To the Indifferent Women is a seven stanza poem. Each stanza is six lines in length, except for the seventh which is only three lines. Gilman keeps each line around the same in word count, approximately eight words long. Within this poem Gilman utilizing a large amount of repetition in an attempt to get basic ideas into the minds of the women she is addressing, as well as the reader. She repeats the word “love” at least once in each stanza, and the word “peace” almost as often. An additional reason for this repetition is in the form of the poem.
At the beginning of this piece, Gilman places an additional title, A Sestina. A Sestina is a poetic form used in this piece (six-line stanzas, with the seventh only three lines) of French origin. The end words of the first stanza are repeating, rearranged, as the ending lines of the following stanzas. If you want to know more about the form of a sestina, see this link. You can also read the complete poem To the Indifferent Women here.
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Summary of To the Indifferent Women
To the Indifferent Women is addressed to the “indifferent women” who sit idly in their homes, only concerned with those that are directly, physically, near to them. The speaker of the poem spends these seven stanzas chastising the women for their selfishness and inability to care about the entire world. They cannot see outside of their own home. She calls upon their motherhood to spread to those that are desperate for food and a mother’s love.
To the Indifferent Women concludes with the statement that if men and women could come together and share their love with the whole world, all homes would be happy. She is promoting the idea that we must allow ourselves to look out from our own worlds and into those that are uncomfortable and even miserable. If we do not allow ourselves to see the world in its entirety, we may not be able to hold onto the happiness that we have created for ourselves. Those that are lucky, must help those that are not.
Analysis To the Indifferent Women
Gilman begins this piece by addressing the type of woman referenced in the title of the poem, “indifferent.” Her speaker directs her qualms to them immediately,
You who are happy in a thousand homes,
Or overworked therein, to a dumb peace;
She is addressing women who have either been forced into submission through the accumulation of things that are supposed to make them happy or worked to exhaustion by their husbands, within those same homes. Both classes of women are addressed in this piece. These same women are described as having their “souls…centered [on] that small group you personally love.” Their problems and concerns rest only with those who are physically close to them. At the end of the stanza, she asks these women, who told them they do not need to concern themselves with the sorrows of others; those that are out of reach that they do not see every day.
This second stanza also begins with a question. She asks these “indifferent” women if they truly believe that the sorrows of the world do not “concern you in your little homes?” She is challenging their belief system, and how they allow themselves to ignore the rest of existence that is not as well off as they are. She states that they feel this way because they believe themselves to be,
…licensed to avoid the care
And toil for human progress, human peace
As well, she continues on, for the growth of love in the world until everyone is touched by it. These are fundamental rights, things the speaker believes everyone should concern themselves with and that these women are necessarily in the wrong for not caring about others.
In the next stanza of To the Indifferent Women the speaker begins by talking about duty, what one is required to do as a human being living in the world. These duties are basic and fundamental. One must promote progress in the world as well as in
…righteousness, in wisdom, in truth and love;
Once again she reiterates that these women are ignoring the truths about the world they should be working to help. They stay hidden in their homes,
Content to keep them in uncertain peace,
Content to leave all else without your care.
They are happy to allow their homes to exist in a world where peace is not certain and to deny everything else their help and care.
She attempts to reason with the women in this stanza. Calling on their positions as mothers and the fact that a mother is the one that cares most for life. The world, she says, needs a mother’s care to unite all the nations in
United raise the standard of the world
and allow the happiness they work so hard to create at home, spread to everyone else in the world. Allow it to be strong and fruitful.
But these women do not do this. They are, the speaker says, happy to keep that love when it blooming so successfully, to themselves instead of
pouring it abroad in life,
Its mighty current feeding all the world
It would continue this way until “every human child can grow in peace.” These women are only allowing their love to flourish in the most basic of ways, having children, and taking care of a home, there is so much more that they could do. They have the capacity to spread themselves wider and take on more of the world.
She continues chastising them, telling them they cannot keep their “small domestic peace” as “undeveloped love” while there are so many suffering throughout the rest of the world. Those that struggle for food, and a mother’s care, need their help.
This real-world outside their door will continue to beat its way in until they allow their love to flourish outside the home. She is alluding to the fact that if these women do not open their doors and allow their care to make its mark on those who need it, they may no longer have the happy homes they are clinging to.
The poem concludes with a three-line stanza in which the speaker comes to the finalizing point that if women and men were to work together and share their care around the world that all will have “homes in joy and peace.” Women she states have an extra capacity to love, they are, “rich” with the power of it.
About Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. After a difficult childhood in which she and her mother were abandoned by Gilman’s father, she was moved around frequently. This kept her from receiving the best education. She married the artist Charles Stetson in 1884 and suffered frequently from depression over the next decade. She was subject to the “rest cure” detailed her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” in which the narrator slowly goes mad while confined to her room.
Throughout her life, Gilman also published works of nonfiction and lectured on women’s rights. After the failure of her marriage to Stetson, in 1900 she married her cousin, George Gilman, they remained together until his death. Shortly afterward Gilman discovered that she had inoperable breast cancer and committed suicide in 1935.