Given Judy Grahn’s poem, “Edward the Dyke,” which satirizes the treatment of women by medical professionals, I don’t think it’s inconceivable to assume that her collection of poems depicting “The Common Woman” might have been inspired by real case studies written about queer women. Whether or not this is accurate, by putting “The Common Woman” poems in conversation with Robert Latou Dickinson’s observatory notes and case studies of lesbians (presented by Martin Duberman in his novel About Time), there is an obvious pattern of grouping women together in order to prove a point. However, it is in the points they are trying to make and their motives for writing these pieces that Dickinson and Grahn differ.
Dickinson is doing physical examinations on women who have been in erotic relationships with other women to try and locate a common abnormality on their physical bodies that will explain their homosexual impulses and desires. He presents each case study with the heading of the woman’s first name and last initial. For instance, there is “SUSAN K.” “PAMELA D.” “GLADYS H.” etc., (Duberman 140). The text itself, naturally, reads like notes being taken, particularly because of the fragmented statements and where the commas are placed. In describing ALBERTA X., Dickinson writes: “Given to extensive experimentation, intently passionate with women, able to obtain orgasm in two minutes or two hours, at times almost daily for months…” (141). Grahn’s “The Common Woman” poems read in a similarly observatory way, as if the author, too, is studying individual women in order to come to a conclusion about all of them as a whole. Like Dickinson, each woman Grahn is writing about has a title with her name, but unlike Dickinson who only then includes their last initials, Grahn choses to follow their first names with settings, such as: “I. Helen at 9 am, at noon, at 5:15” (Grahn 61) and “III. Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop” (65). By adding a time and/or location in each of her headings, it gives the reader a sense that these are snapshots of who each of these women are at the time Grahn is observing them, but, in addition, that they have existed before and will continue to exist after the poem ends. Dickinson, however, reduces the women he studies to their name alone and continues to do so in his writings of them by only analyzing their sexual histories and physical bodies as a means to understand why they are the way that they are. Even though, Grahn’s texts are equally as split up by commas and written in a fragmentary style that mimics Dickinson’s notes (example: Nadine’s poem begins, “She holds things together, collects bail,/ makes the landlord patch the largest holes.” (62)), Grahn is including such a diverse range of characteristics and behaviors of each woman, and different aspects for different women, that it becomes clear her motive is not to find what makes each woman the same but to celebrate that they are all different.
Dickinson believes he can pinpoint a commonality between women who all participated in homoerotic behavior to explain why they desire such interactions, while Grahn is parodying the medical note-taking style to emphasize that the only definable commonality between any two women is that they exist and therefore have the right to change. Consequently, “the common woman” is always defined at the end of each poem as something different than the woman before and after her. Ultimately, it comes as no surprise that Dickinson’s conclusion to his summary is: “No definite findings could be classified as peculiar to homosexual practices” (Duberman 143).