Home Column - Tuesday The ones who think without us, By Okezuo Bell

The ones who think without us, By Okezuo Bell

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   The story of the woman’s life has been told throughout the centuries of American history, traversing Abigail Adams’ plea to the Continental Congress in 1776, to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, to the fight for women’s suffrage and civil rights throughout the 1920s and 1950s, to now, where gender equality and female autonomy are among the most prevalent topics in sociopolitical discourse. The personal freedoms and capabilities of women in society have evolved, from voting to labour laws to contraception, yet the classical conception of the American woman has withstood the test of time. Even when faced with the 19th Amendment, feminism, liberal advocacy, and more, it still casts a shadow upon the minds of the American people; it remains the mythos that invisibly governs the notions of how many women are forced to believe they can and should behave, live, and work. 

Anne Sexton unpacks the notion of enforcing the classical woman from a historical perspective in Her Kind, a confessional poem in which she describes the many aspects of the woman and her plight as she refuses to be molded by society. There are three stanzas, each a representation of Sexton’s own life. The ABABCBC rhyme scheme as well as frequent enjambment and alliteration tie the stanzas together, suggesting that they are pieces of a whole story, rather than completely distinct flavors of the woman. In the poem, Sexton steps outside her typically autobiographical narrative, instead telling the story via the persecution of witches in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The extended allusion in her poem successfully captures the nuance of Sexton’s—and many other women’s—subversiveness and carefully explores themes of freedom and individualism in the context of the plight of the woman.

    Sexton introduces the speaker as “a possessed witch” in the first stanza, inhabited by a mind existing outside the boundaries that define the norm (Kelly and Sexton Her Kind 282-283). This witch has transcended suburbia, both physically and mentally. She flies over it and dreams ‘evil’, thinking far beyond anything the mundane world below has to offer, where the domestic world is the woman’s world. The world where the lights are always on because the woman is always at work inside. The speaker is quite literally above society, hiding in the darkness, alone and experiencing what lies in the open air. She has twelve fingers and lives in solace, only emerging during the night to surveil the people and spread her dark influence. Sexton describes this persona as a “woman [that is not quite] a woman”, explaining that it is entirely divorced from her character and social status (Kelly and Sexton 282-283). She herself may not be evil, but by separating from society, she has become a pariah and a target of hatred. The witch still flies, though, exploring the unfettered moments of solitude, and the invigoration that the nighttime brings. Here, Sexton speaks of freedom of individualism, to give in to the urge to feel different and be out of place, saying that she herself has felt and been treated this way. The witch is the antithesis of the classic American woman: she has a conspicuous deformity, is far removed from those around her and their opinions, and operates free of patriarchal restrictions.

    Anne Sexton further explores the new world in which the witch flew in the second stanza,  as “warm caves in the woods” have taken the place of the open air (Kelly and Sexton 282-283). The caves directly parallel the homes of suburbia, where the women are constrained to the role of homemakers. Although the cave provides shelter and a sense of domesticity, it is surrounded by the woods, and so the woman’s life is now opened up to explore, to experience danger, to undergo change. Even with the chance to venture into the unknown, the woman’s world is overshadowed by society’s reality. The various pieces of her identity, the “skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, [and] innumerable goods,” are kept orderly, and she is always providing for others (Kelly and Sexton 282-283). She never gets to experience the luxury of disorganisation or authenticity. As a woman of suburbia, the world’s perception of the speaker is not her own, but rather a carefully constructed and organised reflection of her true character. 

Even in the cave, a place that is meant to hold precious metals or treasures, the woman is relegated to nourishing offspring, even the worms and elves, never saving or providing for herself. Even as she tries to live an unconventional life, the woman is stigmatised and prejudiced, leaving her to feel misunderstood, as Sexton candidly writes. When in the position that society tells them to be in the woman feels wronged, and when she attempts to break away, she is met with prejudice and adversity. Sexton’s cave imagery also serves as a metaphor for a woman’s body, specifically her womb, as pregnancy, contraception, and abortion were taboo or topics of contention in America during the 1690s (around the time of the witch trials), 1960s (when Sexton wrote the poem), and decades of today alike. As shown by the lonely homemaker in the cave, individualism cannot be expressed without freedom, while freedom cannot be achieved without an individual spirit, and such a narrative persists in women’s lives today. This stanza stitches together the themes of freedom and individualism timelessly. 

    The third, final, and notably visceral stanza in Sexton’s poem is where the witch meets a painful end by execution. She is tortured and burned at the stake, dying a martyr and a free woman. Like the witch, women deemed unfit or a threat to the monolithic structure of society are disposed of and left behind. However, even when faced with unbearable pain and torture, they are “not ashamed to die”, as they have lived their full lives (Kelly and Sexton 282-283). They are fearless because their suffering is only a testament to the failures of society as a whole. As the speaker is brought closer to death, Sexton indirectly answers the question: why can’t these women live? It becomes clear that the woman has not done anything wrong, but that society fears the power of her freedom and the influence of her unique perspective. Even as society tries to erase her by killing her, she is seen; her bare arms are seen by all those who pass by. The speaker, like Anne Sexton, has never fit in, given her peculiar appearance, disposition, and lifestyle, yet she still finds the strength to accept her fate.

    Ultimately, Her Kind depicts the life cycle of the ‘normal’ woman-turned-femme fatale, a story which, just like that of the conventional American woman, has survived the ebb and flow of history. Through the three-stanza poem, each state of being of the atypical woman is depicted as a season of her life, each with its own tribulations and sense of not belonging. Mystique but not evil in nature, it is the sense of discomfort that gives these women the boldness and ability to make themselves heard, despite moving during the night time. Sexton tells the story of women smart enough to leave the world’s antiquated viewpoints behind. She tells the story of women brave enough to speak their truths. She tells the story of women special enough that society seeks to bring them to the light of the fire, even when they choose to exist only in the darkness. She tells the story of women, liberated and self-governing in mind, body, and spirit. Sexton tells the story of the women of her kind: the ones who think without us.

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