The Rights of Women by Anna Lætitia Barbauld

‘The Rights of Women’ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld is a poem belonging to the period of proto-feminism. It was the age when women writers like Mary Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Anna Barbauld were expressing their long-suppressed fire of womanhood. Their writings revolted against the custom that held back the women of England as well as of the whole of Europe. It is needless to say the beginning of the 19th century observed prominent historical changes in Europe. It was the French Revolution of 1789 that gave a new spirit to suppressed men and subdued women. This poem by Barbauld also reflects the humanitarian spark of the age.

The Rights of Women by Anna Lætitia Barbauld

 

Summary of The Rights of Women 

The Rights of Women‘ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld intones the power that a woman might have if she resists social law and rises up to take control over the world.

The poem begins with the speaker commanding all women of the world, especially those that have been stepped on and oppressed, to rise up and “assert” their rights. They should attempt to retake their place as leaders of the “empire. She tells them that it is time for man to step down from his throne and kiss the scepter of woman. 

The weapons that will be used in a woman’s bid for the thrones of the world will be fought using the things that society has given her. She will use her blushes and “soft melting tones” to defeat mankind. Once having gained some power, a woman should not stop until she is in command of all of the empire, not just part. She will not be able to make friends with mankind, they must be subservient to the needs of women. 

In the final stanzas the speaker warns the women of the world that if they do regain power, they must not let themselves get weak. While Nature might try to sway them into some kind of reconciliation with man, they must not lite their “coldness” decrease.  The maintaining of power must be at the forefront of their minds at all times. 

 

Structure of The Rights of Women

‘The Rights of Women’ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld is an eight stanza poem that rhymes in a consistent pattern of ABAB, CDCD…etc. This simple rhyme scheme gives the poem the feeling of a speech, read aloud, with awe-inspiring passion. Additionally, the simple formatting leaves plenty of room for the reader to focus on the message.

Each stanza of the poem contains four lines and the lines are evenly distributed till the end. After reading the poem closely, it becomes clear that the poem follows a firm rhythm. It imitates the sound of military footsteps. The verbal energy of the poem is consonant with the theme and overall idea of the poem. Even the metrical pattern of the poem asserts the rights of women through sound and rhythm. Each line of the poem contains ten syllables. While reading the lines the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Thus, the whole poem is composed of iambic pentameter. As mentioned earlier, the rising rhythm helps the poet to forcefully proclaim women’s rights.

 

Themes in The Rights of Women

‘The Rights of Women’ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld presents several important themes. The major theme of the poem of feminism. In the poem, Barbauld talks about the rights of women. She specifically focuses on the reasons behind their state of thralldom. The feministic ideals of the poet reflect from the beginning of the poem. In the first line of the poem, she urges women, “Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right!” However, her poem formed the basis of proto-feminism at the beginning of the 19th century in England.

There are several other themes in the poem too. Likewise, the poet presents the theme of equality. She is of the view that women of her age were denied their equal rights as they failed to assert their opinion firmly. They accepted or were forced to accept the patriarchal pattern of society. That’s why they remained in the subservience of their lords, specifically their husbands. Another important theme in the poem is love. Barbauld talks about love from a feminist’s perspective. According to the poem, a woman becomes trapped by her emotions. When she loves someone, day by day her “coldness soften” and her “pride give away”. At last, she says “That separate rights are lost in mutual love.”

 

Elements of Feminism in The Rights of Women

‘The Rights of Women’ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld is a work reflecting the ideals of early feminism. Anna Lætitia Barbauld is one of the famous feminist writers from the period of proto-feminism. Proto-feminism refers to the writings before the 20th century that formed the basis of the movement of feminism. Barbauld belongs to the early group of writers who voiced their opinion of women’s equal rights and equal dignity in society along with men. Her writings also reflect the spirit of the age, “Equality, Fraternity, and Brotherhood”.

In the poem, the poet presents several important points regarding the ideals of feminism. First of all, she visualizes a woman as a warrior on the battlefield of life. She thinks that women are the true rulers of society. They are deprived of their rights to rule and direct people in the right order. The undertone of war voices a manifesto of another revolution like the French Revolution of 1789. This is a revolution of women to assert their rights and regain their power from the wrong hands. Barbauld by using her fiery voice in the poem tried to disillusion women about their apparent mental calm and satisfaction. She says even the concept of “mutual love” is against their equal rights. That’s why she gives her feminist voice a tone of a new revolution and says to women, “Awe the licentious, and restrain the rude;/ Soften the sullen, clear the cloudy brow” to proclaim their birthright.

 

Analysis of The Rights of Women

Stanza One

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right! 

Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest; 

O born to rule in partial Law’s despite, 

Resume thy native empire o’er the breast! 

The speaker of The Rights of Women, perhaps Barbauld herself, begins by stating a line that serves as the overarching message of this piece. She is commanding all women of the world, no matter where they are, to “rise” and “assert” their rights. She specifically mentions the women that she considers, “injured.” This is a very vague term that can apply to any number of afflictions and maladies. It is safe to assume that she is referring to most, if not all women, especially at the time in which this was written. Any woman who has been taken for less than she is, used in ways she didn’t want to be, or horribly abused in a manner only human beings could conceive of.

Those to whom she is speaking are better defined in the second line as she calls on the “too long degraded,” the “scorned,” and the oppressed to take back the rule that the “Law” has taken from them. She believes that women must “rise” and “Resume” their rightful place. 

 

Stanza Two 

Go forth arrayed in panoply divine; 

That angel pureness which admits no stain; 

Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign, 

And kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign. 

These women, now roused to the call of the speaker are told to “Go forth.” They are to spread themselves around the world in any way they see fit. They will be divinely diverse, and beautiful, in all iterations. 

The speaker tells these women to speak to man, to tell him that his rule is now over. He must resign from his “boasted” position. His pride is a deep fault and must be remedied. It is now time for him to “kiss the sceptre” of your “reign.” 

 

Stanza Three 

Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store 

Of bright artillery glancing from afar; 

Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar, 

Blushes and fears thy magazine of war. 

The women protagonists of this story need to cover themselves, and deck themselves, with “grace.” They have built up an arsenal that is unlike that controlled by man. Through their upbringing and the conventional social standards to which they have been made to conform, they now have woman’s weapons. 

They will use their “bright” glances as their “artillery” and they will employ their “Soft melting tones” as one might a canon. The beauty of their complexions, their “Blushes,” will serve as their “magazine[s] of war.” 

Although women do not have access and have never had access, to the same weapons as men, they still have the ability to rise up and take control. 

 

Stanza Four 

Thy rights are empire: urge no meaner claim,— 

Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost; 

Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame, 

Shunning discussion, are revered the most. 

Here in The Rights of Women, the narrator continues on to state that their rights are to the entire “empire.” They should not stop vying for power until they have the whole world, do not stop, she says, with any “meaner claim.” 

The power they have does not need to be “defined,” it is “felt,” making it all the more real. Additionally, if time is spent discussing this exchange of power, everything will be lost. The rule of women needs to be strong and without question. 

Their resumption of power will be like the coming of a “sacred mystery” that is more poignant because it was “withheld from fame” for so long. These stories, those only whispered, and never widely spoken of, are more powerful when they are realized. 

 

Stanza Five

Try all that wit and art suggest to bend 

Of thy imperial foe the stubborn knee; 

Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend; 

Thou mayst command, but never canst be free. 

In attempting to regain power over the world, women need to do whatever they have to. They should, at all costs, make “treacherous Man they subject” and in no way, a friend.  A woman should do everything in her power, she should “Try all that wit” to get man to “bend…the stubborn knee.” 

Mankind must fall under the command of womankind. There can be no in-between, he should be commended, and can never be free. 

 

Stanza Six 

Awe the licentious, and restrain the rude;

Soften the sullen, clear the cloudy brow:

Be, more than princes’ gifts, thy favours sued;—

She hazards all, who will the least allow.

In one’s quest to gain power one should use different tactics with different types of people. One should “restrain the rude” and “soften the sullen.” The new female rulers will need to know how to “Awe the licentious” and understand who to give favors to, and who to shun. Most of all, she should not allow people to power over her because of gifts or favors done for her. This is supremely dangerous. 

 

Stanza Seven 

But hope not, courted idol of mankind, 

On this proud eminence secure to stay; 

Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find 

Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way. 

In the second to last stanza of The Rights of Women the speaker is reminding her listeners that just because one has gained power, that does not mean it will stay that way. Women have been for all of the time the “courted idol[s] of mankind,” nothing more. Their new “eminence” will not maintain itself and as time progresses, one’s power may wan. 

A woman may find that her “coldness” is getting softer and her “pride,” that led her here, is decreasing. This is a sign that her rule is ending. This is clearly something to be avoided.

 

Stanza Eight 

Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought, 

Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move, 

In Nature’s school, by her soft maxims taught, 

That separate rights are lost in mutual love. 

In the final stanza of The Rights of Women, the speaker finishes her warning to the now powerful women of the world. She wants them to know that if they allow their power to wane, their once all-consuming thoughts of ambition will fail. Their “conquests” and their “rule” will be feeble. 

In the last lines she makes clear that although Nature might want peace between the sexes, this will never be the case as the rights of one party, are lost when joined with the other. 

Unions between men and women weaken a woman’s position, especially if she has struggled, and succeed at gaining power. 

 

About Anna Lætitia Barbauld 

Anna Lætitia Barbauld was born in Leicestershire, England in June of 1743. She spent her early years living in Warrington, Lancashire, and her academic father encouraged her to pursue her own studies and literary interests. 

She was married in 1774 to a Protestant clergyman. The work for which she is best known is “Life! I Know Not What Thou Art.” 

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