‘To Inez Milholland’ a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

On this last day of March, the Friday Poem is ‘To Inez Milholland’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay; reminding us to “to take up the song; forget the epitaph”.

In 1987 Congress designated March as Women’s History Month. Thirty years later, the month has not been a good one for women, with one bright exception. On March 23 the State of Nevada ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, thirty-five years after the 1982 deadline set by Congress.

March is also the time of year that hundreds of U.S. school children visit Washington D.C. and traverse the Capitol rotunda. For many it’s their first encounter with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, as they pass the portrait monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Missing from the statue is Inez Milholland Boissevain. “A rare woman, she earned a Law degree at NYU and promptly became involved with the labor strikes of the Women’s Garment Workers and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory struggle. Throughout her life, Inez worked and fought for the underrepresented and the oppressed.”

In 1916, Inez was on a cross country campaign in support of a federal suffrage amendment when she collapsed and died while delivering a speech in Los Angeles. Her last public words, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”

On Sunday, November 18, 1923 a ceremony was held in the Capitol to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the women’s rights movement. Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay Boissevain (yes, she married Inez’ widower) was part of the group of 200 women who participated in the event. The day before they had presented proposed new legislation, written by Alice Paul to the president – The Equal Rights Amendment.

“The “poem” that Edna read is the sonnet “The Pioneer,” which encouraged women to continue to fight for equal rights. It is unclear if Edna wrote the lines about Anthony, Stanton, and Mott (the pioneers in the marble statue) or about Inez — or about all of them. However, by 1928, Edna had retitled the sonnet “To Inez Milholland.”

To Inez Milholland

Upon this marble bust that is not I
Lay the round, formal wreath that is not fame;
But in the forum of my silenced cry
Root ye the living tree whose sap is flame.
I, that was proud and valiant, am no more; —
Save as a wind that rattles the stout door,
Troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate.
The stone will perish; I shall be twice dust.
Only my standard on a taken hill
Can cheat the mildew and the red-brown rust
And make immortal my adventurous will.
Even now the silk is tugging at the staff:
Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1923

Three additional links of interest @the end of Womens History Month

‘A Trove on the Women’s Suffrage Struggle, Found in an Old Box’ The New York Times, March 29, 2017

New York Historical Society Center for Women’s History

Inez Milholland ‘Forward Into the Light’

The Friday Poem ‘To the Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman

Last night a woman accepted the nomination of a major political party for the first time in the history of the United States. The next president will preside over the commemoration of the centennial of the 19th amendment, which extended suffrage – the right to vote, to women.

To mark history, the Friday Poem this week is ‘To the Indifferent Women’ and was first published in 1911. Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman called herself a humanist. She was a poet, author, magazine editor and feminist in a lifetime that began with the civil war and ended in the great depression.

Although the words were set to paper over a century ago, the message resonates today.

“We all may have our homes in joy and peace
When woman’s life, in its rich power of love
Is joined with man’s to care for all the world.”

To The Indifferent Women

A Sestina

You who are happy in a thousand homes,
Or overworked therein, to a dumb peace;
Whose souls are wholly centered in the life
Of that small group you personally love;
Who told you that you need not know or care
About the sin and sorrow of the world?

Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes? —
That you are licensed to avoid the care
And toil for human progress, human peace,
And the enlargement of our power of love
Until it covers every field of life?

The one first duty of all human life
Is to promote the progress of the world
In righteousness, in wisdom, truth and love;
And you ignore it, hidden in your homes,
Content to keep them in uncertain peace,
Content to leave all else without your care.

Yet you are mothers! And a mother’s care
Is the first step toward friendly human life.
Life where all nations in untroubled peace
Unite to raise the standard of the world
And make the happiness we seek in homes
Spread everywhere in strong and fruitful love.

You are content to keep that mighty love
In its first steps forever; the crude care
Of animals for mate and young and homes,
Instead of pouring it abroad in life,
Its mighty current feeding all the world
Till every human child can grow in peace.

You cannot keep your small domestic peace
Your little pool of undeveloped love,
While the neglected, starved, unmothered world
Struggles and fights for lack of mother’s care,
And its tempestuous, bitter, broken life
Beats in upon you in your selfish homes.

We all may have our homes in joy and peace
When woman’s life, in its rich power of love
Is joined with man’s to care for all the world.

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman  ‘Suffrage Songs and Voices’ 1911

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Convention photo credit: Marcus Yam for The Los Angeles Times