Themes in Protest

Themes 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.

"purchase ease for idle millionaires..."   (Protest)

Wilcox’s use of the verb “to purchase” here represents the capitalistic society in which she lives. That the work of laborers can buy comfort for millionaires who do not toil is a powerful condemnation of wealthy elites who are born into a privileged status. Since the marginalized people of society are forced to do the work that those of a higher socioeconomic status would find undesirable or grueling, the words “ease” and “idle” operate on both a physical and psychological level. Wealthy people can “purchase” their own emotional and physical health and safety, and the marginalized essentially become human capital.

"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.

"Call this the land of freedom..."   (Protest)

Notice that this last line is also the shortest line in the poem. The missing syllables leave the reader with a sense of incompleteness that mimics the very desire for action and change that has been Wilcox’ subject. Just as the reader waits for the end of the line, Wilcox waits for her conditions to be met, for her protest to be heard, and for the land to truly become free.

"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.

"manacled..."   (Protest)

Manacles are bonds, shackles, or restraints that go across the wrists or ankles and bind movement. By saying that babies are born with these, Wilcox creates a powerful, figurative image. These are not literal manacles; rather, they represent the privileged forces that restrict the social movement and progress of children born to marginalized groups.

"Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link. ..."   (Protest)

The English proverb “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” has provided a valuable metaphor throughout history. In this instance, Wilcox builds on the idea that a whole cannot be strong when one part is unhealthy. Notice though, that Wilcox says “rusted” instead of “weak.” Rust carries connotations of “forgotten” or “neglected,” and since Wilcox is saying that the marginalized and oppressed need to be heard, the implication being that the concerns of less privileged groups have historically been forgotten and neglected.

"Therefore I do protest against the boast Of independence in this mighty land...."   (Protest)

After emphasizing the importance of protest in the first stanza, Wilcox now delivers her own specific protest: No one can praise the independence of the United States while women and marginalized groups continue to suffer from unjust laws that protect and serve the interests of privileged groups and the avarice of capitalism.

"The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws..."   (Protest)

Wilcox makes a strong condemnation of the regulations that protect the wealthy. The use of the oxymoron, “lawlessness of laws,” emphasizes this point. Laws that protect only a wealthy elite only serve to oppress and do not serve a true, lawful purpose in protecting the rights of all.

"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.

"our..."   (Protest)

The inclusive pronoun “our” brings readers directly into Wilcox’s argument, which is a rhetorical strategy that keeps the message personal instead of creating distance by using “their.” Also, “least disputes” refers to those concerns and problems that do not require systemic changes. Therefore, the impact of this line is how the powerful could have used the guillotine to “decide”—which, given the finality of its purpose, means “end”—the outcome of all disputes, large or small.

"The human race Has climbed on protest...."   (Protest)

Wilcox claims that the vehicle to equality and justice is protest. This image of the human race climbing adds to that claim on a couple levels. First, climbing is an upward movement, which is often used to represent social progress. Second, climbing is difficult movement, especially in contrast to walking or riding. Wilcox therefore reminds us that protesting is a struggle, but it is the most effective way to achieve social progress.

"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.