"Marks" by Linda Pastan
By the time Linda Pastan had written her poem “Marks” in 1978, the women’s rights movement had already earned women, among other rights, the right to own land, vote, work and hold public offices (Imbornoni), but it still had not given women the complete respect. Linda Pastan wrote many poems about daily life, often using mundane, common activities as a metaphor to describe a more complex topic (Paul and Philip). In her poem “Marks”, Pastan describes how a husband and children judge the wife and mother in the home by giving her grades for the activities that they feel she needs to carry out, as if the home were a school where the women gets constantly scored on her assignments. By the end of the poem, the woman declares that she is “dropping out” (Pastan 12), and Pastan shows how the role of the woman in the family is still second class to that of the husband and is still subject to the criticism of others.
Beginning back in 1848 with the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, women began advocating for better rights; their anthem being that “all men and women are created equal” (Stanton). The Declaration of Independence ratified earlier in 1776 declared very famously that “all men are created equal” but did not specifically mention women. Whether women are implied to be equal with men in that statement is not clear. Therefore, the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments set out to correct that by listing the many ways that women do not have equal rights with men. The majority of the sentiments deal with how when a woman gets married she loses many rights because the husband assumes total control over her. Also, unmarried women were looked down upon, and had lesser rights than men. These rights mentioned in the Declaration of Sentiments include the right to vote, to earn and hold wages, to gain formal education, to have equal divorce and custody proceedings, to possess equal civil and lawful status, and to hold public and religious offices (Stanton). Today, women have these rights. The women’s suffrage movement gained them the right to vote in 1920. The Equal Pay Act, signed into effect in 1963, secured women the right to earn and hold wages equal to that of men. Many court systems have laws that demand equal representation for women in divorce and custody proceedings that allow them the same rights as men. More modern concerns, such as abortion and lesbian rights, have also been gaining success. Such events as the court case Roe vs. Wade granted woman the right to safe and legal abortion. Also, many states are allowing same-sex marriages. However, has the complaint in the Declaration of Sentiments been answered? Through her poem “Marks,” Linda Pastan shows that it has not yet happened.
While those rights formerly stated have, for the most part, been successfully instated, Pastan mentions a few more rights that remain unresolved. In “Marks,” Pastan writes “My husband gives me an A/for lasts night’s supper” (lines 1-2), and later “an incomplete for my ironing” (3), and finally “a B plus in bed” (4). These lines deal with the still unequal relationship that is often found between a husband and wife. Traditionally, the wife has been required to stay at home, clean the house, do the chores of laundry and ironing, and have the food cooked and ready for the family when they get home. Furthermore, husbands stereotypically demand sex as part of their relationship with their wives, and Pastan does not ignore that private but important fact. The rest of the poem deals with raising kids. Her son says that she “could improve” (8) and her daughter blankly states that she passes (11). These are all examples of how the family is constantly judging the woman based on the roles they feel that she should complete. There are no expressions of gratitude that accompany the grades, exemplifying that families can be quick to forget the hard work done by women, and even quicker to criticize . Pastan sums up her critique of the family life by saying “Wait ‘til they learn/I’m dropping out” (12). Either the wife wants a divorce or she simply is no longer going to do what everyone demands of her. In reverse, she demands equal respect.
Linda Pastan, herself, went to college and graduated with three degrees. She married Ira Pastan in 1953 and had three children (Paul and Philip). Andrea Adolph, an English professor at Louisiana Statue University, writes of this period of Pastan’s life in Contemporary American Women Poets, “In 1953 she married Ira Pastan and, as the roles of wife and mother of three children became important to her, she put writing and literature on hold for more than a decade” (273). As a modern women, Pastan took on the traditional role of the woman. Pastan herself often said, “poetry is not a matter of knowledge but of emotional experience.” She wrote “Marks” in 1978, just after that period of time when she put writing on the side and became the domestic housewife. Her experience of home life must have driven her to write about the topic of women’s roles in the home. Adolph, however, interprets Pastan’s poems not as simple complaints against the domestic requirements of the home, but as something more profound. She says, “The world of married domesticity, when enriched by the appearance of mature female desire, becomes more than a traditional setting for a woman’s existence. Instead, the home resonates with the life force of conception and reproduction and with validation of a woman’s role beyond the realm of nurturing and caretaking” (274). The complaint, therefore, isn’t that the speaker in the poem must fulfill the domestic chores of the home, but that the family does not appreciate her unique femininity. Every family is different. There are many times where the roles are reversed and the father stays home and the mother works. Sometimes both work. Sometimes both stay home. There is never a clear-cut definition of who should take on which roles. Whatever plan is decided on, should be decided on with equal input from the wife and the husband. Then, when the plan is carried out, there shouldn’t be a favoring towards one side, and a critique of the other. Why are there no grades given to the husband? How well does he perform in his career? How well does he manage the finances? And the kids, what grades to they achieve at school? Are their rooms clean? The speaker of the poem clearly has been carrying out her duties, but has tired of the constant criticizing and grading and therefore is going to “drop out”. A student who drops out of school, while no longer graded, must still live on and work to make means. The speaker of the poem is not giving up, nor is her role as women diminished. In fact, it is the opposite: in those last lines “Pastan aptly uniﬁes the feminine and the female” (Adolph) by showing how the women does her job, but refuses to be stepped on.
Defining the roles of the women in the family has been a constant question throughout history. It is obvious that women must have equal rights as men. What about equal roles? Pastan was a wife and a mother and knows very well how it feels to be a housewife. Her poem “Marks” explains how fulfilling the traditional women’s role in itself is not a negative experience, but it becomes so if the family expects perfection and shows no gratitude. In essence, women deserve the same respect for fulfilling their duties, whatever they may be, just as the rest of the family does.
Adolph, Andrea. "Linda Pastan (1932- )." Contemporary American Women Poets. Ed. Catherine Cucinella. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. 273-277. Print.
Imbornoni, Ann-Marie. Timeline of Key Events in the American Women's Rights Movement. 2007. Pearson Education. Web. 26 July 2012.
Pastan, Linda. "Marks." McMahan, Elizabeth, et al. Literature and the Writing Process. Pearson, 2005. 700. Print.
Paul, Jay and Jason K. Philip. Critical Survery of Poetry. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2002. Print.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Declaration of Sentiments. 1848. US Department of State. Web. 29 July 2012.