Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. English Dept.


Patricia A. Onion


Historically, the First Amendment right to free speech was limited to certain groups. Language, although constitutionally guaranteed since 1776, has not always been a freedom for everyone. Among those at language's mercy are immigrants, slaves, and women. Women's speech was limited not by a lack of knowledge, but by a societal acceptance of women as inferior.

What then do women do to overcome this ever-present chasm? What women did in the nineteenth century, the 1960s, and are still doing today is: write more creatively. The tighter the restraint of language, the more inventive the woman must be to use it successfully. By twisting the limited vocabulary and subject matter available, women can break out of the male-created mold that envelopes their every word.

The master of this continuous word game was Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, as a woman living in America in the 1800s, created some of the most innovative and puzzling poems ever written.

In the middle of the 20th century Adrienne Rich, having read Dickinson's poetry, saw a subtle genius at work. As a radical feminist at the height of the women's movement, Rich began to incorporate Dickinson's subtle yet brilliant techniques and evolved to create her own. Rich views language as a product of the oppressors and the tool of the patriarchy. Rich, writing one hundred years after Dickinson, possesses greater literary freedom. Rich, however, realizes the patriarchal source of language and refuses to bend to the patriarchy. Rich saw her poetry as a tool, not to further the oppressors' cause, but to fight it, to fight for the oppressed.


feminism, poetry, language

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