The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy

” I can envisage no much better service,” Walt Whitman(May 31, 1819– March 26, 1892) composed in contemplating the mightiest force of resistance in times much more troubled than ours, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” To Whitman, who stated himself ” the poet of the lady the same as the man,” the gravest weakness of democracy was the artificial, culturally manufactured inequality of the genders, which he acknowledged not only as a corruption of democracy but as a corruption of nature. Equality for him, be it of the genders or the races, was never a matter of politics– that toy of the human animal– however a matter of naturalness. Because he saw how heavily interleaved our specific self-respects are, how interdependent our flourishing– saw that ” every atom belonging to me as good comes from you”— he took it upon himself, a century and a half before his society did, to conserve democracy from politics, standing up for the rightful balance of dignity and power. Anne Gilchrist– the unheralded genius whom Whitman appreciated as “a sort of human miracle” belonging “to the times yet to come”– spoke for the dates when she asked: “Who but he could put at last the best meaning into that word ‘democracy,’ which has been made to bear such a burthen of incongruous concepts?”

Walt Whitman (Picture by Mathew Brady, early 1860 s)

Whitman tossed himself at righting– naturalizing– the gender imbalance of democracy not despite his maleness but specifically because of it. At the heart of his commitment to equality was an astute insight into the paradox of power: the understanding that no socially and politically marginalized group– not even a biological majority– transfers to the center solely by its own efforts; it takes a gravitational pull by those kindred to the cause who are already in relative positions of power or advantage. It was a countercultural understanding in his time, and stays a countercultural understanding in ours, its negation ahistorical: Citizens assisted us immigrants acquire legal rights and defenses; white ladies like astronomer Maria Mitchell and literary titan Margaret Fuller were on the ideological front-lines of abolition, some even on the literal front-lines of the Civil War

Long before the term feminism wove itself into the contemporary lexicon, America’s most well known poet (though perhaps the second-greatest) became an outspoken feminist. In his 1888 poem “America”– a reading of which is the only making it through recording of his voice— Whitman eulogized his homeland as a “centre of equivalent daughters, equivalent boys.” He included this poem to his constantly modified and expanded Leaves of Grass in the final years of his life, however flowing through it was the pulse-beat of a longtime conviction: As a young man, Whitman was greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller– among the central figures Figuring— whose epoch-making book Lady in the Nineteenth Century catalyzed American ladies’s emancipation movement. Clippings of Fuller’s columns for the New-York Tribune, where she became the first female editor of a major American paper and America’s first foreign war reporter, were discovered among Whitman’s papers after his death.

Almost twenty years after Fuller radicalized society, however long before her legacy assisted females win the right to vote, Whitman composed an extremely prescient essay on the obstacles to democracy, consisted of in the essential Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose( free ebook| town library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a uncommon 1913 edition of Leaves of Turf (Available as a print)

Firmly insisting that no democratic society could exist in which women are not paid for the same rights as guys, he wrote:

I have actually in some cases believed … that the sole avenue and methods of a rebuilt sociology depended, mostly, on a new birth, elevation, growth, invigoration of lady … Great, fantastic, certainly, far higher than they understand, is the sphere of women.


Of all risks to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having specific portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn– they not privileged as others, however degraded, humiliated, made of no account.

A century prior to Adrienne Rich argued for literature as a force of women’s empowerment and a kind of resistance to male capitalist society, Whitman required the creation of a new American literature that would be as much an original art form as a tool of social change. Amongst “the most precious of its results,” Whitman visualized, would be “attaining the whole redemption of female … and therefore guaranteeing to the States a strong and sweet Female Race.” Art, he resolutely believed, was the ultimate catalyst for social improvement and betterment:

The literature, songs, esthetics, & c., of a country are of significance mainly because they furnish the products and suggestions of character for the women and guys of that nation, and impose them in a thousand reliable methods.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a uncommon 1913 edition of Leaves of Turf (Offered as a print)

Whitman’s very first serious biographer, the excellent nature writer John Burroughs, keeps in mind in his exceptionally beautiful and loving picture of the poet, Whitman: A Research Study( town library| totally free ebook), that Whitman always heralded woman as man’s equivalent and never his plaything, property, or overdue domestic servant, constantly as capable of embodying the qualities Whitman most celebrated in human nature. Burroughs wrote:

I in some cases fulfill females whom I say are of the Whitman type– the type of female he conjured up and anticipated … They are pleasant, tolerant, friendly, believe no evil, satisfy low and high on equivalent terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of concerns and events, unbiased, supportive, frank, natural, good-natured … in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so entirely had Walt Whitman.

Burroughs put the equality of men and women as the crowning achievement of a more Whitmanesque society– the more democratic society of the future:

The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the outdoors and to genuine things, the more we value and comprehend our own bodies, the more the female becomes the mate and equal of the male, the more social equality dominates,– the sooner will concern Whitman fullness and fulfillment.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a uncommon 1913 edition of Leaves of Yard (Available as a print)

Whitman himself had actually composed in Leaves of Lawn:

The race is never separated– nor guy nor lady

gets away;-LRB-

All is inextricable– things, spirits, nature, nations,

you too– from precedents you come.


The production is womanhood;-LRB-

Have I not stated that womanhood involves all?

Have I not told how deep space has absolutely nothing much better

than the best womanhood?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse Offered as a print

Enhance with Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for mankind, then review Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it requires an agent of modification, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living

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