In the 1950s and the 1960s, two female poets radically altered the American literature when they created groundbreaking masterworks that focused on the struggles that they encountered in their respective lives. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s poetry shared common ground in the expressions of anguish and despair magnified through a methodology characterized as confessional in nature (Sexton, 1981). In fact, labeling them as feminists is a matter of convenience, considering the way Plath and Sexton inspired younger generations of women to go against the female stereotypes and strive for self-discovery and self-fulfillment. However, it is not prudent to label Sexton and Plath as full-pledged feminists after considering the fact that the ideological framework of feminism was not yet in its mature form. Thus, Sexton and Plath were accidental feminists – they labored to break the stranglehold of female stereotypes and made the conscious attempt to destroy the status quo manifested in rules enforced by a patriarchal society.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines feminism as the belief that women must have the same privileges, rights, political power, and economic opportunities as enjoyed by their male counterparts (International Women’s Development Agency, n.d.). The Oxford Dictionary echoes the same idea but emphasizes the need to enforce laws that would ensure the equality of sexes in the context of human and civil rights (International Women’s Development Agency, n.d.). In theory, feminism is a struggle for an ideal, and the desire for equality and respect is at the heart of its most basic plea.
Once the public reaches a level of understanding and acceptance of a certain ideal, it is impossible to maintain a passive approach because the truth about oppression and inequality usually provokes a revolutionary type of reaction. Thus, the 20th-century way of describing feminism requires the inclusion of proactive initiatives. For example, the Eastern Kentucky University (2016) defines feminism as the interrogation of social ills in the context of marginalized women suffering under the burden of gender inequality, racism, class, and sexuality. In other words, the present-day interpretation of feminism calls for deliberate acts geared toward social transformation (Eastern Kentucky University, 2016). According to its present-day adherents, feminism must lead to finding practical solutions to real-world problems with respect to gender and inequality issues.
Based on the ideal understanding of feminism and its other facet, namely the development of practical solutions to problems encountered by marginalized women and members of minority groups, one can make the argument that Sexton and Plath were accidental feminists. Their accomplishments gave credence to the ideas espoused by feminists. For example, both Sexton and Plath were Pulitzer Prize-winning poets. Male poets and writers dominated the annual Pulitzer Prize awarding ceremonies, making Sexton and Plath’s accomplishment more significant from the point of view of feminism. Equally impressive was Sexton’s acceptance of an honorary Phi Beta Kappa Award from the Harvard University (Hecht, 2012). It was a triumph for feminism because, to that day, such an honor had never been bestowed on females. On the other hand, Plath won numerous awards and had her works published in nationally circulating magazines when she was still a teenager. The icing on the cake was the publication of Plath’s The Bell Jar and a poetry collection entitled The Colossus. Just like the accomplishments of Sexton, Plath’s remarkable deeds have probably made her the poster girl for feminism.
Evidentiary Support: The Poetry of Sexton and Plath
Aside from the accomplishments mentioned earlier, the argument that says that the two poets were authentic and appropriate representations of the ideals of feminism drew support from the subject matter tackled in the literary outputs of Sexton and Plath. One can say that in Plath’s poem entitled Daddy, she was able to virtually turn the whole patriarchal order on its head with a stroke of a pen. It was a double-edged attack on manhood. The main force was concentrated on her deceased father, and a minor commentary was reserved for her husband. In this poem, Plath did not try to hide the venom that she wants to sink into her father. From a feminist viewpoint, there are two clear-cut ways to express a woman’s desire to go against the status quo and that is to challenge the imaginary head of the said structure, and there is none that can go higher than the patriarch can. In this poem, Plath did not try to commit murder with the cowardice of a killer who wanted to destroy someone from a distance, like a sniper or the one who poured poison in the drink of the unsuspecting victim. In Daddy, Plath came forward with a visible weapon in her hand and she did not want to catch her victim by surprise because she called out before she was about to plunge the dagger into his heart. She called her father; she wanted to have his full attention. She wanted to know her real intentions and she did not want him to misinterpret her real motivation because she strongly desired his demise.
Adherents of the feminist worldview point to Daddy as the showcase of Plath’s feminist leanings. In the poem’s fifth stanza, she was able to articulate the struggle of women in the society ruled by men, especially when she lamented the fact that she had never been able to talk to her father. This sentiment is common in the clamor for equality, as feminism calls out the smothering effect of the authoritarian rule of the society’s patriarchs. Men are oftentimes depicted as iron-fisted rulers with a hard heart. There is no room for emotions and no chance to express the most heartfelt aspirations. Plath (1962a) said it in the most eloquent way, as she described her tongue sticking to her jaw because she was afraid of talking to her father. In fact, fear was not the only issue. She also hated the idea that her father transformed her into something that she despised. In order to paint this image, Plath utilized the comparison and juxtaposition of Nazi Germany and the Jewish people. It was as if she was saying that there was an unbridgeable gap between them because her father was a Nazi and she was virtually a Jew. Although the passages in the fifth to seventh stanzas provided enough evidence to show the feminist voice within the poet, there were other elements in the said poem that talk not only about her father but also about her husband. One can argue that stanzas starting from the thirteenth to the last were referring to her husband, and that he too earned her displeasure. There was no way to decipher her husband’s unforgivable sin; however, Plath (1962a) described the man to whom she said “I do, I do” as a vampire who had sucked her dry for seven years. This is another example that shows how a feminist should have behaved in a bad marriage, which is to express her displeasure and not to cower in fear.
Supporters of the feminist movement may also find another set of evidentiary support for the argument that Plath was a full-pledged feminist in the poem entitled Lady Lazarus. In Daddy, the dominant emotion was rage directed at both her father and estranged husband. In Lady Lazarus, the dominant emotion seems to be that of defiance. Once again, it was a startling revelation for men and women to read something as groundbreaking as the verses found in this literary output. One can argue that Plath utilized the concepts and ideas linked to the Holocaust when the Nazis exterminated Jews. This assertion is supported by the author’s use of a popular German word “Herr” and the inclusion of images that mirror the process that the Jews had to go through before they were murdered and their bodies were burned in the incinerator. By doing so, it seems as if Plath was describing the exploitation by the social order. The reader can see this idea expressed in the middle of the poem where she talked about the result of the process, which was to extract gold from its victims (Plath, 1962b). However, she defied the exploitation by rising from the incinerator, like Lazarus before her cheating death.
In Anne Sexton’s poem In Celebration of My Uterus, one can find the same type of literary product enjoyed by feminists in the present age. In this work, Sexton created something original. Before this poem, the conventional way to celebrate the strength and glory of humankind was through the endeavors and the identity of the man. Women were always good for support and, if they ever were celebrated, it was not at the same level of adoration that the community would give to male counterparts. In fact, the title had a startling effect because the words seemed out of place. Nevertheless, the message was loud and clear, namely to force the idea that women are as important as men are.
Sexton’s comprehensive work in the collection turned into her first published book entitled To Bedlam and Part Way Back where it seems that the poet’s feminist mind was at full throttle. In the second part of that book, she referred to a friend named John who erected roadblocks for her. She said that John did not want her to follow a certain path (Sexton, 1981). It is interesting to note that she did not refer to an event wherein John tried to interfere with her pursuit of an object or to nullify the desire to visit a certain place. Sexton (1981) used the phrase “to enquire,” suggesting that the quest was intellectual in nature. Without a doubt, the adherents of the feminist movement may have found this useful in the struggle to free women from the shackles of ignorance.
Holding on the Framework Provided by a Patriarchal Society
Regardless of the type of literary output produced by the two poets, one can argue that Plath and Sexton were accidental feminists. They did not satisfy the most recent requirement of supporters of the feminist movement, which is to make deliberate actions in order to counteract the impact of gender inequality and the negative influence of oppression based on race, class, and perceived capability. For example, in Plath’s Daddy, there was no overt act stating that she wanted to change the status quo. In fact, one can interpret the poem as depicting a lost girl trying to connect with a dead father. In Plath’s Lady Lazarus, the defiant element can be seen in the last few stanzas of the poem, whereas the bulk of the poem described her helplessness and suicidal tendencies. It was not a call for revolution but more like a cry for help. The same thing can be said about Sexton’s work. The poet did not write poems because she wanted to change the view on men and women. She wrote poems as a form of therapy because her goal was to become a loving and dutiful wife for her husband.
The rage and defiance expressed in clever poetry were not enough to prove that Plath and Sexton were full-pledged feminists. In fact, there was no feminist movement back in their day. The most prudent thing to say is that they stumbled into the still unformed world of feminism. Their sheer brilliance and great talent in writing poetry enabled them to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, they clung to the elements of the framework created by a patriarchal society. They did not initiate a revolution called the feminist movement; however, they may have unwittingly planted the seeds and ignited the spark that eventually set the world on fire.