Historical Context in Protest

Historical Context Examples in Protest:

Protest 14

"man..."   (Protest)

Recall that Wilcox’s use of the word “men” in the second line of the poem can be read in a few different ways. Since the term “man” has historically functioned as a general term for all of humankind (like “mankind”), we can read this line as a general claim that no human being can call this land “free” if the conditions above have not been met. However, if we read this line as a specific reference to the male gender, then the line may suggest that men cannot call this land “free” while that freedom is only available to a privileged few.

"fettered..."   (Protest)

The term “fettered” means “bound with fetters,” or “chains.” Although slavery was abolished in 1865, African Americans were not given the right to vote until 1870 by the 15th amendment. However, this amendment aimed to grant this basic freedom to African American men only, and the South enforced literacy tests, poll taxes, and various other obstacles to ensure that they actually could not vote. The 19th amendment, passed in 1920, granted women the right to vote. However, while the amendment technically included African American women, state laws disenfranchised African American women, once again barring many from voting. Thus, at the time Wilcox was writing in 1914, the basic freedom to vote was only guaranteed to white males, and as long as one person is neglected this right, Wilcox suggests, there is no true freedom.

"children and childbearers..."   (Protest)

Building on the previous line, Wilcox names two marginalized groups who suffer from “wealth-protecting” laws: children and childbearers. These two choices are important, because children are simply born into certain circumstances with no control over their conditions or environment. The word “childbearers” refers specifically to women, who have historically been marginalized and placed into roles that prevent them from gaining wealth and status that men have access to in a patriarchal society.

"And given back to labor..."   (Protest)

Wilcox’s stated desire to return land “back to labor” hits on a couple key points. First, she has highlighted the imbalance between those who work the land and those who profit from other’s work of it. Since land and soil are meant to be worked, then the only people who have any claim to it are those who perform the work. Second, “labor” alludes to the socialist movements happening at this time, in which the proletariat (working-class people) were seeking better wages, working conditions, and political representation.

"men..."   (Protest)

The word “men” historically has been used to refer to humanity in general, and we can read it that way in this opening line since Wilcox’s claim applies to everyone. However, considering that Wilcox herself was an activist during the women’s suffrage movement, we can also interpret it as referring specifically to the male gender. Wilcox builds her argument on the knowledge that many men refuse to speak up about women’s rights issues because they see themselves as exempt from and unaccountable for the inequalities that oppress women. In this reading, Wilcox argues that women’s silence on issues of gender inequality could “make cowards out of men” because their own silence tolerates the silence from the male majority, or in other words—silence breeds silence.

"May criticise..."   (Protest)

The use of “may” in this section emphasizes that we have the legal right and permission to protest against oppression in any form. Reminding the people that they have a government-protected right to protest actually serves a valuable purpose because many other countries around the world did not, and still today do not, guarantee this right.

"Press and voice may cry..."   (Protest)

This selection begins with two components related to the importance of speech: “voice” refers to the people’s ability to speak out, and “press” refers to the media, known as the fourth estate, who provide valuable checks on governments and other organizations by disseminating information to the people. Since Wilcox says that “[p]ress and voice may cry loud disapproval,” she is illustrating the importance of their ability to vocalize and protest against injustice and oppression.

"Speech..."   (Protest)

When she says “Speech,” Wilcox is referring to the first amendment in the US Bill of Rights that guarantees the protection of free speech. Wilcox rejoices in this fact since protesting is a powerful form of speech expression.

"guillotines..."   (Protest)

Guillotines are no longer used for capital punishment for many reasons, but one that bears mentioning is its status as a barbaric practice. Different types of devices, like the guillotine, have been used to torture and separate body parts. Wilcox’s choice of “guillotine” then not only brings to mind the success of the French people overthrowing their aristocracy, but it also alludes to the historical mistreatment of people and the horrific punishments that abusive governments and religious organizations have enforced.

"guillotines..."   (Protest)

A guillotine consists of a heavy blade that drops from a height to slide between grooved posts and sever whatever lies between the posts. It was introduced in France in 1789 to serve as a form of capital punishment, and it is most associated with the French Reign of Terror (1793–1794) during the French Revolution.

"yet would serve the law..."   (Protest)

When Wilcox says that “the inquisition yet would serve the law,” she is saying that had people not gained knowledge, fought against injustice, and protested greed, then oppressive church doctrine would still have control over the enforcement of law. As seen during the Spanish Inquisition, when a religious organization has control over law enforcement, marginalized people suffer.

"inquisition..."   (Protest)

While the Spanish Inquisition is possibly the most well-known example, in general an inquisition refers to an organization that mercilessly enforces Catholic orthodoxy by repressing rights, censoring books, and suppressing what they called “heresies.” Such heresies frequently targeted women and minority groups within the countries where inquisitions occurred. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish women were limited to the following roles: nun, housewife, and mother. Other roles were considered a defilement of Spanish culture.

"To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men...."   (Protest)

This famous, opening line has historically been misattributed to Abraham Lincoln. This is largely because of a speech that General Douglas MacArthur gave in 1950 after he was relieved of his command during the Korean War.

"To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men...."   (Protest)

Wilcox’s “Protest” opens with a strong claim: we are cowards if we make the mistake of being silent when we should protest. While Wilcox’s specific protest comes shortly, it is important to recognize the historical context around the poem’s 1914 publication: it was the height of the women’s suffrage movement, the start of World War I, and socialism had become a real political force.