Women in Academia: Carol Ann Duffy

Women in Academia is a reading group initiative by the Women & Politics society created to highlight women in (surprise) academia, by reading academic texts written by women in humanities and discussing them on a bi-weekly basis. 

Last Wednesday we had our first reading group of 2020! This year our focus is to incorporate a wider selection of texts and to move towards other non-academic works such as poems and short stories. 

We discussed Penelope and Delilah, two poems from Carol Ann Duffy’s anthology The World’s Wife. This is a collection of poems which re-presents female figures in myths and stories and relives these tales through the female perspective. 

The first poem we discussed was Penelope. In Greek mythology, Penelope is best known as being Odysseus wife. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is the traditional embodiment of fidelity, she ignores and waves aside her many suitors and chooses to wait for her husband to return from war. We discussed how Duffy subverts the traditional narrative and creates a new voice for Penelope. In this poem Penelope is not fixed as his widow and she constructs her own identity independent of being his wife. We touched on how she takes up this feminine activity of embroidery and appropriates it for herself. Her embroidery is not for the purpose of furnishing the house or to sell, but it is solely for her. The topic then went into how grief becomes a performative act and how women are expected to languish after their husbands when they go to war. They are somewhat paralysed in their identity because even in their husband’s absence they are still defined by their relationship to him. The poem ends with a defiant Penelope who continues to embroider even as her husband returns and, her only concern and fixation becomes her work of art.  

Similar to Penelope, Delilah is another mythologised female figure. In Biblical accounts, Delilah is a prostitute who is told by Philistine rulers to deceive Samson so she can find out what makes him so strong in order to weaken him. In Duffy’s poem, the story of Samson and Delilah is not one of trickery and deceit but a story of vulnerability and intimacy. We noted the difference in how intimacy between the two is presented. Even though the poem centres Delilah’s voice it is clear that sex is only for his pleasure and he asserts his dominance through objectifying her.

Outside of sex there is a notable power shift, Samson is presented as vulnerable and in need of a protector. We talked about what narratives have been privileged historically, and the importance of Duffy’s reframing as it calls into question how women have been presented without being able to control their own narrative. Traditionally there is a very Manichaean presentation of women, they are totalised figures who are either good or bad. They are the idealised wife who waits faithfully for her husband like Penelope or they are evil tricksters like Delilah who are downfall of good men. Duffy’s poems are so fascinating precisely because she breaks this binary representation and captures the complexity of female figures in history.

We noted that when Delilah locked the door in order to cut Samsons hair, it was not to trap him in but to protect him from the outside world. We discussed whether by cutting of Samson’s hair is Delilah actually liberating him from the weight of expectations rather than weakening him. Maybe what is presented as Samson’s strength is actually the source of his own ruination. Unlike the Biblical presentation, where Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair which leads to his demise, him losing his hair might uncover his true strength as he allows himself to be gentle and crucially, genuine. 

This was an illuminating discussion and these poems became a springboard for other topics such as the ways in which women are expected to perform their femininity, the consequences of women being marginalised and unable to control their own narratives (and the US primary !)

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