A Feminist "If"


A Feminist "If"
Anne Dalke
July 2007

  Rudyard Kipling
Not so long ago, frustrated at the slow pace of change, I quipped to a friend, "so much for the revolution." He responded with Kipling's advice to "dream--and not make dreams your master."

Provoked by this challenge to meet disappointment with more equanimity, I went back to read the source in its entirety. What struck me in this reading of Kipling's poem "If" was its stiff-upper-lipness, its strong urging that we use our will to manage the pain of life. What I noticed was its reliance both on consciousness and on conventional masculinity. I could hear the tough guy-ness of his advice.

Startled in particular by the assertion of the last line, that this is how a son can become a man, I set myself the task of writing an alternative, feminist "If," intended for both daughters and sons. I was looking to describe a life well lived, not by defending against emotion or its expression, but by being open to the leadings of the unconscious. I'm after a way of living that replaces Kipling's rather imperialist-sounding instructions with something more tender: a vulnerability, a willingness to be touched and changed by our encounters with the world within and without. Rather than a series of statements, it takes the form of questions.

And of course I welcome responses, suggestions, and further revisions.


A Feminist “If”

Can you keep your heart wide open
When all about you are closing theirs?
Can you trust yourself when all doubt you,
But make allowance for doubts and cares?

Can you wait and not be tired by waiting,
And being injured, don't hurt back?
Being talked about, don’t turn to baiting,
Hold friendship tightly, yet learn to tack ?

Can you dream--and not make dreams your mistress,
Can you think--and then revise that thought?
Can you meet with loss and not be listless,
Keep your temper when all’s come to naught?

Can you bear to hear what you have spoken
Twisted away from what you meant?
Or see what you’ve given your life to, broken,
And stoop and straighten what’s been bent?

Can you heap together all that matters,
And risk the whole on one coin toss?
See around you all in tatters,
Yet move beyond your pain and loss?

Can you gather life’s abundance
Without damage to the earth?
Use reason without redundance,
Without stinting joy or mirth?

Can you meet the day with expectation,
Yet not be discouraged when it falls short?
Can you greet the night without trepidation,
And welcome dreams of every sort?

Can you talk with others, yet hold your center,
Walk with others, yet keep your pace?
Know loving friends will hurt you, yet stay tender?
Then--may be--you’ll travel well through time and space.



Joe's picture

Yin and Yang

I was thinking about Kipling's poem "If" today and how I identified it as a blueprint for my life when I first read it in highschool some 40 years ago. The thought then came to me that the characteristics of compassion and kindness were never mentioned in the poem. My next thought was "I bet there's a feminist critique of the poem." Sure enough, a Google search quickly brought up this poem.Before I read it my thoughts were "Oh boy! Here we go!" However, I must say that my perspective quickly changed as I thought the poem was quite good and offers a nice balance to Kipling's poem. My quibble is that the commentary seemed to denigrate Kipling's perspective instead of simply acknowledging that there are other perspectives. I couldn't help but remember how the NYC firefighters were held in such high esteem during 9/11, as I spoke to many people at that time who were literally trembling in their boots and functionally incapacitated by their fear. The "stiff upper lip" and doing what needed to be done that these brave firefighters showed is consistent with Kipling's version. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of thought would be to acknowledge and embrace strengths from different perspectives instead of implying that other perspectives are lesser than our own.

Anonymous's picture


Why "Feminist", not "feminine", or "female"?

It seems like the label of "Feminist" isnt quite... fully accurate, to me.

Anne Dalke's picture

in conscious rebellion

Intriguing thought, one that got me mulling...

& remembering the literary critic Elaine Showalter, decades ago,
differentiating between three phases of women's literature:

  • the "feminine" (when women writers adopted the standards of male culture),
  • the "feminist" (the phase of their conscious rebellion against those standards), and
  • the "female" (when they tried to establish their role/nature as genuine, viable, creative, independent, and different).
Then came the post-female phase, when policing that difference got tiring, seemed no longer productive....

Using those distinctions, I'd say I thought of my poem as "A 'Feminist' If" because I wrote it in conscious reaction to/as correction of a poem that seemed to me stridently masculine/male.

Hm...now what's the masculine-equivalent of "feminist"?
"Masculinist" seems to describe the affirmation, not the critique, of masculine ways of doing-and-being....


Ann Dixon's picture

the sailing metaphor

I read it that friendship is an art requiring flexibility -- shifting direction as the direction of the wind shifts. 

It also requires attentiveness to what is required by the environment; it doesn't exist by itself or as a simple 
act of will by the individual.


gammyflink's picture

Your Poem

   I love your revision of Kipling's poem.  I clicked on the link but I am still puzzed by "learn to tack".  Can you clarify? Thanks.

   Barbara  '57

Anne Dalke's picture

Learning to Tack

It's a sailing metaphor--and I meant it to evoke the ability to be flexible, willing and able to change your course, in response to a change in wind or environment.

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