At first glance, “The Rights of Woman” seems to be a cry for female equality. Written in 1792 by Anna Barbauld, the bulk of the poem beckons women to assert themselves in male dominated, Romantic Period England.
Barbauld rips into the patriarchy of the era, calling man “treacherous”, and referring to them as women’s “imperial foe” (Barbauld, 18-19). “The Rights of Woman”’s initial stanzas aim to invokes a feeling of power and rebellion, urging women to take back the authority to rule over man.
Despite these strong words, the poem closes with an ominous message, one that turns the previous feminist reading on its head. Barbauld’s final stanzas explain that cultivating love and trust between sexes will diminish a woman’s yearning for power. According to Barbauld, a woman’s appetite for vigorous action will fade with the warmth of a husband. If you slice away the last two stanzas of the poem, it can be viewed as a feminist text. However, with the final stanzas included, the poem takes on a strange, anti-feminist vibe.
For more on Anna Barbauld, see: Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld Bibliography
The Dissection: Close Readings of Important Passages
Stanza I, Lines 1-4
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!This opening stanza sets the stage for the poem. Barbauld addresses the “injured woman”, or the women who have been “degraded, scorned, opprest”.
This speaks to the women of the Romantic Era, who were unable to receive the respect and authority that was organically given to men. Barbauld says that women are “born to rule in partial Law’s despite”, meaning that they are capable of wielding power, placing them above man. The final line of the stanza, however, tells women to “resume thy native empire o’er the breast”. “Thy native empire” refers to the place where women naturally belong, and “o’er” the breast refers to the heart. This means that, while women have the power to rule, they rule predominately over their hearts. This is different than what one would expect a ruler to rule over; kings and queens are often associated with power kingdoms and countries, not power over emotions.
Stanza IV, Lines 13-16
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.
This passage solidifies the importance of women’s rights. It says that “thy rights are empire”, meaning they are of great importance. The language used here is also important, because it brings a focus toward what women should be striving toward: an empire. Barbauld tells women to “urge no meaner claim”, meaning that this goal is the meanest, or greatest thing they can ask of their oppressors. These rights are “felt” by women, but not defined. This means that women instinctually know that there is a need for equality, but the lines have never been drawn to create this equality.In addition, she mentions that if these rights are debated, they will be lost. This can support the need for revolution seen in the first lines of the poem, which urge women to rise and take action rather than negotiate. In the last two lines, the tone changes a bit, becoming more abstract. Barbault relates women’s rights to “sacred mysteries”, as though they are something vital, but undiscovered. She notes that while they are not often talked about, they are revered, or greatly desired. In these ending lines, Barbauld may be pointing out that the discussion, or movement, toward the power and rights of women needs to be put at center-stage.
Stanza VII, Lines 25-28
But hope not, courted idol of mankind,On this proud eminence secure to stay;Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt findThy coldness soften, and thy pride give way.
At this point, the poem begins to shift. Barbauld notes that the “courted idol of mankind”, meaning women, will find “thy coldness soften, and thy pride give away”. The tone of the poem goes from one filled with vigor and ambition into one of vulnerability and defeat. The hoo-rah attitude in the beginning of the poem fades away. Even though women are “subduing”, they will eventually be “subdued”. Successfully rebelling against patriarchy is useless, their will to conquer cannot last.
Stanza VIII, Lines 29-32
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.
This stanza follows the theme of the previous stanza, retracting the battlecry for Romantic women to take up arms. It is replaced with a request: that women “abandon each ambitious thought”, deconstructing the obelisk of rebellious desire, which is exactly what the previous stanzas built in their hearts. So what is causing this sudden change?
Men, of course.
In lines 31-32, Barbauld explains that due to mutual love, women will lose their lust for power in a male dominated society. Barbauld is basically saying that while women can be swayed away from revolution by the love of a man. All the ambition found in the previous stanzas goes to waste under the gaze of a tender man. This, she says, it part of “nature’s school”, which basically means that it is natural for females to lose their social aspirations when in love.
Barbauld has created a literary roller coaster with “The Rights of Woman”. Initially, we have a call to action for women to rise up against patriarchy. By the middle of the poem, the action rises. Barbauld pushes her ambitions for women even further, saying that women should not only be equals, but should also rule over their male counterparts. This attitude is then demolished by the final two stanzas, that basically say that a women’s natural role is to be a lover of man, not a lover of power. Once a woman saddles up and finds herself a husband, she naturally defaults into the housewife role, and her ambition to rule is swept away.
So where is all this coming from? This poem came shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. By the title alone, one can see that “The Rights of Woman” is reactionary to Wollstonecraft’s novel. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication was known for its outspoken demand for equal education opportunities for women. With this in mind, it is easy to see how Barbauld’s poem conflict’s with that notion; in “The Rights of Woman”, she states that these dreams of equality become unimportant once a woman feels the love of a man. In her mind, it’s pointless to fill a woman with an impassioned, rebellious attitude when it will dissipate under the influence of romance.