;
Bound with the bands of Duty, rivetted tight;
Duty older than Adam – Duty that saw
Acceptance utter and hopeless in the eyes of the serving squaw.

Food and the serving of food – that is my daylong care;
What and when we shall eat, what and how we shall wear;
Soiling and cleaning of things – that is my task in the main –
Soil them and clean them and soil them – soil them and clean them again.

To work at my trade by the dozen and never a trade to know;
To plan like a Chinese puzzle – fitting and changing so;
To think of a thousand details, each in a thousand ways;
For my own immediate people and a possible love and praise.

My mind is trodden in circles, tiresome, narrow and hard,
Useful, commonplace, private – simply a small backyard;
And I the Mother of Nations! – Blind their struggle and vain!
I cover the earth with my children – each with a housewife’s brain.

In the centenary year of “votes for women” or votes for more women than previously, I looked for some polemical, suffragist verse enriched by a more intimate voice than the poem-as-propaganda strictly requires. I found this quality in the 1903 collection Suffrage Songs and Verses by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), and went on to discover a poet of considerable range and ambition, sometimes sensuous and romantic, but often striking steelier edges of scientific realism and social commentary. In fact, Gilman achieved her first success as a poet, with a sparkling verse satire, Similar Cases, published in the Nationalist in 1890. A few years later the poetry collection In This Our World established her literary reputation.

Gilman was a social reformer and economist, a modern feminist thinker of brave depth, range and originality. Many readers, at least in the UK, will know her chiefly as the author of the story The Yellow Wallpaper [PDF] and, perhaps, the utopian feminist novel Herland. The Yellow Wallpaper, with its potent evocation of the protagonist’s mental distress as a result of domestic confinement, makes interesting reading beside this week’s poem.

The Housewife could have been a dull litany: that it’s not owes something to its metrical variation, its rhetorical anger, and, not least, the use of the dash as punctuation. Was Gilman influenced by Emily Dickinson? Probably not. At any rate, Gilman’s dash serves a different purpose, being less likely to signal inventive juxtaposition than the further development of an idea. It’s both casual and emphatic, and produces a stronger vocal effect than a comma would. It serves as grammatical clarification, too: in the first line, for instance, he dash makes it clear that the subject of “the cradle of all my race” isn’t the house but the speaker.

Notice the mocking capitalisation of the word “House”. Neither the man who is the speaker’s “lord” and “love” nor the “children dear” are given that dubious honour: they are much less clearly the object of her scorn. The House, perhaps tactfully, is personified as the culprit, and the double reference in the first stanza lets us feel how all-enveloping it is. The final rhetorical question leaves us in no doubt of the speaker’s contempt for her prison.

Gilman’s dactylic rhythm may contain an echo of the penal treadmill. Hard labour in the 19th century meant hours of plodding the treadwheel or, as it was sometimes called, “the everlasting staircase”, sometimes grinding corn or pumping water, but sometimes merely “grinding the wind”. The housewife’s prison term is set by Duty: it’s iron-bound, “rivetted tight” by social tradition. The loss of a beat in the first line brings the reader up short against temporal constriction: “Here for the hours of the day and the hours of the night.”

Gilman’s use of the word “squaw” is sudden and shocking, not merely for the harshness of sound, emphasised by the rhyme with “saw”. It’s an offensive term today, despite the occasional call for its reclamation. Gilman is bound to her time in this respect. Seeking to evoke an archetype of female servitude that is “older than Adam” she tangles with a secondhand and simplistic racial personification of female servitude.

The treadmill chugs on, the repetitive tasks roll by. Gilman significantly draws attention to the limitation of the sphere in which they’re performed – “For my own immediate people and a possible love and praise” rather than the wider public a brilliant, ambitious woman might expect. There’s a forlorn pathos in that word “possible”.

Developing her argument in the next stanza, the speaker acknowledges the more positive aspects of housewifery: it demands complex organisational skills. The tragedy for the capable housewife is a theft of status, psychological, social and economic: “To work at my trade by the dozen and never a trade to know.”

The last stanza is a fine and furious denunciation. Six exactly chosen adjectives declare the crushing of intelligence, the housewife’s “mind” trodden down into itself to become “tiresome, narrow and hard, / Useful, commonplace, private”. The publicly sentimentalised “Mother of Nations” is a menace, through no fault of her own, with no choice but to reproduce her own thwarted image. Her children, male and female, inherit her limitations. Female inequality is universal impoverishment. Gilman makes it clear that the cry for freedom and education for women has implications for everyone.

This article titled "Poem of the week: The Housewife by Charlotte Perkins Gilman" was written by Carol Rumens, for theguardian.com on Monday 12 February 2018 11.55am

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