Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


International Women’s Day: spotlight on Emily Dickinson

Mary Loeffelholz

If Emily Dickinson were alive today, would she be celebrating International Women’s Day? 

That’s a tough call to make.  This year’s theme for International Women’s Day calls upon women and allies to “Be Bold For Change,” to link hands and work towards a more equitable world.  Dickinson, though, wasn’t much of a joiner.  Offensive and incomplete as the old biographical myth of the isolate poet immured in her house may be, in this respect the Dickinson legend tells a basic truth.  If her activist friends and correspondents Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson were alive today, they no doubt would be marching on Washington D.C.; but it’s much easier to imagine Dickinson following their “Pink career” (to steal a phrase from one of Dickinson’s letters to Higginson) from an interested distance than joining the crowds herself.



refusal of collective belonging was something that Dickinson excelled at, even during the fervor of wartime.



Of course Dickinson was bold—more often as one against the world, though, than as part of an organized movement.  As I wrote in The Value of Emily Dickinson, refusal of collective belonging was something that Dickinson excelled at, even during the fervor of wartime.  Consider these lines that she entered into one of her manuscript books early on in the American Civil War, around 1862:


I took my Power in my Hand –

And went against the World –

‘Twas not as much as David – Had –

But I – was twice as bold –                          (Franklin 660)


This poem seems to embrace isolation as a source of courage.  Yet at the battle’s end, “Myself / Was all the one that fell – .”  Was the speaker, as she suggests, all along “too small” to take on Goliath; or does the real problem lie with the masculine terms in which boldness and power are framed?  Perhaps the speaker is fortunate to have fallen out of this macho model of individualist heroic action.

Perhaps.  Although it’s hard to find moments of hand-joining political solidarity with other women in Dickinson’s writing, women were intensely real to her—as individuals and, I think, as a group—and she felt her status as a woman with equal intensity.

Some of her intimacies with women were too deep, too near, and too ambivalent for the kind of collective hand-clasping we picture for International Women’s Day.  Of her sister-in-law and lifelong muse Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Dickinson in 1864 wrote “Here is Festival – Where my Hands are cut, Her fingers will be found inside.”  Others were more distant, mediated by writing; Dickinson thought of herself as a member of a noble transatlantic sisterhood of women writers, comprising the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot among others.  If they’d written to Dickinson asking her to sign a petition on behalf of International Women’s Day, she just might have done it.



Dickinson also wrote in fabulous, intimate ways about female experience.



Dickinson also wrote in fabulous, intimate ways about female experience.  In honor of International Women’s Day, let me propose a late poem by Dickinson, “The Gentian has a parched Corolla –“ (Fr 1458) as the greatest poem about menopause in American literature.  It’s also a poem about how poetic vocation and how that vocation resides in an aging human, and yes, female body.  It can be found in Dickinson’s own hand in Amherst College’s digital collections, at https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:2405.  Enjoy!







Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.

Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017

Mary Loeffelholz is author of The Value of Emily Dickinson, you can read a FREE extract from the book here


About The Author

Mary Loeffelholz

Mary Loeffelholz is Professor of English and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Northeastern University, Boston. Her publications include From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth...

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