Eavan Boland's "It's a Woman's World"
It's a Woman's World
Our way of life
has hardly changed
since a wheel first
whetted a knife.
burns more greedily
and wheels are steadier,
but we're the same:
living by the lights
of the loaf left
by the cash register,
the washing powder
paid for and wrapped,
the wash left wet:
like most historic peoples
we are defined
by what we forget
and what we never will be:
It's our alibi
for all time:
as far as history goes
we were never
on the scene of the crime.
When the king's head
gored its basket,
we were gristing bread
or getting the recipe
for a good soup.
It's still the same:
moth our children
to the flame
of hearth not history.
And still no page
scores the low music
of our outrage.
that woman there,
the starry mystery,
is merely getting a breath
of evening air.
While this one here,
her mouth a burning plume -
she's no fire-eater,
just my frosty neighbour
Meant to elucidate the history of women's stagnant lives, Boland's poem unintentionally denigrates those lives through historical revisionist inaccuracies.
Boland's speaker, in this laughable attempt to bemoan the status of women throughout history, sets up a sad irony with the title, "It's a Woman's World." What might seem an affirmative quip about womankind turns ruefully and suddenly into a mighty complaint. The "world" could hardly be possessed by the sorrowful lot referred to in this piece of historical asininity.
Image people who never change, people who measure their lives by their forebears who have lived outside of history, people who count their failures as milestones, and people who just concoct excuses for living in a kind of blind stagnation. Of course, people who have lived in such a manner would not last for a generation, much less be capable of owning the world.
Thus, the irony has been dispatched once it is recognized that that title remains wholly disparate from the actual qualities of those to whom it refers. It will be understood that the speaker has merely built up a straw man for the purpose of burning him in the furnace of nasty accusation and utterly hysterical clap-trap. No such people ever existed, except for this very inane thesis pushed by radical feminist academics.
Eavan Boland is a noted poet, so perhaps the integrity of the poem may be found by considering it as hyperbole. But hyperbole or exaggeration is used for emphasis, which means that the claim has to be true at its base.
For example, Thomas Wolfe's "We stooped because the sky hung so low" or Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "My leg weighs three tons." Both are easily recognized as exaggeration; we understand in the Wolfe sentence that the character's stooped and that Aldrich's character's leg had some weight.
Attempting to unpack Boland's poem vis-á-vis hyperbole, one quickly becomes aware of the unworkability of that option. The opening claim exemplifies the recurring issue that continues throughout the poem: the lives of women have remained virtually unchanged since the first knife was sharpened by a grinding wheel.
This ahistorical remark, "Our way of life / has hardly changed / since a wheel first /whetted a knife," has to be puzzling because even the elementary school child has learned that the lives of all peoples populating planet Earth have been altered dramatically and many times since recorded history commenced. Perhaps, this speaker is reporting from a different planet.
But even if one applies the hyperbole to that claim, it cannot be sustained, because the next claim is that other things have in fact changed: the use of fire and the further uses of the wheel, but not the lives of women. And the application of exaggeration disappears altogether by the time the speaker claims that women have made only low groans about certain oppressive situations. Every "Women's Movement" a foot has proclaimed loudly, yes, vociferously.
The poem's speaker loses credibility through misuse of attempted irony and exaggeration that seems to expand and contract like a rubber band. The disingenuous speaker is simply narrating a fallacious account of women's supposed historical invisibility.
First Movement: "Our way of life"
The way women have led their lives has remained virtually the same for a very long time; more specifically, since the invention of knife sharpening on a grinding wheel. When that was is difficult to determine. The wheel was invented approximately 5 centuries B.C. in Mesopotamia, India, and China.
But exactly when a whet-stone was turned into a wheel is unclear. Thus, the speaker is asserting the falsehood that from time immemorial women have just played out their lives in a stagnant mist. Does that imply that men have changed their lives many times and many ways? And if so, which is better? To live the same way for centuries or change your ways of living often?
Of course, there is no way to ascertain an answer to such a question because there has never been such a people; therefore, there is no genuine way to make a comparison. Yet the speaker's implications do, in fact, make that comparison: men's lives have changed and prospered while women's have remained stagnant, dark, unfulfilled, and outside of history. The same clap-trap of masculinity hatred found in the syllabi to courses of study in women's studies departments at colleges and universities throughout the land.
Second Movement: "Maybe flame"
The implications of that emphasis are: fire has become more voracious, no doubt, through the modern inventions such as stoves that help confine it so we can get more heat from less fuel, and wheels work better because we have improved their form and now we may even use them for travel; still women live the same way.
Does that mean they refuse to take advantage of the new uses for fire, continuing to build their fires out of doors instead of making use of the new stoves? Does that mean that instead of using the new vehicles for travel, they still go on foot or by horse and bullock cart? Sounds silly, but the speaker claims that woman's lives have remained the same, despite all these changing improvements.
Third Movement: "we milestone"
Women look at their lives and see only their faults and make those faults the highlights of their lives. Forgetting a loaf of bread at the store is a major accomplishment, or buying cleaning detergent, and then forgetting to dry the clothes. These are important landmarks for women.
Fourth Movement: "like most historic peoples"
Women also mark their milestones by fretting about things they will never do or never becoming the kinds of persons they wish they could be. People in the past used to decide who they were by what they didn't do or what they forgot, and that's what women do.
Who are those people? What people in history defined themselves by what they forgot? Is this a reworking of the old adage of history repeating itself, or if one does not learn by mistakes, one is destined to repeat the mistakes? But why is this situation confined to women? Of those historic peoples, were men included? But surely not, since the speaker is addressing only the lives of women.
Also women not only define themselves by what they forget, but they also define themselves by what they will never be. They will never have dreams or important goals worth striving for, as star-gazers do. They will never pursue difficult tasks and overcome them, as fire-eaters do. They will always find excuses for doing the same thing, century after century.
Fifth Movement: "as far as history goes"
Women have never been part of important events or crimes like beheading a king. Although beheading the king didn't seem to be a crime at the time, it did seem to be the only way for his subjects to avoid death and assume freedom. But nevertheless, when such important events were taking place, women were making bread or swapping soup recipes. And it's still the same.
Sixth Movement: "our windows"
Not only do women fail to participate in historical events, but they also try to prevent their children from doing the same. They want their children to stay home and not go out and get involved in community, country, or world events.
But then after all this negativity and lack of participation, the speaker notes that no one has bothered to notice the indignation women have experienced because of these stagnated lives over the centuries. That must be because the outrage is likened to low music, and they have only cursed their lot under their breaths while continuing to live those invisible lives.
Seventh Movement: "Appearances reassure"
The speaker says that the way women continue to cope with their invisibility is by interpreting what they see in the way that fits their vision, the way that will still support the alibi. The women who are getting out and trying to participate in lives outside the home are merely out taking a walk to get a breath of fresh air, and the women who are speaking out and helping change certain antiquated laws are just stubborn, noisy women who will soon return to their homes and continue the sameness.
Final Comment: Demeaning Women's Lives
Without a clear use of poetic device such as irony or hyperbole or useful metaphor, this poem simply portrays a series of historical inaccuracies. No doubt there are individual women who have lived sheltered, stagnated lives similar to that world dramatized here, but to broadcast in verse this kind of situation as universal is irresponsible because it demeans women's real lives.
How can one take this speaker seriously when it is common knowledge that from the beginning of history woman have always done more than "milestone / [their] lives / with oversights"?
Women have served in government, helped change antiquated laws that circumscribed the lives of both men and women, have influenced and participated in history in all the same ways that men have. Distorting history has no place in anyone's world, especially when that distortion serves to diminish the lives of just over half the world's population.
Queen Maeve of Connacht
Lady Augusta Gregory
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy
If you say, but that's how I felt, then I must believe you. But I do not have to believe what you claim are the facts motivating your feelings. To paraphrase an old saw, "You are entitled to your own feelings but not to your own facts."
A talk with Eavan Boland
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes