Walt Whitman for Gender Equality?
“The Female equally with the Male I sing”“One’s Self I Sing” in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Right off the bat, the first poem in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman speaks to equating male and female. Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855 and women and men were certainly not treated equally and given the same rights. There is still an abundance of sexism in America, the most prevalent example today being the wage gap between male and female workers doing the same job. However, in 1855 seeing males and females as equal human beings deserving of equal rights was very unheard of. Women did not even get the right to vote until 1920! It is interesting then to see Whitman equating the two genders on more than one occasion in his poems in Leaves of Grass, but was he actually pushing for equality?
In the other authors we have read, this sort of gender equality is not nearly as present and clear-cut than Whitman: “The Female equally with the Male I sing.” I am not sure you can get more clear with that statement. Further, there are many other instances where men and women are in the same line and he speaks of their necessary equality. For example in “Starting from Paumanok”:
“And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal/ of the other,/ And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me, for I am/ determin’d to tell you with courageous clear voice to prove you illustrious,”“Starting From Paumanok” section 12 by Walt Whitman
He is spending more than just one line here explaining why males and females are equal beings. However, he is talking specifically of bodies themselves. As a whole, he is saying that males and females are equal but they are equal because they are the same species. They both have means of reproduction and both are needed to keep the human race going. On this level, the male and female should be seen as equals and Whitman will make sure they are seen as equals at this basic human level. “Female with the male equally” are the same thing because they are the same being just different genders.
Whitman also uses women and men together similar to his use of females and males. From the first glance at his work, it seems that Whitman is pro-gender equality, but he is only pro-gender equality on a scientific human-level basis. He uses females and males as genders, and men and women as nouns as they are meant to, but in doing so just makes him another man of his time. When he is talking of societal norms in any sort of way, any sort of specificity, he speaks of men and women. When he is talking in more general terms, he uses male and female. In section 10 “Salut Au Monde!” he uses both in consecutive lines:
“The helpless infants, and the helpless old men and women. /I see male and female everywhere,”“Salut Au Monde!” section 10 by Walt Whitman
In this poem, he is talking about everything he is seeing on a cultural and global level. He is talking about the differences between what he is seeing from place to place. He uses men and women to indicate the specific old men and women he saw of that one culture, and makes a general statement about the human race: “I see male and female everywhere.” To him, then, men and women belong to something, and males and females are just what we are. When he combines men and women he is not implying equality between the two that a society needs to address, but when he combines male and female he is speaking of the basic human being quality of us being one or the other that and we both need each other to make more of us so, we are the same. Unfortunately, then Walt Whitman is not the most pro-gender equality in a societal sense, but at least he is on a basic human being level!