Upon first read, ‘‘Woman Work’’ may seem like a poem written about any woman with a family to care for. Lines 11 and 14 clearly change that impression because most women in modern America do not cut (sugar) cane or pick cotton. These two chores indicate that the woman is a slave.
Considered in this light, the reader understands that the bulk of the chores that make up the woman’s day are not self-serving; they are chores she must perform for her master. The children belong to him. The floor that needs mopping in line 3 is probably not hers, since she lives in a hut. The company she must feed? It is probably not hers. Although some of what she must accomplish may be for herself, most of it is not.
Line 12 suggests the woman is a slave. Most people, even those living in abject poverty, would not refer to their homes as huts. The woman in the poem lives in a hut—a small, crude shelter. Most slaves lived in shacks and huts while their masters lived in great, sprawling mansions. It is possible that the woman is simply poor, but this line, taken along with the others, strongly suggests she is a slave.
The final line of the poem also makes clear that the woman is a slave. By claiming only nature as her own, she acknowledges her lack of control or ownership over the rest of her life. At the end of a long, back-breaking day, this (slave) woman takes comfort in the sun and the rain, the stars and the moon. They assuage her sadness and soothe her spiritual emptiness. They are all she owns in the world.
Those readers who interpret the poem to be about women in general rather than those within the confines of slavery might substitute the slavery theme with one of work. Lines 1 through 14—nearly half the poem—examine this theme by listing chore after chore after chore. The reader quickly understands that the woman’s life revolves around the duties she must perform.
The poem is an exploration of self-identity. This particular woman identifies who she is by what she does: She works for—is owned by—someone else. She is a slave. She is a tired woman who wants nothing more than to rest. Lines 22 and 26 support the idea that her world is a weary one.
There is no evidence throughout the poem that the woman identifies herself using any other means of measurement. She makes it clear in line 30 that she owns nothing more than her natural surroundings. She lives without. She is nothing more than her role allows her to be.
Self-identity is a theme of the poem regardless of reader interpretation. Even if the speaker is not a slave, she clearly considers her life in terms of its drudgery and daily routine. Enjoyment is found only when the work is done and she can rest.
African American Culture
The institution of slavery is a major, if not the primary, factor in understanding the African American culture and experience in America. Because ‘‘Woman Work’’ explores the theme of slavery, by extension it explores the theme of African American culture.
‘‘Woman Work’’ examines what it meant to be an African American woman in a slave culture. If this poem were about a man, the first 14 lines would read quite differently, with the exception of lines 11 and 14. Although male slaves cut cane and picked cotton alongside the women, the bulk of their chores were different, perhaps not so mundane.
In that same vein, there is no way to know if line 15 through 30 would have been written as they are if the person speaking was male. Historically, women have been more connected to nature (Mother Earth) and its physical aspects; their work has centered around natural functions: caring for children and the sick, preparing food and cleaning up afterward, even the act of sex has been, historically, an obligation for women. Men interact with nature in a more exploitive way, generally speaking. Their interaction with the physical aspects of the earth has historically been to take what they need or want by hunting, mining, drilling, logging, and so on.
That the woman in the poem finds comfort in nature is a natural extension of her traditional gender role. Were the speaker a man, those four stanzas would create a completely different message because of their traditional gender role and relationship to nature.
To be exploited is to work excessively hard for someone else’s benefit. The first stanza of this poem explores the theme of exploitation whether the woman is understood to be a slave or simply representative of most women. The list of chores never ends; as soon as she completes the last one, the cycle begins again. She is overworked, exhausted, and weary, but all the effort expended is for someone else’s benefit.
The four shorter stanzas consisting of lines 15–30 concern themselves with nature as a source of comfort and rejuvenation. For the woman whose life is defined by what she must do, the peaceful qualities found in nature—gentle snowflakes, curving sky, cooling dewdrops—are gifts she relies upon to provide respite from her activity-filled days.
Despite the obvious repetition of the chores described in lines 1–14, ‘‘Woman Work’’ is about transcendence, or rising above and beyond the limitations imposed upon the speaker. Lines 15–30 find her engaged in a sensual (meaning of the physical senses), almost spiritual experience as the dew cools her brow and the winds carry her across the sky. She is communing with nature and finding peace and even a kind of balance in her dreary life.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Maya Angelou, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.