From the 14th-century writer Julian of Norwich, who referred to God as her Mother, to 21st-century black American poet Maya Angelou, poets have often been on the forefront of the feminist movement, confronting and challenging poetic and societal expectations. Feminist poetry, like feminism itself, is a decentralized movement, making its classification into discrete types difficult. It can, however, be broken up along geographic and historical lines, beginning with pre-20th century first-wave feminists, the social activists of the early 20th century, the second wave of the 1960s and '70s and the global feminist poets of the late 20th and early 21st century.
The term "feminism" didn’t come into the English language until 1895, but nearly any female poet prior to the 19th century can be thought of as a feminist poet. Writing was not usually considered a proper occupation or avocation for a woman, so anyone who dared break that taboo could be seen as subverting the Western male-dominated society, even if her writing did not deal directly with women’s issues. The name "first-wave feminists" was given to 19th century women retroactively.
Well-known first-wave feminist poets in the West included the Victorians Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Mary Anne Evans — whose pen name was George Eliot — as well as the American Emily Dickinson. The writing of these women dealt with what was known at the time as the "woman question" — the role of the woman inside and outside the home, women’s voting rights and the intellectual capacity of women in comparison with that of men. Feminist poetry of the time rebelled against the dominant notions of the submissive housewife. Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh, for instance, features a strong female lead character who is a writer and social justice activist. Dickinson’s poetry, with its characteristic dashes and slant rhymes, challenged the strict poetic structures of previous centuries.
In between first-wave and second-wave feminist poets was a loosely aligned group of modernist writers, including Mina Loy. her controversial 1914 Feminist Manifesto, although it was in prose rather than verse, influenced feminist poetry through its insistence that women and men were enemies rather than equals. Some of her contemporaries reflected this hostility in their works, although others found her notions too radical.
Second-wave feminist poetry of the 1960s and '70s dealt largely with such issues as reproductive rights, self-expression and pay inequalities. A prominent sub-grouping of this movement was the black feminist movement, which dealt with concerns of race as well as gender. Following in the footsteps of previous generations of experimental women writers, Ntozake Shange blurred the lines between poetry, drama and dance in her 1975 play For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.
Of increasing importance on the global literary scene in the late 19th and early 21st centuries were self-proclaimed female peace poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Hissa Hilal. In war-torn areas around the world, these writers focused on the effects of war on women and children, especially gender-based violence such as rape. Beyond calling for the cessation of war, peace poets often focus on the systemic healing that is necessary to rebuild communities.