Protest

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. “The precious one” here probably refers to a child, and the “burden” to childbearing. Wilcox suggests that childbearing should be the only hardship that women have to face because childbirth is the inherent, natural burden connected to their sex. This assertion in turn condemns the social hardships placed on women as these burdens are constructed by men rather than nature.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. By referring to the land as “God’s soil,” Wilcox emphasizes that land ownership either belongs to everyone or no one. The use of “rescued” also vividly illustrates how the greed of the wealthy have stolen this land for themselves and privatized it for their own gain.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. 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.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. These two words, “gag” and “throttle,” both refer to the silencing of voices and speech. The verb “to gag” literally refers to placing a gag, like a piece of cloth, into someone’s mouth in order to prevent speech. It can also be used figuratively to refer to being silenced in general. The verb “to throttle” not only means to choke or restrict airflow from a subject, reducing the ability to speak, but also it refers to repressing or preventing someone from speaking or expressing an opinion.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. The adjective “vested” in this context refers to power that completely and unconditionally has been guaranteed as a legal right, benefit, or privilege. For example, an elected leader has vested power because the position she has assumed has rights and powers that are supported by a governing organization. In this line, Wilcox uses the adjective for emphasis to stress that the freedom of speech cannot be taken away even by those who have such powers because this freedom is guaranteed in the US Constitution.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. The repetition of “speak” in this line provides a rhetorical emphasis on the process of protesting, creating an urgent tone during this call to action. Daring to speak is important, but in order for real change to occur, protesting must be understood as a process that requires constant vigilance.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. While “lust” can bring to mind sexual desire, the word more generally refers to a strong desire to possess something. Lust, like avarice or greed, is considered sinful or immoral behavior because it places more value on possessions than on people.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. A lack of awareness, education, and knowledge is a general definition of ignorance. Wilcox’s inclusion of ignorance with these other three emphasizes a belief in the value of knowledge. One of the best ways to protest against ignorance is to spread knowledge, since unjust actions can be more readily unturned when enough people have the correct information.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. The noun “injustice” generally refers to a wrong or unfair action that violates an agreed-upon notion of what is fair and just. However, as we’ve seen throughout history, the definition of what constitutes fairness and justice has often been debated.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  28. After making her initial claim that protesting is important to human advancement, Wilcox then supports this by stating what would have happened had people not actively protested. By supporting a claim with evidence, even hypothetical evidence about past events that did not happen, Wilcox adds power to her claim by reminding readers of what has been accomplished and what has been avoided.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  29. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  30. A “sin” is an act that goes against divine law, offending God or violating religious or moral principles. Wilcox herself was no friend to religious orthodoxy, and so the use of “sin” in this line should be read more generally: “It is a grave mistake to be silent.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  31. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  32. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor