As anyone who’s taken a high school English class can tell you, poetry has always been used to show deep and often conflicting emotions. Maybe that’s what makes it the perfect vehicle for talking about the experiences of being a woman. These thirty-five poems all center around each poet’s experiences of womanhood, whether that means questioning it, celebrating it, raging against it, or some combination of the three. So, without further ado, here we go: thirty-five feminist poems to empower and inspire you.
Still I Rise (Maya Angelou)
Would it even be a list of empowering poetry without a mention of Still I Rise? This is one of the most inspiring poems I can think of. Angelou somehow manages to be realistic about the judgment that comes from being a confident and sexual and free woman without being pessimistic. Instead, she laughs at those who doubt her and continues, as the title of the poem suggests, to rise. If there’s one poem on this list that I would encourage every woman and girl to read, it would be this one!
As women, we’re taught to forgive. We’re taught to question our anger and hurt. Though there is definitely merit in forgiveness and understanding, there’s also merit in knowing your own worth and what you will (and won’t) tolerate. You wouldn’t believe the changes you’ll see in yourself once you start surrounding yourself with people who want you to be your best self.
Don’t Cheapen Yourself (Jana Harris)
There comes a time in every woman’s life when she rejects the character society expects her to be, whether that be the straight-laced Good Girl (as in Harris’ case), the Not Like the Other girl, or any other patriarchy-approved role. Women are judged for being too flirty, too serious, too driven, too maternal- why shouldn’t we just give it all up and be what we want?
Today I Asked My Body What She Needed (Hollie Holden)
We’re so bombarded with movies, advertisements, and influences who tell us we need to have flat stomachs, clear skin, a great ass, a tiny waist. The list could go on forever. One of the best ways to combat that is to do just what this poem says: ask your body what she needs and then actually follow through.
Untitled (Morgan Harper Nichols)
Do a quick Google search for “feminist poetry” and you’re sure to find dozens of poems commending women for their positivity and confidence, their hope in hopeless situations. But it’s just as important to remember that we don’t always have to be happy or brave. And that when we’re not, we’re no less important.
Diving Into the Wreck (Adreinne Rich)
I first discovered this poem when I was a freshman in college. I didn’t get it. But over the next few years it would come to be a poem that caused me to seriously contemplate, grieve for and celebrate womanhood in equal parts. When we look past all the patriarchal social norms and accepted definitions of womanhood, what does being a woman really mean? This poem is great not because it answers this question but because it recognizes that it can’t, instead asking us to look within ourselves to determine the true nature of femininity.
Interview (Dorothy Parker)
First, let me just say: I have no issues with women who do follow the little list Parker gives us for the behavior of Ladies Men Admire. That being said, doesn’t Parker’s way seem a bit more fun. Bold makeup, late nights and erotic poetry. What’s better than that?
Untitled (Nayyirah Wahid)
This poem might be short and sweet, but it still manages to provide perspective into the importance of self-love and self-care. Loving yourself doesn’t just change the way you think about yourself, it changes the way you think about the entire world around you.
poem in praise of menstruation (Lucille Clifton)
One of the most basic ways we can learn to embrace ourselves as women is to embrace the things that society rejects in us. Clifton takes the time in this poem to present something polite society tells us never to mention and shows how it connects us not just to some other women, but also to the moon, tides and nature itself.
All the Good Women Are Gone (Susan Nguyen)
Though it’s important to embrace the beauty and mysteries of being a woman, it’s equally as important to read works about the uncertainty and worries that also come with it. Nguyen’s casual, questioning writing style almost feels like a friend asking you for advice, making it that much more cathartic when the final lines finally sink in.
Untitled (Becca Lee)
Though Instagram is often thought of as a superficial app promoting vanity above all else, any woman in her late teens or twenties can tell you about the feminist creators and poets who have begun using the platform in the past few years to create a corner of the Internet just for women. Among them is poet Becca Lee, whose poetry focuses on the cathartic and transformative experiences of different women. In the above poem, Lee calls on us as women to take a cue from the world around us and take up as much room as we need.
Untitled (Rupi Kaur)
It’s impossible to mention the burgeoning feminist poetry scene of Instagram without mentioning one specific poet: Rupi Kaur. Kaur may have captured the attention of the American literary scene with her 2014 best-selling collection titled Milk and Honey, but her following really began on Tumblr and Instagram where her poems spoke to and inspired young women across the country. In this untitled poem, Kaur reminds us of one of the most important aspects of coming into our own as women: recognizing the worth in the women around us.
Among Women (Marie Ponsot)
Like Rupi Kaur’s untitled work, Among Women by Marie Ponsot explores the way we as women view the women around us. A look at the narrator’s grandmother reminds us of what we too often forget: that we are one individual in a long line of women who have always searched for freedom and independence.
Untitled (Cheryl Hale)
The hardest part of embracing your power as a woman is recognizing the ways you’ve been harmed by it in the past. But, like the poem says, sometimes opening yourself up to grief is the only sure way to truly be free of it.
Legacies (Nikki Giovanni)
The connection between women is one of my favorite things about being a woman, but that doesn’t mean female relationships are always easy. When I think of my relationship with my own mother, I think of all the ways I failed to communicate what I really meant when disagreeing with her and imagine what she really meant when she argued back. Legacies mulls over this generational divide, showing how unspoken attempts to teach self-sufficiency compete with desires to hold onto comfort and connection.
From the Ashes (Nikita Gill)
Like Rupi Kaur and Becca Lee, Nikita Gill is another Instagram-based poet and author whose works attempt to deconstruct the ways women are socialized. From the Ashes is my personal favorite from her, concisely and powerfully describing how women struggle to reorient their lives around themselves, despite being taught to give and compromise at all times.
Difference of Opinions (Wendy Cope)
Men are always going to think they know more than you. That’s just a fact of being a woman. Ignore them and trust yourself.
After (Safia Elhillo)
The reality of living as women, especially for women of color, is that it gets tiring having society constantly try to control you. Sometimes, the most cathartic feminist poetry is not the poetry that tells you how to smash the patriarchy and breakaway, but the poetry that simply gives up on this world and looks for another.
To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall (Kim Addonizio)
There’s something so comforting about knowing what our patriarchal society tries so hard to suppress: that there are other women out there who are breaking down, making mistakes, looking for answers and ugly crying in a bathroom stall. Recognize this, internalize this, and then go out there and make those women your friends because they, in my experience, are the best friends to have.
I Worried (Mary Oliver)
I Worried, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver, is a poem that each of us should repeat out loud every morning before starting our day. This poem really is such a call to all women to stop worrying about what people think of your body, of your relationship status, of your career and to just simply be.
For the Women Who Are Difficult to Love (Warsan Shire)
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the brilliant poet Warsan Shire, you might recognize her most famous collaboration: writing the poetic interludes for Beyonce’s Lemonade. While each of those pieces is amazing in their own right (who among us can forget the first time they heard Beyonce say: “Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks”???), Shire's solo works are just as provocative and moving. In For Women…, she takes us through the process of learning how to exist without male approval, and to do so happily.
The House (Warsan Shire)
I’m including another by Warsan Shire for no reason beyond that I think she is amazing and I’m the one compiling this list. This poem takes on conceptions of the female body and society’s obsession with it, viewing it as a house that not even the speaker herself fully understands, complete with trapdoors, locked rooms, and imprisoned ex-lovers.
won’t you celebrate with me (Lucille Clifton)
Existing as anything but a white cisgender straight man is tiring, to say the least, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be filled with joy! Every day you exist without conforming to society’s antiquated demands is a day worth celebrating, in both Clifton’s and my own opinion.
60 Songs About Quilting (Sammie Bordeaux-Seeger)
This poem travels in an almost stream-of-conscious fashion, taking the reader through Bordeaux-Seeger’s musings on the concept of being authentically Native, the comfort and worth to be found in so-called “women’s work,” experiences of sexual assault, and mathematics. It’s one of those poems that might be good the first time you read, but is even better the second.
The Concert (Edna St. Vincent Mallay)
Edna St. Vincent Millay is certainly the oldest poet on this list, but that doesn’t mean her works don’t still speak to the struggles we face as modern women. The Concert, one of her most famous works, relays a conversation between a woman and her lover as she shakes off his patronizing attempts to accompany her to a concert to “protect” her. I guess some things never change.
Who Said It Was Simple (Audre Lorde)
It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: feminism is worthless if it’s not intersectional! Who Said It Was Simple may be short, but it manages to powerfully convey not just the ways in which white women are often unaware of the way their status is used against other groups, but also of the experience of a Black woman, trying to navigate what it means to be judged for both race and gender, an intersection that is often overlooked by mainstream feminism.
Lady Lazarus (Sylvia Plath)
For those unfamiliar with Plath’s work, I will let you know in advance: this poem is a downer. But in a world where overly emotional or mentally ill women are often reduced to two-dimensional caricatures, there’s something really powerful about Plath’s determination to talk candidly and unapologetically about her own serious mental health issues. Lady Lazarus reminds us to refuse to be a side character in our own story (and also to rise up and “eat men like air,” which is pretty cool too).
Untitled (Alexandra Vasiliu)
The most radical thing we can do as women is to slowly and painstakingly change the way we think about ourselves. Do yourself a favor and start being kind to yourself. You’d be amazed at what comes from it.
The Woman Dies (Aoko Matsuda)
Poems are a powerful thing because they present an abstraction of our reality, shifting images and words around until we see ideas in a completely new light. In The Woman Dies, Matsuda shows us how female characters are written, dying over and over to further male character development or to avoid their own.
My Brothers Have Not Read Little Women (Scarlett Curtis)
Speaking of the media we consume, why is it that women are expected to be able to relate to male protagonists but media with female protagonists is deemed “chick lit” or a “chick flick”? Here’s my big idea: let’s take all books that center around straight cisgender white boys out of the school curriculum and force men to think of us as the main characters (I’m joking...a little...maybe).
What They Don’t Want You to Know (Amanda Lovelace)
This poem is just what it says in the title and then some. It’s a poem about things society doesn’t want women to know but, moreover, it’s a poem about things I wish I’d known as a woman growing up. Imagine how nice it would be to know that having your body grow and change was not something to be ashamed of, but something to be celebrated!
Untitled (P. Bodi)
It’s impossible to turn anywhere nowadays without ads and influencers telling us to just love ourselves as we are. But while loving yourself unabashedly as a woman in society is definitely a radical act, it doesn’t happen overnight. This poem, though short, serves as a guide for those who haven’t yet reached the end goal of fully loving themself.
Howl (Amy Newman)
While I love the original Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Newman’s take on it really highlights how the literary canon largely ignores women while claiming to represent all of humanity. This poem casts the experiences of women in an almost reverent light, showing both the ways society tries to ruin women and the ways they save (and sometimes ruin) themselves.
Ode to the Belly (Lauren K. Alleyne)
One of the most important lessons I learned growing up was to stop trying to convince myself I would have the “perfect” body and start loving my body as is. “Ode to the Belly” captures a nice in-between space on that journey, simultaneously thinking about the female body as something to be corrected and learning new positive ways to think about it.
Service (Ada Limón)
The core message of this poem has always seemed to me to be: stop waiting for permission and take what you need in any way you can. We as women don’t get told this nearly enough, and the imagery from the final lines of a girl lifting her skirt and just pissing on the concrete has always stuck out to me as something to admire and aspire to.