Essay, Research Paper
“What does a woman need to know?” Adrienne Rich asks. More powerfully articulate than any other statement in her speech, Rich combines a searching personal integrity and self-identification with a passion to change the future. First spoken to the 1979 graduates of Smith College, I believe that Adrienne Rich s well-known words are capable of changing lives, even in 1999. The emphasis in her speech, “What Does a Woman Need to Know?” is on the re-construction of the female s position in society. Rich successfully challenges the graduates of Smith and women everywhere to self-examine their limited knowledge, their ethics, and their accountability of the power they hold, through which women can locate what they need to “call up” the voices of their past and move forward into liberation. The “rich” text, fueled by her use of questions, commanding style and syntax, description of personal experience, and her connection between the past and present, succeeds in motivating any audience into contemplating their place in society.
Rich opens her speech by questioning the graduates in order to guide the graduates focus and allow them to realize how much they individually need to learn. In addition to the title, Rich s first five minutes are filled with question after question. “Doesn t she need a knowledge of+?” Rich asks, posing such topics as a woman s power, history, and abilities. Her questions seem to pound into you, trying to rise out of your core something that you left previously uninvestigated. The questions successfully allow you to interact with Rich s speech, becoming instead of a passive listener, an active participant. The audience becomes aware and joins in, examining their selves by answering and responding to Rich s questions. This ingenious use of the interrogation draws the audience in, captures their attention, makes them participants in her speech, and successfully motivates and persuades the audience to agree with Rich s opinion about the female society.
Rich s speech, backed by vivid prose, forces the audience to become involved in their own self-examination. Actively conversing with the audience, Rich addresses them directly: “some of you,” “only if you,” “you are,” etc., demanding that the audience face her speech head-on. With these definate addresses to each audience member, Rich successfully affirms that there will be no shying away from the woman s responsibility to re-examine her female person. You come to realize that you will be held accountable for what knowledge you do not learn.
Rich s concluding paragraph invites the graduates to assess their education with verbs such as try, learn, risk, become, and remember. These verbs of strength, future, and hope invigorate the graduates into leaving Smith with not just their education, but the promise of using it to gain their privilege, their necessary limited tokenism, and the power to redefine the place of women in society. By choosing the vocabulary and words that she did, Rich leaves the audience feeling as if they should be responsive to her speech, as if they need to go out and risk theirselves in order to become a better woman. In addition, Rich uses these words to describe the type of women who are role models, women who have succeeded before us. “Learn to be worthy of every woman of every class+” Rich suggests. Once again, she brings up that notion of “learn,” a tsk that everyone has the priveledge to succeed at.
Rich backs her essay with personal experience, allowing her to lend credentials to her claims and persuasions. “Everything I say to you on this subject comes hard-won from the lips of a woman privileged by class and skin color+” Rich invites the audience into her life, her past, and her struggles to overcome the domination of a patriarchal society. She connects these personal claims and experiences with the audience, illustrating how to connect their existence with hers, learning from her struggle, but also teaching them that they can overcome their own. Rich discusses her outsiders eye and the conflict she had with her father s instruction, lending an example of the oppression women can experience, hidden under the watchful training of the male population.
By connecting the past oppressions of women and discussing the obstacles that present women face, Rich is able to provide grace to what may seem like a overwhelming task: liberation of the female society. The audience is able to experience and relive what past women have gone through, giving hope by sharing in those experiences. This successfully elevates some of the weight that an audience member might feel by Rich s daunting challenges. The past helps us realize that we are not alone, we do not bear a burden of self-examination and female reconstruction single-handedly; it has been faced, challenged, and accepted by many women before us, and will be by many in the future. Until every woman is liberated, no one will be.
The visual images that Rich presents, those of knowledge, ethics, and power, combined with the recurrent image of liberation, leave you stunned and changed. Rich causes you to re-examine your self-identity, ethics, and knowledge about both women s past and their future. You actively respond to Rich s speech- which is what makes it so successful in inspiring others. It asks you, forces you to search within one s self to understand fully what social forces have shaped your individuality and then locating that self in the world, understanding the true nature of masculine domination. With this speech, Rich, through her stylistic choices, brings females to a new responsibility for our actions, for the very act of living day by day itself.