Whitman on Women:

Literature and Democracy.

In the work On Democracy Robert Dahl ponders the logic of democracy. Why is equality, the foundation of American democracy, so difficult in process?

A system of government inevitably rears with it a system of hegemony. Hegemony is the power or dominance that one social group holds over others. The structure of authority and exercise of social power relies heavily on ideological influence from hegemonic powers. Throughout most of this post, I will be referring to hegemony as the power that American government, big business, and mass media combined hold over all other diverse social institutions and groups in America, in particular, women. That being said, anything that affects women effects others as well. Laws and regulations lie within our social institutions, in our government, that dehumanize targeted individuals. Hegemony maintains its power through our internalization of these laws and representations of society, implications of what our identities should be. (Lull)

This hegemony was present at the time of Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas.

The American Feminist Movement gained momentum in the 1850’s with conventions breeding mass-petitions held in states where feminists were loud; New York, Indiana, Ohio, and Massachusetts. While certainly operative in their efforts, there being unprecedented circulation of critical topics such as women’s education, women’s rights going through divorce, property rights, and women’s suffrage, strict gender roles interrupted their progress. Women were not afforded suffrage rights until nearly 70 years later, and even then, only white women gained these rights. Much like it does today, mass media during the Feminist Movement upheld stereotypical ideologies. Today, if we take a look at the industry of music videos we can easily identify the ideology of women’s sexualization, like we see here and here. Everyone certainly internalizes these images, men learn to see women as sexual objects and women learn that their value is determined by their sexuality. However you can observe in your everyday life women defined by much more than their sexuality, although I have had a fair share of personal experience with objectification, I know at least that my value as a student is not measured by my sexuality, and that not all the men who surround me see me as a sexual object. Still, music videos today perpetuate ideologies that misrepresent our entire society and its nearly impossible not to internalize some of these messages.

Fredrick Grimke asserts that tabloids during the 1850’s Feminist Movement misrepresented the movement by including stereotypical depictions of the ‘feminist’ woman who believed, according to these deceitful tabloids, “women should participate in “men’s” occupations not only to the same extent but with complete similarity of workplace lifestyle, social customs, and behavior.” The widespread publicity given to this movement was most often a falsified publicity. Women’s oppression persisted through antebellum America and into the Civil War despite mid-century reform of white women’s property rights. In this time, hegemony was most ubiquitous in the institution of marriage. This relationship between man and woman was predominately patriarchal. Laura C. Holloway, in 1871, spoke for women’s rights against the federal government in a weekly women’s rights newspaper, The Revolution, and stated the common experience of women at the time:

The immense majority of women are engaged in the same round of simple, but incessant domestic occupations; are separated from each other, and never come together in bodies to discuss their condition, or do anything to make their lives brighter, or to dignify existence, and render it something more than laboring machinery. (Holloway in Thomas)

Government policy undoubtedly manipulated these marriages in the way of influencing rigid gender roles. (Françoise)

So in this democratic republic, where a majority of individuals participated in peaceful practices to exercise their right to free speech and demand additional freedoms, hegemonic practices of federal government and mass media played a larger part in structuring ideologies than the masses.

Equality is so difficult in process in part because democracy breeds hegemony, subsequently producing inequality.

Walt Whitman, in his ambiguous piece “Democratic Vistas” plays both a victim of hegemony as well as an exemplar of counter-hegemony. In many ways, the thought process in this work reveals Whitman as ahead of his time.

For my part, I would alarm and caution even the political and business reader, and to the utmost extent, against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry, &c., (desirable and precious advantages as they all are,) do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success. With such advantages at present fully, or almost fully, possess’d — the Union just issued, victorious, from the struggle with the only foes it need ever fear, (namely, those within itself, the interior ones,) and with unprecedented materialistic advancement — society, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten. Political, or law-made society is, and private, or voluntary society, is also. In any vigor, the element of the moral conscience, the most important, the verteber to State or man, seems to me either entirely lacking, or seriously enfeebled or ungrown. 

 The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.

Here, Whitman, unlike many others throughout time, meditated all aspects of American democracy, offering his critiques punitively while also impressively upholding a particular sense of nationalism. He rebuked the hegemonic actions of these institutions, and in an act of counter-hegemony, asked the majority, the artists, the commons people, all men, to create a stronger power to unify themselves against the leading hegemonic powers. In this way Whitman was a revolutionary and a constructivist. A constructivist is aware of the ideologies that have been in place, yet questions them, in order to create new ideas which do not do away with the old ones completely, but rather maintain whatever value they see that exists within the previously held popular ideas and create more value by adding new thoughts and methods to test out new ideologies.  Whitman wanted to contemplate what was and attempt to preserve the value of tradition but also use his experiences to imagine a more idealistic future.

Still, Whitman’s luxuriously brave declarations inexorably lead to contradiction.

Whitman is justifiably duped by hegemony. Hegemony is not a direct stimulation of thought or action but a framing of all competing definitions of reality. (Lull) To an extent, everyone who works under a hegemonic dominance will not be able to escape it simply because hegemony gains and retains its power by creating a false reality.

Whitman knows very well the true meaning of equality, as he states it in this piece, “and with equal rights guaranteed to even the poorest and humblest of our forty millions of peopleAnd yes, Whitman’s proposals to American women arguably took a progressive tone.

Democracy, in silence, biding its time, ponders its own ideals, not of literature and art only — not of men only, but of women. The idea of the women of America, (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady,) develop’d, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and, it may be, even practical and political deciders with the men — greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematical attribute — but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments; or, rather, capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring themselves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth, as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.

However, Whitman was by no means the first or the most radical in the feminist movement. Echoing the chief ideology of gender roles and femininity, a woman was only humanized under the condition that they are maternal, negating his previous definition of equality. And the only thing of value that set women apart from men was maternity, but in all other spheres they would be best off trying to imitate men.  Again, here:

But a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men — and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman out of these incredible holds and webs of silliness, millinery, and every kind of dyspeptic depletion — and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race, a race of perfect Mothers — is what is needed.

Many spectators of Whitman’s work, like Vivian Pollack, author of The Erotic Whitman, who sought to analyze Whitman as a respondent of his time, similarly determined, “I see Whitman as having internalized the fierce antagonisms of his age and as fighting himself, among others, to create a more authentically “friendly” nature.” In the same piece, under a section titled “In Loftiest Spheres” Pollack accurately summarizes the intersection of Whitman’s feminist and anti-feminist proclamations.

…Whitman’s disruption of his claims to empower women by situating them in social roles in which they are always poten-tially subordinated to men.[1] For complex personal and cultural reasons, Whitman tended to collapse the many possibilities contained in the word “Woman” into the single word “Mother,” and then to extol the preemi-nence of maternal work over other contributions that women might make to culture, especially those that depend on self-determining thought and self-determining language. As we have seen, the erotic idiom of Leaves of Grass is rich and varied, but the idea of motherhood typically suggests a positive identity to the poet who resists “anything better than [his] own diversity” and who “moisten[s] the roots of all that has grown” (LG 1855, pp. 41, 46). I will argue that however necessary the figure of the good mother-muse was to Whitman’s “scattering” psyche, for women readers this motherist function can be oppressive as well as empower-ing.[2]Consequently…his resistance to linguistically totalizing norms and his reaffirmation of the mid-nineteenth-century American cult of the mother, which celebrated maternity as any woman’s supreme destiny and which, to a significant degree, depended on a code of silence about the unloftiness of the lives many women were living. The tension between Whit-man’s embrace of the new (for example, the fully audible female voice) and his embrace of the old (for example, the institution and practice of idealizing maternity as a depoliticizing, universalizing trope) has, I be-lieve, interpretative power for other vexed issues in Whitman’s poetry, all of them having to do with his ambivalence toward the cultural changes that he himself was helping to inaugurate.

This inspection is not to devalue the work of Whitman, for, as examined, it is a rarity that an individual recognizes, and even more atypical for them to antagonize, the hegemony that indisputably constructs portions of their identity.

But is it not often found in literature, the grappling’s with internal struggle, the recognition of the matters that define a particular moment in time?

And although frequently tainted by some illogicality, still, these intimate and critical essays are exactly what democracy should look like.


Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Web.

Françoise, Basch. “Women’s Rights and the Wrongs of Marriage in Mid-Nineteenth- Century America.” Hist Workshop J. 1986; 22 (1): 18-40. doi: 10.1093/hwj/22.1.18. https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article-abstract/22/1/18/620238/Women-s-Rights-and-the-Wrongs-of-Marriage-in-Mid?redirectedFrom=PDF

Grimke, Frederick. “Free Institutions 2d: On Women’s Rights – An Awkward   Silence.” The Rights of Women in a Democratic Republic: A Modern Edition, Introduced with Commentary by Donald F. Melhorn Jr. Archway Publishing, 2016. Print.

Lull, James. “Hegemony,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media. Edited by Gail Dines and Jean Humez, 61-63. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press, 2003. Web. https://keene.instructure.com/courses/593807/files/45330858?module_item_id=10940780

Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 2000. http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=kt067nc4vr&brand=ucpress

Thomas, JD. “Women and Their Work in 1871” Malvern, PA: Accessible Archives Inc, 2017. Web. http://www.accessible-archives.com/2016/03/women-and-their-work-in-1871/

Whitman, Walt. Ed. Justin Kaplan. Democratic Vistas: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982. Web. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/whitman/vistas/vistas.html