Compulsory Maternity in Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"
In her incisive article on the condition of women poets in a male-dominated canon in the early 1930s, Lucia Trent finds womanhood a handicap rather than a source of creativity, and bitterly exclaims, "The wonder with a woman working in the arts is the same as that with a performing dog, not that she can do it well or ill, but that she can do it at all" (see article on MAPS). Obviously, this idea has been orchestrated on different levels by other female voices of the time, and represents an instance of female resistance of the "ungifted sisters" to conventional gender roles. However, unlike other "sisters"* promoting the emancipatory image of the "New Woman" (higher education, living wages, birth control; see DuPlessis 3), Trent operates in "Breed, Women, Breed" at a subversive level. Assuming the pose of the "performing dog," with an apparent submissive resignation in the eye (albeit using traditional female issues), Trent undermines the very tradition that feeds the dog ("the owners of mines," "the masters of men," "the war lords") and makes a political statement through images that are usually associated with the female domain ("frail bodies," "the pangs of birth," "the tired backs"). Consequently, "Breed, Women, Breed" is a rebellious cry for a different kind of creativity, a different use of the female body, and a cultural critique of the masculinity of the poetic enterprise.
Forty-one years after Trent, in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975), Hélène Cixous pleads for an écriture feminine, the writing of the female body, so as to transcend a masculine libidinal economy that governs Western thought and literature:
Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. […] By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display. […] Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard. (2039-43)
Cixous’s feminist manifesto thus suggests that women should reclaim their bodies – the only cultural signifier they possess – and "write" them, taking control of their own bodies. As feminist critics have repeatedly underlined, the woman’s body is not only a text of culture, but also a direct locus of social control. Similarly, in "Breed, Women, Breed," Lucia Trent seems to signal and condemn the docility of female bodies and engage them in a collective social protest, rendered through revolutionary suggestions and a sardonic tone:
"Breed, little mothers, / With a faith patient and stupid as cattle, / Breed for the war lords, / Offer your woman flesh for incredible torment" (14-17).
Moreover, since women’s writing of the social text has been minimal historically, the allusion to "little women," nineteenth-century female writing, has a sarcastic connotation here. Trent’s programmatic poem becomes an advocacy of women writing themselves, writing their "frail bodies" (18). By reclaiming agency over their own bodies/identities in an era when Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement instituted a different stage in women’s relationship with their own bodies, Trent’s speaker simultaneously signals the abuse of women’s bodies (as breeders) and the possibility for women to reclaim their bodies. Thus, a subtextual reading of "Breed, Women, Breed" may be, in fact, "Write, Women, Write!"
Trent’s poem is programmatic as much as Cixous’s feminist manifesto in that it identifies the cause of women writers’ alienation from poetry in their (imposed) alienation from their own bodies. Trent’s images of "little women’s" bodies – hence little, not-cared-for bodies – depict them as instruments for the mechanical reproduction of the work force (I use this term generically, rather than limited to the working class). The "woman flesh," offered almost in a sacrificial gesture for "incredible torment," does not glorify birth, motherhood, and an identity defined by the reproductive function, but suggests the need for a different use of the female body. Contemporary fellow poet Genevieve Taggard also approaches the idea of women’s alienation from their bodies and describes the pangs of compulsory maternity in similar ways to Trent’s: "Now I am slow and placid […] / Torpid, mellow, stupid as a stone" ("With Child" 1921). Similarly, Trent’s deliberate use of the breeding process with a specific destination ("TO BREED FOR") is an allusion to compulsory maternity. However, her rebellious voice and final intensification of her cry (in the final line she uses an exclamation mark, which does not appear in the title) calls for an aesthetization and sexualization of the female bodies, and a poetry which is called to write the real body of the woman. Thus "Breed, Women, Breed" becomes a cultural and political cry for recognizing female cultural agency.
The sarcasm of the speaker (who is not gender-defined) is suggested by the very title of the poem, which imposes a necessary repetition in order to signal the word’s negativity. In other words, the vehemence of the imperative "breed," used twenty-two times throughout the poem, coupled with the fate of the "race of danger-haunted men" -- the products of the "frail bodies" – cries for a necessary change (I would propose, "Stop breeding!"). The repetitive use of "little mothers" may suggest, as Ryan Cull has aptly remarked in his analysis, their lack of voice; they are characterized by their physical condition and their economic use value in the capitalist system -- and the grotesque, bovine allusions to the 19th century pattern of womanhood are quite explicit, especially when the speaker’s tone becomes ruthless in the third stanza and voices a crude sentence: "stupid as cattle." However, "little mothers" (and not just "mothers") may also be used to signify their paradoxical positioning in a world they create physically but do not have full access to, due to the gender barrier. Ultimately, their "little" contribution to the world of "sweating, miserable men" (identified by male occupations: miller, miner, banker, warrior) is ironic, since they "breed" not only the victims of this world (the socially disadvantaged class), but also the victimizers.
*Trent identifies in her polemic article three categories of women’s poetry at the time: 1) the "strong-brained" or, in DuPlessis’s term, the "logopoetic" type (38); 2) the "minor melodist" type, identified with the majority of women poets writing about feminine interests, i.e. "conventional women absorbed with tea-table topics"; 3) the neither mannish nor conventional type, exploring "human needs and suffering." Although Trent doesn’t define her role/place in the long tradition of female writers -- as does Amy Lowell in her celebrated poem "Sisters," where the split with the tradition is apparent – she seems to adhere to the third type of poetry writing.