Written in 1974 during the politically-charged second-wave feminist movement, which began in the 1960s as a movement to increase women’s equality, Adrienne Rich's poem “Power” was clearly a political statement. Rich was heavily involved in the second-wave feminist movement and advocated for the needs and rights of women and LBTQ+ individuals. At its core, “Power” is a creative work about the feminist movement and about female power/empowerment.
The poem discusses famed physicist and chemist Marie Curie. Today, Curie is most known for her self-sacrificial work with radium and radioactivity, which she discovered. Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and, to date, is the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics. Given that Curie lived and died in the late 1800s and early 1900s, such accomplishments are contextually stunning, as women during these centuries were still politically, socially, and intellectual oppressed. Rich treats Marie Curie as a symbol of female power, given her numerous scientific accolades and her fearless ability to rally against the social and political conventions of the age. Rich also uses Marie Curie as the subject of her poem, given that Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia—a direct result of her groundbreaking work with radioactive materials. In a sadly ironic twist of fate, it was Curie’s life’s work and greatest accomplishment that also killed her. In the poem, Rich contemplates what this says about the nature of power.
This poem has been received as a meditation on women’s power. Rich urged her readers to exert their power quietly but mightily as a way to advocate for global change, despite its potential personal costs. Rich views the dual triumph and tragedy of Curie’s unique life as the ultimate symbol of power. Given that Curie was immensely successful during a time when women’s power was incredibly limited, and given the modern-day political climate of feminism and feminist movements, Rich conveys that, if women like Marie Curie could fight against the established social and political norms during a time when women were significantly oppressed, then modern-day women can exert and establish the same power. Rich also aims to argue that the source of power may in fact be vulnerability.