First published in the Morning Post, October 20 1911; also in the Ladies Journal, November 11, 1911. Collected in:
- The Years Between (1919)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 434
- Burwash Edition, Volume 25
Originally sub- titled “A Study in Natural History” this controversial poem describes the moral strength and single-mindedness of women throughout history, in familial and political contexts, in contrast to the weakness and vacillation of men. Gilbert Frankau sees it as being about “the essential fierceness of women” (KJ 017 April 1931). Kipling himself, in a note on The Years Between to his publisher Frank N Doubleday (March 18, 1919) remarks that it was: “well-known and likely to provoke some discussion, but based on the facts of human nature.’
The title and refrain are among the best-known Kipling quotes. The tone of the poem is, at one level, fear of female militancy, and hostility towards it.
In the early years of the 20th Century, the suffragette movement, led by Emmeline Pankurst and her daughters, demanding votes for women, was characterised by militant direct action: firing mailboxes, women chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and even setting off bombs, and the poem was clearly an anti-suffragette polemic. Carrie Kipling referred to it in her diary as ‘suffragette verses.’ (Andrew Lycett (p. 419).
Kipling’s feelings about women were complex and often contradictory, but he believed that female suffrage would weaken the Empire, and even wrote to a Canadian friend, Andrew McPhail, that women would “ruin their reproductive system by standing on their feet for hours and working” .(Andrew Lycett p. 420). During the Great War, when thousands of women worked in factories and on the land, they did indeed stand on their feet for hours, and in 1919 were given the vote.
Gilbert Frankau (KJ 017 April 1931) accused Kipling of being ‘antediluvian on the subject of women’ saying that he was born ‘in the pre-woman age.’
Peter Keating (p. 156) emphasises the stark contradictions in Kipling’s attitude to women, describing him as ‘a romantic individualist’ who ‘abhorred any restriction on individual rights…but seems never to have believed that universal suffrage was necessary or particularly desirable.’
Yet Charles Carrington (p. 409) notes Kipling’s ‘devotion to his mother and wife’ saying that that he was ‘no scorner of female intelligence.’
Notes on the Text
Nag the basking cobra The large black cobra in the story “Rikki Tikki Tavi” who is slain by Rikki-Tikki, the valiant mongoose.
his mate Nagaina in the story is Nag’s fearsome and vengeful wife. Rikki says of her: “She will be worse than five Nags”. But he slays her too.
Jesuit The Society of Jesus, founded in the 16th Century by Ignatius of Loyola; an evangelistic and apostolic counter-Reformation brotherhood. A byword for fearless dedication.
Hurons .. Choctaws … squaws Native American Indian peoples from North America. squaws were their women-folk.
very rarely … act This suggests that Kipling sees himself as such a rarity, who does just that.
proves…same a more direct reference to the Suffragettes.
Other Law…Law a central Kipling idea with many different aspects, some of which are conflated here: the natural law of survival and the protection of one’s young; obedience and responsibility towards family and community; the need for self-sacrifice.
She who faces…jest David Gilmour (p. 223) describes these lines as ‘a redeeming couplet; a justification for being deadlier’.
She can bring….mate ‘a delimitation of her role in the world’. Gilmour (p. 228).
femme…baron ‘femme’ can simply mean ‘wife’ or ‘woman’ (in French). ‘baron’ (a mediaeval Lord) suggests maleness and warrior nobility.
white-hot…wild..warring More patently militant images.
Must command….enslave him An overt reference to women’s political status.
©Geoffrey Annis 2011 All rights reserved