Words can move; not just hearts or minds, but across the page in a nearly visible way. With the correct combination of literary devices an author can evoke a feeling of movement where none physically exists. May Swenson creates the illusion of rocking, swaying words in her poem “Women.” The tone and symbolism in “Women” along with the physical placement of words on the page imbues the poem with almost tangible rhythm.
In “Women”, the persona discusses, in an ironic and sarcastic tone, women’s purpose as objects for the support and satisfaction of men. While there is no definitive proof in the text that the persona is female, it is reasonable to assume based on knowledge of the author’s gender (female), sexual orientation (lesbian), and the time period in which the poem was written (1970 during the women’s liberation movement.)
Initially, the most striking aspect of “Women” is the shape of the poem. As a form of visual poetry, the shape of the poem contributes heavily to the overall message. The poem’s structure imitates the rocking of a rocking horse, the curves of a woman’s body, and an unscalable ladder. By forming the poem in this shape Swenson reinforces the rhythm of her words, implies that the perceived value of women is their physical attributes, and raises questions about women’s ability to overcome societal barricades to success.
The persona of the poem describes women as support structures for men: “Women should be pedestals/ moving pedestals/ moving to the motions of men” (lines 1-3). A pedestal is a fixed structure, but in this poem the pedestals are “moving to the motions of men” (line 3), revealing that the pedestals (women) are objects to be manipulated by men according to their whims. The irony in “Women” is exposed in the opening lines of the poem; women are not objects, and they are not here solely for the support of men.
The concept of women as objects is reiterated when the persona explains what other things women should be: “Or they should be little horses/ those wooden sweet oldfashioned painted rocking horses/ the gladdest things in the toyroom” (lines 4-6). On the surface the rocking horse represents women’s status as trophies for men. As toys, the women in this poem are possessions of spoiled children (men) to be used and forgotten once they are no longer new or attractive. The irony of women as oldfashioned and “the gladdest things in the toyroom” (line 6) is purposeful. During the time in which this poem was published women were actively separating themselves from traditional roles and voicing their dissatisfaction with societal limits. The rocking horse also symbolizes the oppression of women. The horse is a beast of burden whose labor benefits its master. Likewise, women have been exploited in the same manner, with contributions to family, community, government, and society going largely unnoticed.
The pedestal mentioned earlier in the poem is invoked again during the rocking horse symbolism: “The pegs of their ears so familiar and dear/ to the trusting fists/ To be chafed feelingly/ and then unfeelingly” (lines 7-10). Feelingly and unfeelingly mimic the two separate meanings of the word pedestal. A pedestal is both a position of adoration and esteem and an apparatus for supporting a structure. A woman is both a creature to be adored (when convenient) and one to be burdened and used. The description of pegs also lends to the rhythm of the poem, adding to the subtle sway of the words on the page.
The image of women as possessions goes further as the poem progresses. The sarcasm the persona uses becomes thick and bitter. “To be joyfully ridden/ until the restored egos dismount and the legs stride away/ Immobile sweetlipped sturdy and smiling” (lines 11-13). A common saying sates, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” The persona would likely agree: the job of women has been to restore the egos of men by providing them a sturdy shelter from their failures. Women’s attributes are easily disposed of as “the legs stride away”. Riding also has a sexual connotation which could easily symbolize the typical, heterosexual, male dominated relationship. This is reinforced by the description of women as being immobile, sweet lipped, and smiling. These rocking horse qualities symbolize women’s desire to be confined, dedicated, valued for their beauty, and ready to serve. Of course, this description is not a factual representation; it is another expression of the persona’s ironic tone.
The bitterness of the persona’s words fully appreciates in the final three lines of the poem. “women should always be waiting/ willing to be set in motion/ Women should be pedestals to men” (lines 14-16). Here the persona’s message is clear. Women are tired of waiting to be given freedom of movement and expression. They will no longer tolerate being at the whims of men’s desires. They will not be objects for the homage of men. Women are not pedestals.