Study Guide

Power Women and Femininity

By Adrienne Rich

Women and Femininity

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate (2-5)

Maybe it's just us, but these lines have kind of a masculine vibe. We usually think of tonics and elixirs as the purview of 19th-century traveling salesmen. And the whole stanza seems like it's taking place at a construction site (usually, but not always, a male-dominated space). Do you agree or disagree?

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified (6-9)

Here, in her intro to the subject of the poem—Marie Curie herself—the speaker jumps right to her illness (and therefore her death). Yes, she was the first to purify the element, but she also died because of her lifetime "bombard[ment]" of radium. We get all excited for a moment: hey, there's this awesome lady scientist in the poem! But then Rich brings us back down: oh, she suffered radiation sickness. Our emotions are all over the place here, especially because Curie is such an important figure in the (female) scientific community.

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power (14-17)

The poem ends by telling us that Curie died "a famous woman" who denied her wounds. These last lines make us ask: was being a famous woman worth it? Was scientific discovery worth it? And, why did Curie deny her wounds to the end? Did she do so from a place of strength? Or was denial her downfall? And how does her gender fit into all of this? The poem raises, but doesn't answer these questions, so we end the poem with a bit of ambiguity and frustration. But we're pretty sure Madame Curie had it worse, so let's not get all complain-y here.