This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Gender on Paper: Gender Performances in American Women's Poetry 1650-Present




Perry, Katherine

Type of Degree





Gender on paper is an act; it is performed. Using Judith Butler’s definition of gender as a basis for an analysis of how gender is constructed, I look at the “repeated acts” of particular language usage in poems written by American “women” and interrogate the ways poems become gendered performances within social contexts. I posit that American women poets use gender performances in their poems to transform ideas of womanhood, to redefine female gender roles, and to reinforce normative gender roles. The dissertation explores poems which center on particular subject matter: writing, marriage, motherhood, and madness. I begin with a theoretical introduction and then move to the second chapter in which I illustrate the connection between women, their bodies, their social construction, and language. By considering the performance of gender next to the performance of genre, I argue that womanhood, femininity, and poetry are tightly related both in feminist theory and in American history. It is through their poetry that these poets have begun to define themselves both in language and outside of the Law. Chapter three argues that poets equate femininity with Luce Irgiaray’s concept of the Masquerade and then either perform that femininity or use mindful mimicry to undermine it. Using Julia Kristeva’s connections between the maternal body and poetic language, chapter four argues that poets use semiotic language to write against the abjection of the maternal and to offer a possibility of a non-rejected mother. In chapter five, I argue that by employing the language of madness some women poets reveal the traditions of hysteria as a performance and offer in its place a performativity which opens the possibility of woman’s subjectivity which is outside of the Law. Attempting to find an intersection between Kristeva and Butler, my argument shows that women poets find themselves in a unique position and are capable of a particular kind of action through their poetry. As females, women poets have been sexed in the Symbolic by rejection of their mother/self and have taken up language as the substitute for this rejection (or lack). However, since this rejection is not a complete rejection of the mother, some connection still exists between the mother/self and the poet. Therefore, when the woman poet engages semiotic disruptions, she engages with herself outside of the Symbolic. At the same time, she can never escape the social norms of her time and place, and when she performs gender with her poetry, she re-inscribes, deconstructs, or reveals those social norms. Therefore, women poets have unique positions in language and in the socio-political arena that affords them the potential to change the social norms and the Symbolic law.