‘Women’ by Alice Walker is a short free-verse poem telling of the fight women put up so girls could have access to education. The poem lauds specifically African American women who were slaves in America. Using military diction and imagery, Walker describes how these women’s resilience and sacrifice enabled them to achieve their goal. With ‘Women,‘ the poet promotes womanism, a form of feminism recognizing and appreciating the struggles of black women.
‘Women’ by Alice Walker praises women of the past who fought for and secured the girl child’s right to education.
The poem begins with Walker’s persona introducing her subject matter—women of the preceding generation—on a reverent note. The first eighteen lines of ‘Women‘ employ imagery generally associated with men to characterize these women. They are aggressive, courageous, and tenacious as they face down obstacles stated with implied metaphors. Subsequent lines reveal what they fight for: their female children’s rights to education. This highlights the motherly love and wisdom behind the resilience of the women in Walker’s poem. Throughout ‘Women,’ the persona’s appreciative tone doesn’t change as she speaks of them.
You can read the full poem here.
They were women then
My mama’s generation
‘Women‘ opens with a reverent tone similar to the ones used to narrate biblical stories (for example, John 1:1 which says, “In the beginning was the world…”). This hints at the speaker’s admiration of her subject: women of her mother’s generation. With the second line, it is easy to deduce Walker’s inspiration for the poem: her own mother.
Husky of voice—stout of
With fists as well as
These lines use sound and visual imagery to describe the aforementioned women. They were “husky of voice” and “stout of/Step”, showing they had deep rough voices and long strides. By giving them these qualities, Walker topples the stereotype of women looking graceful and gentle. She gives them attributes usually associated with men to show these women also had authority in their voice, aggression in their “fists” and determination in their gait. With these lines, Walker lauds women in an unhackneyed way.
However, the gentle streak common among them doesn’t disappear. In line 6, the persona contrasts “fists” with “hands” to reveal her subject’s soft side.
How they battered down
These lines heavily use imagery and metaphor to show how these women fight for their cause. The speaker says “they battered down/Doors”, highlighting obstacles these women battled and overcame. She quickly contrasts this action with “And ironed/Starched white/Shirts”. The latter action is interpreted in two ways: a mother caring for her household and a slave working. In either case, it portrays the dual nature of these women, who fight like “generals” while performing menial tasks. With vivid imagery, subsequent lines echo the dangers on the battlefield: “mined/Fields” and “Booby-trapped/Ditches”. As line 14 confirms these women as African Americans, the implied metaphors between lines 15-18 may refer to racism, slavery, and misogyny. Walking through all this emphasizes their resilience and justifies the appreciative tone in which the persona still speaks of them.
To discover books
A place for us
The climax of ‘Women‘ unfolds here. Lines 19-21 reveal the noble cause these women fight for: education for their girls, something they never had. “Books” and “Desks” symbolize education; “us” refers to today’s women, including the speaker herself. These lines underscore motherly love and hope as the foundation of ‘Women‘ and why girls today can access education. It is the result of the brave fight these women put up.
How they knew what
Without knowing a page
The final lines of Walker’s poem reveal the wisdom and foresight of the previous generation. By repeating the verb form, “know”, the speaker stresses the importance of their foresight and why we in the present must not let the result of that—the right to education—go to waste. Without a drift in the tone of the awestruck speaker, ‘Women‘ wraps up with its first and last full stop.
Structure and Form
‘Women‘ is a one-stanza poem of twenty-six lines. The first eighteen lines describe the subject of the poem and the actions they take to reach their goal. The last eight lines reveal that goal. The poem is free-verse, having no regular rhyme scheme or meter. Courtesy of enjambment, “Women” also appears fragmented. Each line contains no more than six syllables and the poem as a whole is punctuated only once, with a final full stop.
The themes in Walker’s poem include the strength, bravery, and tenacity of women to fight for their children’s rights, the motherly love, sacrifice, and hope fuelling their fight, and the wisdom women of the past had to foresee the girl child’s need for education.
- Allusion: The entire poem is a reference to the African American women of the past. As slaves, they were denied their education. However, they fought so their children could have such rights in the future. The poem lauds these women for their brave fight and noble mission.
- Metaphor: Walker uses implied metaphors throughout the poem. In line 5, she mentions “fists” to show the aggression of women in her poem. However, she contrasts this trait with “hands” in line 6, to represent gentleness. Lines 7-18 are also use implied metaphors. Walker compares the actions of her subject to that of generals on the battlefield. By mentioning “mined/Fields” and “Booby-trapped/ditches”, Walker highlights the dangers involved in this fight for women’s rights. The obstacles are “doors” which they “battered down”.
- Imagery: Sensory imagery is a prevalent literary device in ‘Women‘. Between lines 3-6 and 7-18, Walker’s diction creates a clear picture of her subject. There’s sound imagery in line 3 (“Husky of voice”) and visual imagery in line 4 (“stout of/Step”). The speaker also paints a vivid picture of a battlefield, relating it to the women’s actions.
- Repetition: Between lines 22-24, the persona repeats the verb form, “know”, to emphasize the importance of girl child education.
- Enjambment: This runs throughout the poem, creating a pause-and-think effect with each line.
Implied metaphors compare two things without explicitly mentioning one of them. In ‘Women‘, Walker compares the struggle to secure one’s right to education to walking through booby-trapped ditches and mined fields without explicitly stating the former. In this light, the metaphor is implied.
The speaker or persona in the poem is an African American woman, like Alice Walker. She recognizes and appreciates the efforts of her mother’s generation to ensure she received an education.
The muse behind ‘Women’ is Alice Walker’s mother. Like the women in Walker’s poem, she was an African American and a maid who saw the need for Walker to be educated. This story and Walker’s admiration for her own mum formed the backbone of this piece.
An ode is a poem that praises an event, individual, or thing; by purpose alone, ‘Women’ may be seen as an ode. However, odes—even more relaxed modern ones—follow varying formats, rhyme schemes, and metrical patterns, whereas ‘Women’ is written in free-verse. On that note, the poem cannot be seen as an ode.
Other poems sharing similar themes with ‘Women’ include:
- ‘Lineage‘ by Margaret Walker: a poem describing the strength of enslaved females and how they suffered for that strength.
- ‘When You Thought Me Poor‘ by Alice Walker: a thought-provoking poem commenting on an unequal society.
- ‘Be Nobody’s Darling‘ by Alice Walker: a poem supporting people’s individuality and uniqueness.