Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

#YesAllWomen and Teaching WCW’s “The Young Housewife”

yesallwomen_largeAs I write this, I have my twitter account set to searching “#yesallwomen.” The hashtag didn’t exist before May 24th, and now after the tragic killings in Santa Barbra, there have been well over a million total tweets. (Before I finished that last sentence, I saw the “new results” for “#YesAllWomen” start at zero and reach 68.)

I can’t overlook the power of the “tweet”—one solitary bird joining another and another to become a powerful chorus signaling (it is hoped) change.

No doubt about it, there will be countless Ph.D. dissertations in my field written on this hashtag and the way Twitter has become a powerful force in history (now 167 new results, and counting) for the voices of the silenced to be heard.

In the fall, I will begin my assistant professorship at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Saint Mary’s is a women’s college (212 new results, and counting), and I look forward to exploring issues surrounding gender and power with students.

In an American Literature course, I will teach William Carlos William’s “The Young Housewife,” and I will frame the class discussion with #yesallwomen and the tension surrounding #notallmen. Part of the issue, of course, is men (358 new results, and counting) turn the issue around to being about them instead of listening to the million plus tweets around them. Slate.com has published an article #YesAllWomen grappling with how #notallmen derails the focus of the conversation. It includes several poignant tweets, such as @tarynoneill’s “My husband didn’t ‘get it’ until he spent half an hour on the feed. Then he looked ashen. ‘I had no idea.’ #yesallwomen”

Another Slate article, “Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny” explores how “men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience.”

As I read these articles, my thoughts kept coming back to “The Young Housewife” and how WCW exposes the lurking violence in what could seem to be a benign encounter between a man and a woman. Many critics see the speaker of the poem to be a doctor, like WCW, in a time when doctors made routine house calls. The poem is abundantly available online, so here it is in full:

At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling. (1:57)

Readers familiar with this poem know of the many disturbing innuendoes and connotations. Is the speaker of the poem polite?—gentlemanly?—courtly? Is he a creep? Why does he notice she is “uncorseted”? What does he want? Is his smile innocent?—lewd?—deceptive? Is he stalking her? How many times does he pass her house on his “calls”?

#NotAllMen but #ThisDoctor . . . perhaps!

(567 new results, and counting.)

Marjorie Perloff sees the poem as a parody of courtly love, for the woman is behind the castle-like walls—or the epic “wooden walls” of not her house, but “her husband’s house.” Within the parody, violence lurks. As Perloff observers, the line breaks contribute to the connotations. Is this “uncorseted” women “tucking in . . . [pause of the line break]” in Perloff’s words “her flesh, deliciously not yet tucked into her corset”?—Oh no. She tucks in . . . “stray ends of hair.” Phew. The poem pushes toward that edge, but doesn’t cross quite fully cross it. (For Perloff’s discussion, click & scroll down.)

Another way to put it: the speaker of the poem pushes toward all that is “behind” her negligee—and the line break between the second and third line places pressure on “behind” accentuating his hinted at desire.

The speaker explicitly “compare[s] her / to a fallen leaf”—fallen carrying its connotations of fallen from grace, sinful, wretched, promiscuous. Does he want her to fall? And then, of course, there is this “noiseless . . . rush” of the wheels of the car carrying with it a violent, sexual energy leading to the “crackling sound / over dried leaves.” Is this an image of rape? Of sexual conquest? Is this the speaker’s fantasy? Is this an image of wanting to smother the young housewife out of sexual frustration? Does he want to grind her into the concrete?—because he cannot “have” her?

And yet, he remains in his car; he doesn’t cross the “curb” nor the “wooden walls.” He keeps this fantasy sealed beneath a courtly bow and smile.

The poem exposes how the young housewife is placed/confined in a man’s world, a man’s house, a man’s possession. The woman in the poem senses, perhaps, the suppressed violence in the doctor’s supposed polite smile and bow. She may get a vibe, at times, from the “ice-man” and (815 new results) the “fish-man.” She senses it from her husband, too, who sees her as his conquest.

#YesAllWomen exposes the “crackling sound” too often overlooked.

If WCW could tweet, I think he’d say “Because a woman must be cautious when a man bows and smiles. #yesallwomen”

(878 new results, and counting)

(900 new results, and counting)

This post won’t be concluded until the fall semester when students and I explore this poem in the context of #YesAllWomen. I have seen this poem sustain a thirty-minute class discussion, easily, and it could have lasted longer if we didn’t move on. In the context of #YesAllWomen, I may need to give this poem, and this discussion, a full class period.

Who knows? Maybe several students will write essays on “The Young Housewife.” Maybe they will draw on #YesAllWomen to explore Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Maybe by then #YesAllWomen will have been tweeted billions of times, the world over.

One thing is for sure. I have had students say that the gender issues in Williams’ poem or in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” represent issues of the past—as if we no longer have to “deal” with feminism now that we have progressed “so far” beyond those corseted times.

#YesAllWomen suggests otherwise.

(1011 new results, and counting)

Works Cited

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. 2 vols. New York: New Directions, 1988. Print.

 

 

 

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