Anne Bradstreet was one of the first American poets in the 1600s, which was an impressive feat at the time considering she was a woman. She continues to inspire people around the world with her works about being a woman in colonial America, about God, and her family. While Bradstreet acknowledged the traditional gender roles in society at the time, she also challenged it greatly. Bradstreet used domesticated metaphors about women’s place in America, which also created a satirical tone that is evident throughout her poem The Prologue.
This poem describes the double standard in men versus women’s writings, mocking while still somehow accepting stereotypes, and also responds to her critics about how she can be a woman and write so well. The Prologue demonstrates traditional American values for women in the 1600s, while also challenging this ideal through satire which has continued to be used in American society today.
To be a woman in this era meant performing traditional gender role activities.
Women were expected to be domestic: take care of the children, cook the meals, sew the clothes, be a loving and devoted wife. The roles of women in American have very much changed since Bradstreet’s time, but some religions and societies still hold ‘traditional’ stereotypes and expectations of women. But, in Bradstreet’s days, it was nearly unheard of for women to be reading, let alone writing anything, especially poetry. She challenges the ideas for women at the time, and while she doesn’t do so blatantly, her point is still illustrated.
Bradstreet plays on the idea that a woman shouldn’t be writing good poetry in stanza three, as she states in lines 13-15 that we shouldn’t expect her to write good poetry, as you don’t expect ‘no rhet’ric’ from a ‘schoolboy’s tongue’. Bradstreet takes on a challenging tone here because her poetry is comparable, if not better, than many male writers at the time. It’s especially interesting to note in line 15 where she states ‘nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect’, where she is explaining to the reader there can’t be something beautiful if something is defective with it; in this case, she is referencing her poem as the beauty, but the defect being she is a woman.
Bradstreet is offering some powerful social commentary here, because, at the time in America, women were not given the same respect as men, especially in regards to fine arts such as poetry. She then starts going after traditional gender roles the fifth stanza, specifically with the ‘needle’ metaphor in line 26. Bradstreet addresses her critics and their ‘carping tongue[s]’, who all tell her that Bradstreet would be better with a needle in hand. This is a direct commentary to the American societal norms for a woman at this time-someone who performs domestic duties such as sewing as referenced here. But, not only is she referencing men’s disdain for women in poetry, but also just female intelligence in general with line 28: ‘For such despite they cast on female wits…’. Bradstreet succumbs to somewhat accepting that women were viewed almost as inferior to men in stanza seven, lines 37-38, as she states ‘Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are;/Men have precedency and still excel’. Bradstreet’s understands that men will still be top tier in the hierarchy, regardless of their talents (or lack thereof). Bradstreet gives in entirely in line 40, outright saying that ‘Men can do best, and women know it well’, though this sounds to us as readers as more of a peacemaking tactic rather than her true feelings. It comes out almost as exasperated as if she’s tired of the argument she just wrote.
Almost pleading, Bradstreet shows she is speaking directly to men by using ‘yours’ in line 41, and in line 42 she is asking them to ‘grant some small acknowledgment of ours’, meaning women. Basically, Bradstreet is just slightly challenging American traditional values here, just briefly asking if men could somehow acknowledge female contributions, other than domestics, to society. Finishing her poem, Bradstreet takes one last stab at the male-dominated patriarchy. Bradstreet wishes to receive a “thyme or parsley wreath, I ask no bays”, if she were to be crowned victor in any competition. These bays she asks not to have were traditionally used to crown a poet. Instead, Bradstreet asks for herbs that were commonly used in American cooking, hinting at her role as a woman in society.
One of the overarching tones and recurring themes of Bradstreet’s The Prologue is satire. She uses irony to cope with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society. Satire is seen heavily in our current culture, and it dominates the entertainment industry. Political cartoons that are featured consistently in our newspapers, popular television shows such as The Colbert Report, and news source The Onion are all examples of satire in the American society. Thus, it is practical to come to the conclusion that satire is a staple of American culture due to the fact it’s featured almost daily in our lives.
While satire might not have a popular American ideal in Bradstreet’s time, she still utilizes it. Her irony is mixed with a dash of humble pie in the first stanza as Bradstreet explains she won’t write about “of wars, of captains, and of kings,/of cities founded, commonwealths begun.’ Bradstreet uses her pen as a metonym for her writing skills here, as she believes her “mean pen” in line three isn’t capable of writing about these heavy historical topics. It was interesting to me that Bradstreet didn’t believe she was skilled enough to write of these subjects as she is now hailed as one of America’s first great poets, and she is also demonstrating a great deal of technical skill in this poem. Continuing the irony in this stanza, she says she will allow “poets and historians” to describe the iconic events listed in the first line. What’s ironic here is that she herself is a poet, yet she isn’t describing herself as such. In stanza four she references Demosthenes, a Greek orator who was famous for overcoming a speech defect.
As Bradstreet alludes to this ‘sweet tongued Greek’ in line 19, she is, in reality, comparing him overcoming this hardship to her overcoming her own troubles-being a female poet in American society. While it may come off as Bradstreet doubting her abilities to cope with her being a woman poet, it may also be interpreted as joking, since she knew she was a superior poet to most men at the time. The satirical tone is evident as she pretends to doubt her own abilities. In stanza 6, she jokes with the reader by asking ‘Else of our sex, why feigned they those nine’, which basically means why did the ‘antique Greeks’, aka men, look to women as their muses? In stanzas 7 and 8, her tone shifts to more casual, yet still sly. Her final satirical send off notes that if she were to win a contest, she hopes they crown her with cooking herbs ‘thyme or parsley’ rather than the tradition bay laurels. This seems to tie up her mocking tone nicely in a bow, giving a final nod that at the end of the day, she is still just seen as an inferior woman.
While reading Bradstreet’s works, I was impressed by her feministic views. As a Puritan woman living in the 1600s, it was to be expected she would agree with the traditional roles of women. Instead, she defied these expectations by not only getting an education but utilizing this education in a male-dominated field: writing poetry. I admired her sarcastic tones throughout The Prologue because satire is something we still see used in our daily lives. She seemed to challenge the role of women, but I believe that the strict constraints of the society at the time wouldn’t allow her to fights for women’s rights the same way she probably would have been able to today. Bradstreet seemed to walk a fine line between wanting to accept the traditional values, and also wanting to be held at the same level as men. I loved how she challenged the men criticizing her by making comparisons to the Ancient Greeks multiple times, such as asking why women are muses if they are inferior to men. One of my favorite parts of this poem was how she carefully wove in her sarcastic underlying tones, making everything seem so casual while still showcasing her impressive writing style.
What it means to be American changes continuously as our society advances. In Bradstreet’s time, there were strict gender roles influenced by the Puritan society in place. Thus, to be an American woman, you were meant to be submissive and domestic. This has since changed, as now an American woman has equal rights as men and is not held within the constraints of traditional gender roles. One American staple that was evident in Bradstreet’s work was that of satire, something that is very much well and alive in our society. While American values today can be vastly different when compared to American values of the past, we are able to look to historical literature such as Bradstreet’s for evidence.