Gender Inequality in “A Woman Waits for Me”

Whitman’s “A Woman Waits for Me” seems to propagate two contrasting ideas: that a woman is equal to a man and a whole person in and of herself, and that she is not complete without the acknowledgement and touch of the speaker (whom we can assume is a man).  Though the speaker of the poem reinforces gender equality directly in multiple places, the overall subject matter, tone, and diction of the poem ultimately does much more to enforce gender differences. The sentiment of gender equality threaded through the first half of the poem can be found starting in the first line, when the speaker insists that the woman waiting for him “contains all, nothing is lacking” (258).  This line insists that the woman is whole in and of herself, and needs nothing else to complete her. Later on, he compares this complete woman to himself, saying that “they are not one jot less than I am” (259). The first half of the poem, guided by these lines, seems to support the idea that women and men are equal.  

However, a more careful look at the first half of the poem reveals the unequal and even misogynist attitude that pervades the poem.  Immediately, the poem begins with a juxtaposition: “A woman waits for me, she contains all” (258). The woman “waits” for the speaker of the poem, and in this context, the verb “to wait” does not signify active waiting on the woman’s part; rather, it implies that she will only be complete once the speaker enters her life.  Whitman immediately juxtaposes this idea by stating that this woman “contains all,” or, in other words, is not lacking anything (including the speaker). These contrasting ideas of women cannot truly live together, and as the poem progresses, aggressive masculinity enforcing gender inequality becomes the dominant theme.

The diction in the second half of the poem recalls stereotypes of men as strong and aggressive, and women as the meek vessels for their masculinity.  The speaker directly summons these stereotypes about aggressive masculinity by referring to himself as “stern, acrid, large, undissuadable,” words that combine to form a formidable picture of a person (259).  He then goes on to describe the act of sex in a way that seems troublingly non consensual. Firstly, he addresses the woman by saying “I do not hurt you more than is necessary for you” (259). With this line he implies that sex is an act which hurts women, and furthermore, that the hurt is necessary to a degree.  He goes on to declare that he “listen[s] to no entreaties,” which suggests that any plea on the woman’s part is ignored until the speaker is finished (259). Finally, he asserts that he “dare not withdraw til [he] deposit[s] what has so long accumulated within [him]” (259). This last line confirms that the speaker regards the sex act as finished when, and only when, he has finished inside the woman – not anytime before.  The word “deposit” also strongly implies that the woman in question is being treated more like an inanimate receptacle than a human being. The end result of the forceful language and imagery of this stanza is an aggressive tone that contrasts with the beginning stanzas, which have a more frank and shameless tone.

Indeed, this unnamed, theoretical woman ends up being treated by the speaker as a means through which he accomplishes relief as well as an end goal of procreation.  The woman herself is not actually prioritized, but is rather used by the speaker. This is especially clear in the diction of the last stanza. The first three lines begin with prepositional phrases that indicate actions by the speaker to the woman, as opposed to with her:  “Through you I drain the pent up rivers of myself, In you I wrap a thousand onward years, On you I graft the grafts of the best beloved of me and America” (260).  These phrases strengthen the idea of the woman as merely a means to an end, rather than an active and willing participant in the sex act that grounds the poem. Overall, the act of sex as described by this poem is unequal and dehumanizing for the woman.  As we mentioned in class, Whitman does not “plant so lovingly” much of anything in this poem – the force and “rude muscle” of his speaker ensure that (260; 259). Though, as we have seen so far, Whitman does work to be the poet of everyone, representing the experiences of all of America, this poem in particular cannot be considered a part of his more egalitarian works.


One Response to Gender Inequality in “A Woman Waits for Me”

  1. Prof VZ September 10, 2019 at 2:53 am #

    Superb–and superbly critical–reading of this poem. When I read your take on the opening lines, where you carefully trace the poem’s misogyny to its opening, I thought of how they cast a shadow on Whitman’s open, generous “waiting” that concludes “Song of Myself” where he stops somewhere, waiting for us in the hopes that we might find him. In “A Woman Waits for Me,” that same act of waiting seems degrading to the subject (in this case the woman), and to Whitman’s earlier gesture.

    Your incisive reading of some of the most offensive lines here certainly make them seem strikingly off-key and offensive today, but they also off-key for Whitman. They are not a part, as you note, of his more egalitarian works. He uses stale metaphors where the woman becomes a vessel, but also something like untamed land that needs cultivation. So what is Whitman doing here? He praises that which is untamed and then, violently tames it; he admits a free sphere of action to women, then he invades it. One gets a sense that he is play-acting here as he mimics some conventional fantasy of heteronormativity, Victorian style.

    You do a great job of breaking down the syntax of those final stanzas: if the line doesn’t begin with the presumptuous “I shall,” that same I still takes precedent as the conduit through which the woman’s humanity flows. Thanks for your careful attention to this poem.

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