For Sylvia Plath’s Birthday, Looking Back at Women’s Reproductive Agency in Three Women

Sylvia Plath Three Women

Via British Library. University of Essex Theatre Arts Society: © University of Essex Theatre Arts Society, Richard Demarco Gallery: © Richard Demarco Archive.

Today—October 27th, 2016—would have been Sylvia Plath’s 84th birthday. Plath’s work is remembered for being many things, but one important aspect of her poetry that often doesn’t get enough attention is its complex depiction of motherhood and women’s reproduction. Looking back at Plath’s 1962 play in verse, Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices, it’s striking how well this piece speaks to our current political climate around reproductive rights—to Trump’s ridiculous claims about late-term abortion, his promise to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade, and to the widescale Republican war on women’s reproductive rights. It’s incredible, and terrifying that we’re still having this conversation. Right-wing anti-choicers could learn a lot from Plath’s play, which takes place in a maternity ward, and depicts—through three series of monologues—three distinct women’s very different experiences with pregnancy. The first is a married woman who’s excitedly welcoming her new baby; the second is a secretary who experiences a miscarriage, and the third is a student who places her child up for adoption. Plath’s play can be read as a meditation on the complexity of women’s feelings about pregnancy, why reproductive options are right and necessary, and why men, the government, and other structures of power really have no right to have any say about it.

Each of the play’s monologues hold equal weight within the piece, and the title, “Three Women,” conveys an equalizing recognition of all three perspectives on motherhood as valid, natural female experiences. Two of Plath’s women speakers have deep feelings of love for their unborn children—Woman 1 excitedly anticipates her son’s arrival (“I cannot help smiling at what it is I know./ Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.”) and Woman 2 feels shattered by the loss of her pregnancy (“I am dying as I sit. I lose a dimension.”). Woman 3, on the other hand, expresses feeling trapped by her unwanted pregnancy:

“I wasn’t ready. The white clouds rearing
Aside were dragging me in four directions.
I wasn’t ready.
I had no reverence.
I thought I could deny the consequence–
But it was too late for that. It was too late, and the face
Went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready.”

It’s of course notable that abortion is absent from Plath’s play, which was written over a decade before Roe v. Wade. Reading it, you can feel the lack of abortion as a viable, safe, legal option for addressing an unwanted pregnancy. Plath’s 3rd woman’s voice describes her pregnancy forming and continuing in spite of her not being ready to be a mother. Plath hints at the possibility of abortion through the 3rd woman’s regrets:

“I am not ready for anything to happen.
I should have murdered this, that murders me.”

I see Plath’s use of “murder” here as a bold and clear affirmation that abortion is not “murder” at all, as anti-choicers often claim—or, if abortion is “murder,” that it’s equally deserving of that judgment as the clearly metaphorical “murder” of the female self that’s committed by bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term. It’s not that both options are equally bad though; instead Plath’s Woman 3 speaker very clearly articulates that abortion would have been the better option for her. Perhaps because this option wasn’t safely, legally available to her, there’s a sense in the poem that Woman 3 finds difficulty in choosing adoption. Upon parting with her newborn daughter, Woman 3 is at once relieved to keep her own independence (“She is a small island, asleep and peaceful,/ And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye.”) and perhaps slightly haunted by her decision (“I leave my health behind. I leave someone/ Who would adhere to me: I undo her fingers like bandages: I go.”).

Sylvia Plath feminism

Unlike the simplified narratives of demonized women who choose abortion that Trump and other anti-choicers promote, Plath’s poem carefully maps out the conflicting, multilayered feelings of a woman who chooses to not keep her baby, in this case by placing her child for adoption. This narrative also serves as an important reminder regarding the anti-choice argument that adoption should be the go-to solution for all unwanted pregnancies—Plath’s Woman 3 illustrates some of the physical and emotional elements that make choosing adoption not always oh-so-simple. By placing Woman 3’s perspective of choosing not to be a mother alongside the more traditionally accepted role of mother as selfless nurturer, Plath validates both points of view.

Three Women beautifully captures the complexity of choosing not to be a mother, and equally gives rich dimension to the experience of choosing motherhood. Woman 1 embraces her role as a new mother (“I am a river of milk./I am a warm hill.”), showing an instant love for her newborn son: “What did my fingers do before they held him?/ What did my heart do, with its love?”

At the same time though, the play makes space for Woman 1 to also experience ambivalence, doubt, and fear around her new motherhood, with lines like “How long can I be a wall, keeping the wind off?” and “The voices of loneliness, the voices of sorrow/ Lap at my back ineluctably.” Rather than simply creating an either/or dichotomy between women who choose to be mothers and women who do not, Plath’s play complicates and expands our understanding of both perspectives.

In sharp contrast to Plath’s careful depictions of complex female characters with multilayered needs and emotions, the male figures in Three Women are often described by the female speakers as “flat.” This flatness brings even more definition to the play’s multi-dimensional female voices. Here’s Woman 2 describing her miscarriage while at work in an office surrounded by male coworkers:  

“When I first saw it, the small red seep, I did not believe it.
I watched the men walk about me in the office. They were so flat!
There was something about them like cardboard, and now I had caught it,
That flat, flat, flatness from which ideas, destructions,
Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed,
Endlessly proceed–and the cold angels, the abstractions.”

More than just one-dimensional characters, perhaps in distinctly non-female bodies, these male figures are flattening—they have a flattening effect on the women around them. They represent not just individual men as much as systems of patriarchal power that attempt to reduce—to bulldoze—women’s dimensionality:

“The faceless faces of important men.
It is these men I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are jealous gods
That would have the whole world flat because they are.”

The men in this poem can’t understand women’s experiences and perspectives around motherhood and pregnancy as multifaceted and containing ambiguities and contradictions. They’re scared of women’s true emotions and desires, and so they try to flatten out what they can’t understand. Looking at Three Women in the context of today’s anti-choice rhetoric and policies, there’s a clear parallel between men in power favoring abstractions over women’s lived experiences, and working to restrict women’s varied. layered, and ever-evolving sources of power.

Plath’s work often challenged conventional mothering narratives by claiming space for women’s complicated, sometimes difficult feelings around motherhood. The three voices in Plath’s Three Women can be read as three separate people, or as three different perspectives that have all been experienced by one woman at different points in her life. In either reading, Three Women reflects a variety of complex, multilayered women’s experiences around pregnancy and motherhood. Today, looking back on the play over half a century later, it serves as a clear reminder of how very capable women are of making our own choices around reproduction and motherhood, and of all that’s at stake when our reproductive agency is denied.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books + Literature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *