Five Feminist Poems for National Poetry Month: “The Washerwoman” by Mary Weston Fordham

My historical work on lesbian-feminism tends to cover work that happened in my lifetime, but with this selection of five poems to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reaching farther back into history. The contemporary scene of feminist poetry is vibrant and engaging—and so is the history of feminist poetry. This series offers five poems by women poets born between 1861 and 1922. A longer history of poetry demonstrates how feminists send messages across the ages.

Racism and the legacies of U.S. slavery mean that we know little about Mary Weston Fordham and her life, including when she was born, but it was likely that she arrived in the world around the time of Amy Levy, who we featured last week, in Charleston, SC. Her collection of 66 poems, Magnolia Leaves, included an introduction by Booker T. Washington.

Though published just 13 years after Levy’s collection, Magnolia Leaves may read easier for contemporary readers. Fordham writes with an American dialect more accessible to American readers. In the poem “The Washerwoman,” Fordham still uses language that is not currently in the American vernacular; “well-nigh,” “morn” and “larder” all make an appearance in the poem. The rhythm of the poem, particularly the language that evokes the labor that the woman engages, rub—rub—rub and toil—toil—toil, feels contemporary and urgent.

Fordham portrays the body and the mind of a working woman in “The Washerwoman.” She describes the effects from the labor of washing on the hands, back, muscles and bones of the woman in the first stanza. The second stanza describes the importance of her work for buying food and keeping fuel in the house. The final stanza, and particularly the final line, exposes a class analysis; Fordham highlights directly the different lives between rich and poor.

As a lover of contemporary poetry, Fordham’s poem reminded me of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s extraordinary collection, Inside the Money Machine; Pratt, like Fordham, gives voice to working women with keen politics reminding readers of the wealth divide in the United States.

The Washerwoman

With hands all reddened and sore,
With back and shoulders low bent,
She stands all day, and part of the night
Till her strength is well-nigh spent.
With her rub—rub—rub,
And her wash, rinse, shake,
Till the muscles start and the spirit sinks,
And the bones begin to ache.
At morn when the sunbeams scatter
In rays so golden and bright,
She yearns for the hour of even,
She longs for the restful night.
Still she rubs—rubs—rubs,
With the energy born of want,
For the larder’s empty and must be filled, —
The fuel’s growing scant.
As long as the heart is blithesome,
Will her spirit bear her up,
And kindness and love imparteth a zest
To sweeten hard life’s bitter cup.
But to toil—toil—toil,
From the grey of the morn till eve,
Is an ordeal so drear for a human to bear,
Which the rich can hardly conceive.

“The Washerwoman” is from Mary Weston Fordham’s collection, Magnolia Leaves: Poems (1897).



Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She's currently the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Julie's research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern CulturesJournal of Lesbian StudiesAmerican PeriodicalsWSQFrontiers and other journals; she is the author of the poetry collections AvowedLilith’s DemonsSisterhood and Handmade Love and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.