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On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Cary Nelson

Lucia Trent opens the 1929 poem "Breed, Women Breed" with a blistering mock-injunction for women to produce children for male ends:

Breed, little mothers,
With tired backs and tired hands,
Breed for the owners of mills and the owners of mines,
Breed a race of danger-haunted men,
A race of toiling, sweating, miserable men,
Breed, little mothers,
Breed for the owners of mills and the owners of mines,
Breed, breed, breed!

Although Trent's poem moves forward relentlessly through three more stanzas tonally in keeping with the one above, it is clearly grounded in an unstable mix of anger, anguish, and contempt--emotions directed not only at the men who manage the institution of motherhood within capitalism but also at the women who collaborate with it. Only by wholly rejecting both capitalism and patriarchy can we gain any relief from the gender dynamics she critiques, and that is precisely the recognition she seeks. Biology, economics, and male power are part of one interlocking system, one overarching productive and constraining mechanism. If we are to change any of it, we must change it all. Trent is willing to risk offending part of her audience because there is nothing to lose. No modest gains, no hedged alliances, can alter the mutually reinforcing structures she describes.

All these poems attacking conventional gender roles and power inequities are also implicitly written against conventions for representing male and female interests and identities. Occasionally representation becomes the explicit focus of critique and sometimes the weapon is satire. There is certainly a satiric impulse behind Trent's "Breed, Women Breed," even though it is not the only sentiment informing the poem, and the risks inherent in satire are apparent not only in the aggressive triple command that ends the stanza but throughout. One of the risks, of course, is that the poem becomes merely an instance of the thing being satirized.

from Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.

Ryan Cull

Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" is characteristic of a neglected series of haunting poems from the 1920s that approach the subject of maternity from the perspective of the working-class. Other notable examples of this sub-genre include Genevieve Taggard’s eloquently understated "With Child" and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s harrowing prayer for a stillbirth "Motherhood." While Johnson became one of the most significant female poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Taggard and Trent were both deeply involved in the radical politics of the left and wrote poems that considered matters of race and economics in addition to women’s issues. Drawn from her third volume of poetry Children of Fire and Shadow, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" unflinchingly identifies how motherhood has been used as a source of political and economic oppression, while also pointing towards a way that maternity, and perhaps female sexuality in general, could be used instead as an important source of social change.

Trent tells us, in her polemical tract "More Power to Poets" (also quoted on MAPS), that "the experience of maternity makes a woman reach out beyond self to the child. . . .Her sacrifice for new life both in bearing and rearing children helps fit her for the poet's post as prophet and as interpreter of the future to the present. Her preoccupation with children also helps her fill the poet's role of giving voice to the inarticulate." And yet she goes on to inform us that, "in a contest we ran in Contemporary Vision [a magazine that Trent and her husband edited] for poems on pregnancy the winning poem and the majority of the most profound poems were by men. This does not mean necessarily that men are better poets or better equipped to handle this theme, but that women are more inhibited as yet." Trent, in this text, never really explores the possible sources of this inhibition. Instead, she exhorts her peers to follow the example of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and gather together to form a "larger battalion of women singers marching as standard-bearers of a more decent civilization."

One could read Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed," however, as a possible response to her own query about why women of her time may have felt "inhibited" from writing about maternity. Her poem presents the topic, especially for women of the lower classes, as being imbued with a dark irony, for the creation of a wholly new life is treated as just a source for spare parts. Thus, where the essay focuses on her idealistic hopes, the poem examines depression-era realities. And what she sees is not a "battalion" of empowered "women singers" helping to create "a more decent civilization" but rather a nearly helpless mass of "little mothers." These unidentified and undifferentiated women are utterly lacking any control over their own fate. Far from being poets in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they have no voices (as individuals or as a chorus) and are characterized in the most coarsely animalistic fashion: by their physical condition and their economic utility. Trent’s description of these women is intentionally minimalistic. They are reduced to being merely "tired backs and tired hands" to go along with "sunken eyes and. . .sagging cheeks." After having been worn down in both body and spirit, these women nevertheless are forced to give what they have left: the procreative capacity of their wombs.

In this poem, thus, the incessant mono-syllabic repetition of "breed" is by design meant to be crudely mechanical. In using this technique, Trent’s poem recalls Walt Whitman's Civil War poem "Beat Beat Drums." Like Whitman’s work, Trent’s poem begins each stanza with the same imperative phrase, which then may lead into a series of other terse commands ("Breed. . ./ Offer. . ./Wrack. . ."). She, thus, exchanges Whitman’s mechanical drumbeat of war for the mechanical heartbeat of a human assembly-line. And such monotonous droning increasingly encourages the reader to interrogate these unemotional, impersonal orders and the voice behind them.

The focus of Trent’s cultural critique is callous corporate capitalism and its influence in both business and politics. The poem horrifically presents maternity as just another cog in the machinery of the elite, whether it be for "the owners of mills and the owners of mines," "the bankers" or for the governmental "war lords." Being of no further physical and mental usefulness, these poor "little mothers" become a source of another type of labor. They are invited to "offer" and "wrack [their] frail bodies with the pangs of birth" to supply the next generation of workers, so that the hopeless cycle may go on. For Trent, this use of maternity is less a form of prostitution than it is an example of outright enslavement that will grow with each generation, encompassing successive mothers and their offspring. These children are fated to be an equally faceless "race of aenemic, round shouldered, subway herded machines," suitable for use as the cannon-fodder of the "war-lords" or as generic fixtures to be plugged into the system.

But as much as Trent criticizes the elite, she also reveals a certain uneasiness or frustration towards these women. Although she empathizes with their plight, she describes these "little mothers" as having a "faith patient and stupid as cattle." Trent feels the need to stir these people beyond what she views as an all too patient passivity. It is this unreflective submissiveness, and not their childbearing, that the poet finds regrettable.

Lest this accusation seem unfair, it is only a single line, more than counter-balanced by the indictments surrounding it. But, even within its limits as a single accusation, it is an unyielding assertion by Trent that these mothers do retain a measure of agency that can never be fully taken from them. Though she does not blame them for the possible fates of their children, she also does not remove from them a special kind of maternal responsibility to do what they can to produce social change. This fundamental refusal to accept sheer economic determinism underlies the poem. And it is evidenced by Trent’s rhetorically shrewd decision to write the poem as an address pointed towards the "little mothers" and not the mill-owners, bankers or "war-lords." "Breed, Women, Breed," thus, becomes a double-edged sword: both a fierce accusation of injustice towards the oppressor and a potent call to arms directly addressed to the oppressed.

Near the conclusion of "More Power to Poets" Trent declares, "let us have poems that strip off masks of hypocrisy and sham, poems for the advance of women, of labor, of all humanity!" "Breed, Women, Breed" attempts to do just this. Though her hope of establishing a "battalion" of working-class "women singers" never may have been fully realized, her poem is significant as a brutally honest account of the sometimes dehumanizing economic policies and practices that were the festering darkside of the roaring twenties.

Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull

Meg Boerema

Challenging not only men’s authority over poetic discourse, but also dominant narratives of modernism’s break with sentimentalism, Lucia Trent in "More Power to Poets" (see MAPS page "Lucia Trent on Women Poets") argues radically for the sentimental function of poetry and for women’s poetic expertise: "For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of women." For Trent, women’s claim upon sympathy/poetry, depends upon women’s capacity for motherhood since mothers, as Trent argues, "learn unselfishness--a basic requirement of true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life." Trent’s outward-looking sympathy then is not a personal sympathy of a private domesticity (she despises the "tea-table topics" of many women poets), but a public sympathy of politicized collectivity; it’s the sympathy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not of Hallmark’s greeting cards. Locating women’s poetic authority in an idealization of women’s maternity, Trent in "More Power to Poets" rearticulates sentimental ideals of motherhood to political advantage: to claim women’s poetic expertise. Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" similarly evokes sentimental ideals of motherhood for political purposes. Reducing maternity to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" challenges bourgeois ideals of motherhood to incite readers’ outrage against capitalism and its vulgarized motherhood. Like the politicized sentimentalism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" garners much of its revolutionary political force through its threat to that conservative, middle-class ideal: motherhood.

"Breed, Women, Breed" devastates romantic ideals of motherhood by denying its mothers’ agency and by locating their sexuality in its capitalistic function. Women in "Breed, Women, Breed" have no control over their reproduction (for Trent the "dark side" of pregnancy: "Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood" (More Power to Poets). Women are compelled to "Breed, breed, breed!" (line 8 and 24) and have no ability to protect their children once born. Moreover, in "Breed, Women, Breed," women’s sexuality is solely (re)productive, imagined as producing "a race of danger-haunted men,/A race of toiling sweating, miserable men," (lines 4-5) "a race of machines" (line 12). Here, women’s sexuality exists not in a romantic relationship with a lover, but in a capitalist relationship with "the owners of mills and the owners of mines" (line 3), "the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men" (line 11), "the devouring war lords" (line 23). Reducing women’s sexuality to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" figures maternity as a sort of prostitution, a painful affront to those invested in romanticized ideals of a protective motherhood.

Yet though the poem everywhere denies the existence of a romanticized motherhood, it nowhere denies motherhood as an ideal. Rather, "Breed, Women, Breed" critiques capitalism by appealing to bourgeois ideals of motherhood and by soliciting a sort of maternal sympathy from its readers. Just as Eliza’s son should not be sold to slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sons of the mothers in "Breed, Women, Breed" should not be sold to "the terrible masters of men" (line 11 and 22): the owners, bankers, and war lords. "Breed, Women, Breed" then--much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin wherein Eliza appeals, "’Have you ever lost a child?’" (149)--figures the reader as a sort of surrogate mother. The reader, called upon to perform as that agent mother absent from the poem, cannot possibly continue to allow her children to become "a race of toiling, sweating miserable men" (line 5). "Breed, Women, Breed" then does not contest a bourgeois valuation of the maternal relationship, but depends upon it. The problem, as the poem imagines, is not that motherhood is a false ideal (it’s not that mothers don’t care what happens to their children), but that the ideal is denied by capitalism (it’s that mothers don’t control what happens to their children).

Motherhood then, as it was in much of 19th century American sentimentalism, is central to the political performance of sympathy in "Breed, Women, Breed," and even motherhood’s centrality to the poem’s rhetorical appeals can be read through its political performance. As Jane Tompkins argues of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sensational Designs:

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts the central affirmations of a culture into the service of a vision that would destroy the present economic and social institutions; by resting her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family, Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. (145)

Jane Tompkins’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be easily read towards Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"; only in "Breed, Women, Breed," I would argue, the center of power rests not in kitchen, but in the bedroom. Power extends even here, and it is here, the poem argues, that women shall exercise their complicity or resistance.

Copyright © 2001 by Meg Boerema

Cristina Stanciu

Compulsory Maternity in Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"

In her incisive article on the condition of women poets in a male-dominated canon in the early 1930s, Lucia Trent finds womanhood a handicap rather than a source of creativity, and bitterly exclaims, "The wonder with a woman working in the arts is the same as that with a performing dog, not that she can do it well or ill, but that she can do it at all" (see article on MAPS). Obviously, this idea has been orchestrated on different levels by other female voices of the time, and represents an instance of female resistance of the "ungifted sisters" to conventional gender roles. However, unlike other "sisters"* promoting the emancipatory image of the "New Woman" (higher education, living wages, birth control; see DuPlessis 3), Trent operates in "Breed, Women, Breed" at a subversive level. Assuming the pose of the "performing dog," with an apparent submissive resignation in the eye (albeit using traditional female issues), Trent undermines the very tradition that feeds the dog ("the owners of mines," "the masters of men," "the war lords") and makes a political statement through images that are usually associated with the female domain ("frail bodies," "the pangs of birth," "the tired backs"). Consequently, "Breed, Women, Breed" is a rebellious cry for a different kind of creativity, a different use of the female body, and a cultural critique of the masculinity of the poetic enterprise.

Forty-one years after Trent, in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975), Hélène Cixous pleads for an écriture feminine, the writing of the female body, so as to transcend a masculine libidinal economy that governs Western thought and literature:

Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. […] By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display. […] Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard. (2039-43)

Cixous’s feminist manifesto thus suggests that women should reclaim their bodies – the only cultural signifier they possess – and "write" them, taking control of their own bodies. As feminist critics have repeatedly underlined, the woman’s body is not only a text of culture, but also a direct locus of social control. Similarly, in "Breed, Women, Breed," Lucia Trent seems to signal and condemn the docility of female bodies and engage them in a collective social protest, rendered through revolutionary suggestions and a sardonic tone:

"Breed, little mothers, / With a faith patient and stupid as cattle, / Breed for the war lords, / Offer your woman flesh for incredible torment" (14-17).

Moreover, since women’s writing of the social text has been minimal historically, the allusion to "little women," nineteenth-century female writing, has a sarcastic connotation here. Trent’s programmatic poem becomes an advocacy of women writing themselves, writing their "frail bodies" (18). By reclaiming agency over their own bodies/identities in an era when Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement instituted a different stage in women’s relationship with their own bodies, Trent’s speaker simultaneously signals the abuse of women’s bodies (as breeders) and the possibility for women to reclaim their bodies. Thus, a subtextual reading of "Breed, Women, Breed" may be, in fact, "Write, Women, Write!"

Trent’s poem is programmatic as much as Cixous’s feminist manifesto in that it identifies the cause of women writers’ alienation from poetry in their (imposed) alienation from their own bodies. Trent’s images of "little women’s" bodies – hence little, not-cared-for bodies – depict them as instruments for the mechanical reproduction of the work force (I use this term generically, rather than limited to the working class). The "woman flesh," offered almost in a sacrificial gesture for "incredible torment," does not glorify birth, motherhood, and an identity defined by the reproductive function, but suggests the need for a different use of the female body. Contemporary fellow poet Genevieve Taggard also approaches the idea of women’s alienation from their bodies and describes the pangs of compulsory maternity in similar ways to Trent’s: "Now I am slow and placid […] / Torpid, mellow, stupid as a stone" ("With Child" 1921). Similarly, Trent’s deliberate use of the breeding process with a specific destination ("TO BREED FOR") is an allusion to compulsory maternity. However, her rebellious voice and final intensification of her cry (in the final line she uses an exclamation mark, which does not appear in the title) calls for an aesthetization and sexualization of the female bodies, and a poetry which is called to write the real body of the woman. Thus "Breed, Women, Breed" becomes a cultural and political cry for recognizing female cultural agency.

The sarcasm of the speaker (who is not gender-defined) is suggested by the very title of the poem, which imposes a necessary repetition in order to signal the word’s negativity. In other words, the vehemence of the imperative "breed," used twenty-two times throughout the poem, coupled with the fate of the "race of danger-haunted men" -- the products of the "frail bodies" – cries for a necessary change (I would propose, "Stop breeding!"). The repetitive use of "little mothers" may suggest, as Ryan Cull has aptly remarked in his analysis, their lack of voice; they are characterized by their physical condition and their economic use value in the capitalist system -- and the grotesque, bovine allusions to the 19th century pattern of womanhood are quite explicit, especially when the speaker’s tone becomes ruthless in the third stanza and voices a crude sentence: "stupid as cattle." However, "little mothers" (and not just "mothers") may also be used to signify their paradoxical positioning in a world they create physically but do not have full access to, due to the gender barrier. Ultimately, their "little" contribution to the world of "sweating, miserable men" (identified by male occupations: miller, miner, banker, warrior) is ironic, since they "breed" not only the victims of this world (the socially disadvantaged class), but also the victimizers.


*Trent identifies in her polemic article three categories of women’s poetry at the time: 1) the "strong-brained" or, in DuPlessis’s term, the "logopoetic" type (38); 2) the "minor melodist" type, identified with the majority of women poets writing about feminine interests, i.e. "conventional women absorbed with tea-table topics"; 3) the neither mannish nor conventional type, exploring "human needs and suffering." Although Trent doesn’t define her role/place in the long tradition of female writers -- as does Amy Lowell in her celebrated poem "Sisters," where the split with the tradition is apparent – she seems to adhere to the third type of poetry writing.

Works Cited

Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 2035-56.

Trent, Lucia. "Breed, Women, Breed." Anthology of American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York:Oxford UP, 2000. 376-77.

Copyright © 2003 Cristina Stanciu

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