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Gender Roles in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Kamala Das


Gender Roles in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Kamala Das

Dr. Babitha B. Nair

Associate Professor

Department of English

 JAIN (Deemed-to-be University), Kochi Campus

Kerala, India



The poems of Emily Dickinson and Kamala Das deal with a wide variety of themes. Both poets reveal women’s suffering and aspirations through their poems and use unusual expressions to talk about gender roles. As female poets, they try to free women from their stereotypical-gender roles by depicting the female experiences and degradation of the social status of women in a patriarchal society. To show their notions of femininity, they describe their own bodies and secret feelings. The present paper seeks to analyse the complex aspects of the female body and the gender roles depicted in their poems as a response to the androcentric universe. To demonstrate the argument, the study uses poetry focusing on the themes of life, body and gender composed by these poets.


Keywords: gender role; female body; women’s suffering; aspirations; patriarchy




The concept of gender embodies social norms, roles, relationships and people’s behaviors. Years later it can undergo a major change. Terry Goldie’s book The Man who Invented Gender tells the readers about the use of the term gender in today’s sense:


In 1955, the controversial and innovative sexologist John Money first used the term “gender” in a way that we all now take for granted: to describe a human characteristic. Money’s work broke new ground, opening a new field of research in sexual science and giving currency to medical ideas about human sexuality. (“UBC Press | The Man Who Invented Gender - Engaging the Ideas of John Money: By Terry Goldie”)


A person’s sex and gender are quite different. The concept of biologically assigned sex shows a person’s physical appearance. Gender is a concept created socially or culturally. As Simone De Beauvoir says,


One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine” (330).


The perception of gender roles led people to question the idea of gender inequality. “. . .[C]hronicles, tax rolls, legal and manorial records, private account books, diaries [and] letters” tell us about the life of women in the Middle Ages (Gies and Gies, Women in the Middle Ages (Medieval Life). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the status of women remained miserable around the world. The nineteenth-century America witnessed many changes in society. But it was a period marked by inequality as the role of women in this period was confined to domestic duties. Women were considered a lower class. Although women were given judicial, political and social rights in the early nineteenth-century, they were inferior to their parents and partners. They remained at home, baked cakes and cookies and performed other household duties. But lower-category women did outside duties and earned lower incomes compared to men. The androcentric community of the nineteenth century placed great importance on gender roles: 


Gender roles are cultural and personal. They determine how males and females should think, speak, dress, and interact within the context of society. Learning plays a role in this process of shaping gender roles. These gender schemas are deeply embedded cognitive frameworks regarding what defines masculine and feminine. While various socializing agents—parents, teachers, peers, movies, television, music, books, and religion—teach and reinforce gender roles throughout the lifespan, parents probably exert the greatest influence, especially on their very young offspring. (Blackwell 2)


However, many women tried to break gender roles through writing and publishing. So, female writers became emotionally and creatively strong to support their gender roles and sexuality. With the beginning of industrialisation and urbanisation, the family and social life of American society underwent significant changes. The Victorian era worshipped men as elite and women as secondary. “The middle-class families began to focus more on children as individuals, and women freed from the most time-consuming aspects of household or agriculture labor, spent more and more of their time on childrearing and developing skills as efficient housekeepers” (Wayne 3). Unlike American women, Indian women enjoyed equal status with men during the Vedic period. She worked as a prominent figure in her own home and society. However, medieval India witnessed a decline in the status of women. Women were treated as mere commodities, many of whom had lost chastity and had to live as concubines. A study reveals the following fact:


Indian woman’s position in the society further deteriorated during the medieval period. Sati, child marriages and ban on widow remarriages became part of social life in India. The Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent brought the purdah practice in the Indian society. Among the Rajput’s of Rajasthan, the Jauhar was practised. In some parts of India, the Devadasis or the temple women were sexually exploited. Polygamy was widely practised esp. among Hindu Kshatriya rulers. In many Muslim families, women were secluded to Zenana. (Nelasco 8)


The social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought against the slavery of women and prevented Sati, a social evil.  The twentieth-century witnessed India’s emergence from the iron grip of colonial rule. The middle-class life of Indian women gradually transformed.


Kerala had a traditional patriarchal culture where women were subordinate to men from early century. Many of them followed the matrilineal system, not the matriarchal system, when it came to the communities’ property rights. But that system was designed by the patriarchy of Kerala. The oppression of patriarchy remains the same even in the twenty-first century in all areas such as domestic affairs, politics and the workplace. Patriarchy claims that women are destined to live in a world dominated by male power. All social structures demand the full dedication of the woman. Woman is considered an object to satisfy the pleasure of man. Many times, a woman’s body is given more importance than her personality. Feminists have always questioned the sexual objectification of women around the world:

Traditionally and historically woman is looked at and displayed for scopophilia for its appearance has strong visual and erotic impact. The exhibitionism related to the female body is related to the deeper layers of human mind structured according to the patriarchal system of understanding. The active/passive aspects of the roles assigned to man and woman in traditionally established phallogocentric codes present woman as an object.


Gender Roles and Patriarchy:


Emily Dickinson was born into a strict religious Puritan family with strong social status. Her poems are the products of New England life, what she saw and experienced in her life. She was unknown to the people of her time and won posthumous praise. Her poetic expressions are noted for their complexities that emerged from her isolated and unmarried life. As a female poet, sometimes she is straight forward, easy to understand, but sometimes she is tough and complicated when it comes to her poetic expressions. Kamala Das was a member of the traditional Nair Hindu family, Nalappat, in Malabar. At a very young age, she began writing and taking revenge against the austerity of Nair society because at the age of sixteen she was forced to marry one of her relatives, which caused her emotional breakdown. So, she chose writing as a medium to express her strong feelings. Her writings are autobiographical in nature, and she captures the sincerity and gentleness of womanhood.


Dickinson composed poems on a wide variety of themes such as life, death, love and nature, even though she was a social recluse. Many of her unparalleled poems about life are related to femininity and patriarchal power. These poems show her talents as a female poet who expressed her hidden feelings. Admitted to the seminary, she could never cope with the harsh Puritan culture. Her private life, her rejection of married life, and her sharp criticism of religious laws and strictness tell us that she is an extraordinary female writer. “Feminist criticism begins with the assumption that gender informs the nature of art, the nature of biography, and the relation between them. Dickinson is a woman poet, and this fact is integral to her identity” (Juhasz 1). She showed her hesitation with the various gender roles and social roles granted to women in nineteenth-century America. She was strong enough to reject the austerity of Puritanism and laws set by her devout society. Her poems are deeply rooted in her idea of femininity. In the poem “She rose to His Requirement – dropt”, she reveals the expectations of the nineteenth-century androcentric society and how a woman sacrifices her identity for her wedding. “As a nineteenth – century woman, Emily Dickinson was sexually and poetically disempowered by the society in which she lived” (Bennett 155). But she strongly protests against Puritan and patriarchal figures who ruled the religious community in Amherst. The first lines of poetry focus on the confusion of ordinary women struggling to fit into the roles of traditional housewives. The silent fate of women can be placed as opposed to men’s fun lives. The male-controlled society usually demands submission from a woman, and she must be there for the man’s needs. Poetry depicts the inequality that existed in her time. She says,


She rose to His Requirement—dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife— (Dickinson 359)


The poet says that she dropped all precious things of her life to take up the honorable work of a “Woman” and of a “Wife”. The patriarchal Puritan society of New England always demanded women and housewives to submit to men; but ignored men’s role in society. A woman's selfless actions are like drops in the shell. This poem “is a psychological study of the three stages in the life of a married woman; first, her consent to marriage and the result of that consent; second her disappointment both physical and metaphysical; and third, the hidden later life of the married woman’s soul” (Vendler 352). The poem makes readers stop for a while to think about the severity of women’s plight. Why should a woman sacrifice her life to lead a ‘peaceful life’? Why does society want her to give up her skills, her belongings and her relationships? In a patriarchal society, a woman’s aspirations and dreams are closely linked to her society. A Puritan woman was not expected to dream of sexual pleasures and satisfactions.


The poem “Wild Nights—Wild Nights” depicts the speaker’s strong and hidden moods with a man, perhaps her lover. Although she was strongly opposed to the strictness of Puritan patriarchy, a closer reading of her letters shows that she too was inclined towards some of the high-ranking officials of her time. In the nineteenth-century, an unmarried woman in New England could not dream of her secret suitor. She romantically engages in love making and describes its beauty. She wants to enjoy physical pleasure with her lover when she spends time with him. She considers “Wild Nights” their “luxury”.


Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury! (Dickinson 114)


               Dickinson’s erotic thoughts are revealed in the poem “He touched me, so I live to know”. Her conception of womanhood and physical satisfaction are revealed in the poem. She considers physical pleasure a divine experience. She says: 
He touched me, so I live to know  
That such a day, permitted so,  
I groped upon his breast
It was a boundless place to me,  
And silenced, as the awful sea         
Puts minor streams to rest.  
And now, I ’m different from before,  
As if I breathed superior air
Or brushed a royal Gown
My feet, too, that had wandered so
My gypsy face transfigured now 
To tenderer Renown  (Dickinson 246)

Dickinson’s “The Soul selects her own society”, published in 1862, satirises man as the “Emperor”. Women depended on men in her time financially and mentally. It was a time when she withdrew from society and started talking to her close friends and family. She yearns to live a lonely life and that is manifested in the present poem. She personifies the “Soul” and it is the soul that creates its own choice and selects “Society” and shuts the door to the divine “Majority.


The Soul selects her own Society—
then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more— (Dickinson 143)


            Dickinson tried breaking the expected gender roles of the nineteenth-century New England. She remained single when the community of her time expected her to play the role of a housewife, obey her husband and raise her children. The Puritan community demanded devotion from women and they asked people to participate in the church’s services without fail. Love affairs were not tolerable. The androcentric society demanded complete dedication from women. However, the poet lived an isolated life in his own room, stopped attending religious sermons, indulged in romantic thoughts and displayed homosexual or bisexual tendencies: 


Dickinson’s school days and young adulthood included several significant male friends, among them Benjamin Newton, a law student in her father’s office; Henry Vaughn Emmons, an Amherst College student; and George Gould, an Amherst College classmate of the poet’s brother Austin.  Early Dickinson biographers identified Gould as a suitor who may have been briefly engaged to the poet in the 1850s, and recent scholarship has shed new light on the theory . . . .  Her female friendships, notably with schoolmate and later sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert and with mutual friend Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, have also interested Dickinson biographers, who argue whether these friendships represent typical nineteenth-century girlhood friendships or more intensely sexual and romantic relationships. (“Emily Dickinson’s Love Life – Emily Dickinson Museum”)


Dickinson’s love for Susan Huntington Gilbert was widely discussed among her researchers and critics. Her letters to Susan tell us about the poet’s admiration. The poem “I hide myself within my flower” show the lesbian stance of the poet. She says,


I hide myself within my flower, 

That wearing on your breast, 

You, unsuspecting, wear me too— 

And angels know the rest. 


I hide myself within my flower,         

That, fading from your vase, 

You, unsuspecting, feel for me 

Almost a loneliness. (Dickinson 75)


She had multiple love affairs with men of her time. She expressed her disappointment when she faced love failures. In the poem “Proud of my broken heart,” she proudly takes the pain to her heart and acknowledges it: 


Proud of my broken heart, since thou didst break it,

Proud of the pain I did not feel till thee,


Proud of my night, since thou with moons dost slake it,

Not to partake thy passion, my humility.


Thou can’st not boast, like Jesus, drunken without companion

Was the strong cup of anguish brewed for the Nazarene


Thou can’st not pierce tradition with the peerless puncture,

See! I usurped thy crucifix to honor mine! (Dickinson 704)


This study seeks to show that centuries and distances cannot change the arrogance of androcentric society around the world. It controls the attitudes, minds, emotions, desires, expectations and dreams of women around the world. Kamala Das, a bilingual writer, presents the miserable state of Indian women with her poems drenched in originality. She was born into a wealthy Nair family in Kerala and subjected to oppression from patriarchal figures. They have exposed the fate of traditional women and housewives in India while living for their partners. Her lessons underscore the inequalities and prejudices women face. She clearly describes the love and strong physical needs of an ordinary woman. She wanted love and care for the rest of her life and was often denied. She shocked the patriarchal society with her lustful and vibrant image-filled poetry. With the entry of Das, Indo-Anglican literature witnessed the emergence of a new writing style in the twentieth century. Her themes mainly focused on man- woman relationship, motherhood, female sexuality and personal feelings. She was never hesitant to speak about her social concerns.


The poem “An Introduction” is a vibrant opinion of the patriarchal society in Kerala and sheds light on the harassment and suffering faced by women around the world. She is from Malabar and is brown. Although people told her not to write poems in English, she writes in two languages and dreams in one. She claims the language she speaks is hers and its strangeness is hers. She said,


Why not let me speak in 
Any language I like? The language I speak, 
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses

All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half

 Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest, 
It is as human as I am human, don't 
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my 
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing 
Is to crows or roaring to the lions it 
Is human speech. (Das 122)


Das narrates her own story. Earlier she was a child and later people in her community told her she had started showing signs of sexual maturity. The poem is a strong response against a patriarchal society that treats women cruelly. The speaker of the poem, the poet herself, was married off at the age of sixteen and was sexually assaulted by her partner in the bed room. She was ashamed of her femininity and started to wear male apparels. Now society asks her to be a woman, spouse and mother. It asks her to be confined to the domestic sphere and show her gender role. She says, “I was child, and they/ Told me I grew, for I blame tall, my limbs/ Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair” (Das 123). The seriousness of puberty is imposed on her and she is destined to follow in the footsteps of an ordinary Indian woman. The poem is the poet’s intense response to express her hard feelings for the androcentric world.


Another poem ““The Old Playhouse,” tells us that love is perhaps no more than a way of learning about one’s self or the completion of one’s own personality (Dwivedi 14). It is in the form of addressing her husband and is unique in nature. The speaker is a woman who narrates the story of her desperate married life. She considers herself as a “swallow” and her husband is a jailer or captor who wants to tame her to gratify his physical urge. He wants to keep her under his control to forget her about her freedom. She says,


You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her
In the long summer of your love so that she would forget
Not the raw seasons alone, and the homes left behind, but
Also her nature, the urge to fly, and the endless
Pathways of the sky. (Das 1)


Her partner is a self-centered man, very content with her body and feels really happy at the moment of marital bliss. But her response is superficial. He fulfills his physical desires by conquering her body, not her mind. Poetry is her protest against the strictness of married life, female slavery and male dominance. Her body is just a plaything in front of him. She is lifeless, there are no emotions. Poetry presents the disunity that exists in Indian families. The man rules the family, and the woman is a doll who moves with music. Her annoyance is visible in these lines:


… You called

me wife,
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and
To offer at the right moment the vitamins. Cowering
Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and
Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your
Questions I mumbled incoherent replies. (Das 14)


Das always reacts against traditional culture and its description of womanhood. In “The Freaks,” she calls our attention to the meaninglessness of married life. It also produces images of a wife’s distress, succumbing to a partner without inner feelings. In this male-dominated world, women, they say, need to compromise even if they don’t like the act of love. Women have to perform the duties and laws set by the male-dominated world, and their desires and dreams are denied. She is not ashamed to talk about her private feelings to the community where androcentric laws prevail. She is not happy with her husband and finds her partner is not passionate about her. They have never attained spiritual and emotional satisfaction, even though they have spent years together. She considers herself a “freak” and says,


… Who can
Help us who have lived so long
And have failed in love? The heart,
An empty cistern, waiting
Through long hours, fills itself
With coiling snakes of silence......
I am a freak. (Das 11)


But Das proudly talks about her motherhood. In fact, the androcentric community was forced to start her married life and play the role of wife and mother. The poem “Jaisurya” talks about her conception of motherhood:


For a while I too was earth.

In me the seed was silent, waiting as

A baby does for the womb’s quiet

Expulsion. This then was my destiny.

Walk into the waiting room, I had cried,

When once my heart was vacant, fill the

Emptiness, stranger, fill it with a child. (Das 56)


Das talks about the lack of enjoyment in search of physical love. She spent her life in a society that ignored women’s physical desires. However, she was ready to face criticism from the community. She opens up her sexual desires with simple, original language. The poem “The Stone Age” tells us more about her isolation in the androcentric world:


Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind,

Old fat spider, weaving webs of bewilderment,

Be kind. You turn me into a bird of stone, a granite

Dove, you build round me a shabby drawing room.

And stroke my pitted face absent-mindedly while

You read. With loud talk you bruise my pre-morning sleep,

You stick a finger into my dreaming eye. (Das 51) 




Dickinson and Das offered a reading on their own androcentric communities and cultural contexts, where women were given different roles to play. They established their own social principles and lived life without surrendering to an androcentric society. While the main stream questioned their unusual thoughts about gender roles, their poetry became a source for everyone to learn about their ideas about gender and sexuality. She ushered in a new era for women and housewives. They only had one need, which was love and affection. Poets always dreamed of a world united in terms of true love. Their poetry demands social and emotional space for women. Their views on the female body and gender roles have crossed the boundaries set by patriarchy and won worldwide acclaim. Thus, they viewed their own bodies as symbols of power.


Works Cited


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