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‘Revolt of the Mother’ and the Subversiveness of Female Comedy

Writing by Saskia Marrett. Artwork by Paola Valentina.


I am old-fashioned, and I think it right

That man should know, by Nature’s laws eternal,

The proper way to rule, to earn, to fight,

And exercise those functions called paternal;

But even I a little bit rebel

At finding that he knows my job as well.

At least he’s always ready to expound it,

Especially in legislative hall,

The joys, the cares, the halos that surround it,

“How women feel”—he knows that best of all.

In fact his thesis is that no one can

Know what is womanly except a man.

I am old-fashioned, and I am content

When he explains the world of art and science

And government—to him divinely sent—

I drink it in with ladylike compliance.

But cannot listen—no, I’m only human—

While he instructs me how to be a woman.


 

Alice Duer Miller writes in the midst of the women’s suffrage movement in America, participating actively and persuasively as an advocate for extending the franchise. Being a master of the satirical verse, she wrote wittily potent poetry for her column in the New York Tribune entitled ‘Are Women People?’, which was subsequently published in the humorous, yet effectual, collection, Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times.

This provocative title was not intended to merely affront readers in defence of hegemony, but is reminiscent of Miller’s literary essence. She took inspiration from the contradictions between America’s foundational rhetoric of democracy and government legislation that excluded women from enfranchisement. To President Wilson’s hollow yet unremitting utterance of “Bring the government back to the people” she responds with the question “are women people?” Underscoring the inconsistencies in the arguments opposing women’s suffrage provides the framework for Miller's satirical technique and the axis on which her goading humour spins.

A tool in Miller’s skillset that grants her work such potency is her adoption of varying personas in order to examine, and often undermine, their perspectives. While she most frequently adorned the guise of her opposers - see Our Own Twelve Anti-suffragist Reasons or Why we Oppose Pockets for Women - in Revolt of the Mother she dons, unsurprisingly, a mother of a seemingly more complicit generation. Beginning as though meaning to affirm tradition, ‘I am old-fashioned, and think it right’, the hyperbolic adherence to this persona, ‘I drink it in with ladylike compliance’, later subverts the Mother’s conservatism. While originally seeming to admire the wisdom of her male counterpart, who knows of ‘the proper way to rule, to earn, to fight’, this exaggerated admiration serves to expose the vanity and presumption of man in the various spheres of his mastery. Upon reaching the final line of the first stanza we’re wise to the cataclysmic sarcasm within the initially fluttering understatement: “But even I a little bit rebel/ At finding that he knows my job as well”.

Anger builds and the mask of geniality begins to fall as the poem progresses and confirms its deeply ironic rhetoric that ‘no one can/ know what is womanly except a man’. Any assumptions of sincerity on the narrator's part are now seriously questioned.

Women’s humour has traditionally necessitated subtlety or personae, rather than outwardly possessing the vulgarity associated with masculine humour, this is in keeping with a woman’s traditional status. Miller’s satire paradoxically adheres to this convention in shrouding her political agenda with a persona, while also markedly subverting it through sarcastically hyperbolic assertions of man’s competence.

Comedy has been defined as “the vulgar and exaggerated presentation of the familiar”, and “as catharsis of desire and frustration”. To be funny means to be commanding, confident and assured, traits seen as innately incompatible with those associated with femininity; accounting for why women comedians often have to resort to degrading their own sex in order to get laughs. Bruere and Beard note that "the angle of vision from which women see a lack of balance, wrong proportions, disharmonies in life is a thing of their world as it must be— a world always a little apart." This incongruity of the female lens means women’s humour often induces more than just catharsis; it is frequently a means of dealing with frustration or anger, rather than existing only as celebratory or fun. The humour frequently takes the form of satire or parody, both of which work to revise social realities rather than simply establishing their existence.

Miller understood poetry as a political utterance: an utterance that could ignite a sense of responsibility and thus prompt action. More recent feminist humour often makes use of the same methods, while also dealing with a far wider range of issues that concern modernity, such as reproductive freedom, parenting, and discrimination in the workplace. It is startling and salutary to realise how relevant Miller’s poetry remains today, particularly in relation to the concerns previously listed. Womanly domains and even bodies are legislated on presently as if they are understood better than us by our male representatives. Miller’s question “Are Women People?” remains relevant in numerous social and religious contexts today.


Sources:

  • Chapman, Mary. “‘Are Women People?’: Alice Duer Miller’s Poetry and Politics.” American Literary History 18, no. 1 (2006): 59–85

  • Caliskan, Sevda. “Is There Such a Thing as Women’s Humor?” American Studies International 33, no. 2 (1995): 49–59

  • Walker, Nancy. “A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988

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