The simple fact that so many women have used male pseudonyms to find a publisher shows the differences that gender forces on writers. Mary Ann Evans chose to write under the name of George Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott wrote as A.M. Barnard, at least when she was writing her dark short stories. Lest you think that this is an eccentric oddity of the 19th century, it is instructive to remember that a publisher told Joanne Rowling that boys would enjoy reading about Harry Potter more if she published it as a more masculine J.K. While both women and men appear comfortable writing about matters of sex in the twenty-first century, it was quite another matter in the 1800s. The works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman show the double standard at work for writers during the nineteenth century.
Helene Cixous' work The Laugh of the Medusa is her encouragement of a feminine sort of writing. It criticizes the phallogocentrism and logocentrism at work in much of literary criticism and interpretation. Her works focus on the importance of removing gender-based assumptions from writing, insofar as that is possible. Her arguments that bisexuality is a natural state, though, as they appear in her fiction and nonfiction are just as much an assumption as the patriarchal bias is, though. Even with this in mind, though, had she written a review of Emily Dickinson's “She Rose to His Requirement—dropt” and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, she would have noted the deeply seated double standard that allowed for such different degrees of candor when writing about matters personal and sexual.
“She Rose to His Requirement—dropt” describes the ways in which women had to take their own aspirations and dreams and set them aside. When she refers to “the Playthings of her Life,” she is not talking about a tennis skirt or champagne flutes at a girls' night out. Instead, she is talking about a woman's imagination, talents and goals for herself. The plight for women in the nineteenth century was a choice between marriage and penury, either living at the mercy of relatives or working a dreary sort of job as a domestic or, perhaps, a nurse, although that option did not appear until after the American Civil War. The chains of maternity and matrimony are what keep her aspirations “unmentioned – as the Sea / develop pearl, and weed. Rather than raise a challenge to the gender roles of her day, she uses a resigned sarcasm to talk about how a woman must “take the honorable Work / Of Woman, and of Wife.”
Whitman writes about the expectations of a relationship in the poem “A Woman Waits for Me,” from Leaves of Grass. While both of these poems share the similarity of the ballad structure, there the similarities end. While Dickinson’s poem seethes within the shackles that her culture placed on women, Whitman’s pounds its chest with the vigor of the liberated Transcendentalist man. The very title of the poem indicates the passivity expected in women. He opens with the claim that “A woman waits for me – she contains all, nothing is lacking, / Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.”
This is at the very least a highly controversial line, even published as late as 1900. The speaker follows this image up with an egotistical blast: “I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those women that are warm-blooded and sufficient for me; I see that they understand me, and do not deny me” Note the heavy use of first person pronouns in those two lines; they indicate the egocentrism of the speaker. These two poems clearly outline the imbalance in gender relations, not just in their subject matter, but in the dichotomy in attitudes: resignation as opposed to a heady arrogance. This opposition is not so far from the truth in gender relations in modern times as well.
dickinson, Emily. “She Rose to His Requirement.” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/she-rose-to-his- requirement/
Whitman, Walt. “A Woman Waits for Me.” http://www.bartleby.com/142/20.html