I really enjoyed Mr. Searles’s discussion and learning about Edna St. Vincent Millay and how open and honest she was about herself and her relationships especially since a lot of what she said and did would still be controversial today. One of my main questions after learning about Edna St. Vincent Millay and her poetry was what was society like during her life and what were other women in America doing?
The period between 1890 and 1920 was labeled as the Progressive Era. Women had an extremely important role in the progressive movement and used the movement to advance women’s rights and gender equality. At the end of the 19th century women formed the argument that if they were entrusted with protecting and taking care of the house, then they should be allowed to have an input on education and public sanitation which affected the home environment. Women began joining organizations and working together to have an impact on legislation and economic problems and to show the men that they were capable of having intelligent input and that they should be given the opportunity to participate in government. These organizations became known as “clubs” and the number of women’s clubs across the country grew exponentially. There were fifty women’s clubs in Portland, Maine alone in 1890 (Portland is roughly two hours from Camden, Maine where Edna lived). All the clubs were focused on different areas, but they all had the common interest of women working together to become active members of society and to prove that they were worthy of rights and holding public positions outside of their home. In the early 1900’s Margaret Sanger, a nurse in the U.S., published articles about birth control and created the National Birth Control League which with the help of Mary Dennett became the Voluntary Parenthood League. Women fought to abolish trafficking, prostitution, some pornography. Women also tried to promote laws that would hold men accountable for the same sexual standards that women were and to give women rights such as refusing sex within marriage.
Edna was clearly a very progressive women and even though there was an entire movement during her life she was very ahead of her time. Even today there are very few people that are as open and careless and confident in who they are as Edna was. In my entire life I have only ever known one girl in my generation to be openly bi-sexual, and yet this century is considered to be far more progressive and accepting of people than in the past. Edna, however, was proud of herself and open about her extensive sexual encounters and her bisexual preference. She was married to Eugen Jan Boissevain for 26 years, but it was an open marriage. The idea of an open marriage is not something I can fully wrap my head around, but the most common explanation of it is: an extremely progressive concept that ironically deepens a bond between spouses because it allows them to explore others sexually while also trusting one another and allowing one another space and yet remaining extremely connected. Today open marriages are more common, but still extremely rare. Most people strive to find “the one”, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after. And an open marriage does not fit into that scenario. Affairs are considered deal breakers for most people, although some are able to patch the broken trust after one partner cheats on the other, but most people do not choose to be in an open relationship.
Edna’s poetry reflects her freedom and openness about sex, love, and relationships. In “What Lips My Lips Have Touched”, Edna talks about her endless stream of lovers who come and go and whose names are not remembered, but that the experiences are. Towards the end of the poem the mood shifts to sadness because all the joy, love, and ecstasy is gone and just the memories remain. Edna states that, “summer sang,” in her but that it, “sings no more” (Millay 13-14). She uses the past tense, “sange,” to show that at one point she did experience the, “summer,” and she was happy and carefree and experiencing a variety of sexual encounters and then she states that now she does not have any of that. All she has left is the memories of the experiences.
In his presentation Mr. Searles kept referring to the idea that Edna believed that the feeling of being loved and loving somewhere was the most important, and that it did not matter who it was, what their name was, or if they were male or female. It was simply about the feelings between the two people. That is why Edna was open to being with either gender and also being with so many people at once. All she wanted was the feeling of love and the ecstasy that came with sex. All of her poems defy the stereotypes of women in most societies. Typically women are supposed to be with one man and any sexual relations are in some senses taboo because the woman is afraid of being shamed by others. Even here at Govs when a girl gets with a boy the entire school finds out about it within a couple of days because it is considered “hot gossip”. People are intrigued by it. If a girl were to hook up with multiple boys in one weekend, everyone would be talking about her and calling her names and making her feel as though she did something wrong. Yet boys get with more than one girl and are commended by other guys, and that is where the sexual double standard comes from.
Some people believe there is a biological explanation for why women search for just one male partner and men appear to desire numerous female partners. In psychology the parental investment theory asserts that the sex with a smaller parental investment will be more vigorous in mating decisions while the sex with the larger investment will be much more conservative and careful with who they choose to mate with. The parental investment refers to what each sex has to invest in terms of energy, time, survival risk, and forgone opportunities. The investment of females is much greater than males and this is what some people believe answers the questions of why men appear more likely to engage in numerous sexual relations with a variety of women some of whom they barely know.
There are a lot of discussions at govs and among friends about the sexual double standard, and while it would be much easier to blame it on just males, I think that females play a large role in it as well. We are all guilty of rolling our eyes or making a face or calling a girl a name or saying how “gross” she is after hearing the latest gossip of who she hooked up with. We set ourselves up to be shamed because we do it to each other. The males play a role in the shaming because they too call girls names or say a female is “disgusting” because of who she hooked up with and a lot of males encourage and even promote hooking up with multiple girls. The problem, however, is not the promotion because we all have the right to be with whoever and however many people we want as long as it is a respectful and reciprocated event. The problem lies in the shaming of people for their sexual choices. Not all men promote hooking up with multiple people or disrespect females for their choices and not all females shame one another for who they hook up with, but as a general statement I think that we are all guilty of shaming others for who they hook up with. I also think it is more common among males than females to congratulate one another for “getting” with multiple people and it appears more common for females to look down on one another for who others have been with. The sexual double standard is prominent in all societies across the world and has been for a long time. In 1960 Ira Reis published a book about the sexual double standards called, Premarital Sexual Standards in America: a sociological investigation of the relative social and cultural integration of American sexual standards. It is a problem that has persisted and it does not seem that there is an instantaneous solution to it, but starting with bringing awareness to the problem and to the actions that contribute to the problem is the first step towards ending the double standard.
Source for historical context: