“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. ” Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote these words in “The rights of Woman” as a response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication for the Rights of Woman,” however it is difficult to determine what Barbauld’s intentions for her writing are.
It is obvious, upon reading this poem, that she is taking an almost sarcastic approach to Wollstonecraft’s writing, using Wollstonecraft’s own ideas taken to the extreme, making ideas of rebellion seem almost ridiculous in terms of reason. This interpretation, however, may not be initially discerned. Is Barbaud blatantly contradicting or even ridiculing Wollstonecraft’s standpoint, or is she simply stating her own, differing opinion?
Barbauld’s underlying intention, I feel, is to say that no matter what method of overtaking of rights from man that women employ, (and she provides an alternative method to that of Wollstonecraft) it will undoubtedly be undermined by women’s own nature, which, she claims, is to submit to authority and to succumb to the soft gentle side which characterizes woman. This is brought about inevitably by the powers of nature, which will always bring people to realize that what is nature is nature, and this fact cannot be changed.
Barbauld’s “The Rights of Woman” is a different poem from first reading to second reading. A person might read the first few lines and be convinced of Barbauld’s feminist stance and insistence that women rise up and take their rightful reign from man, only to discover later on in the poem that these initial calls to battle are but a mockery in tone of rebellion and an illustration of the initial drive a woman might have towards seeking equality and the usurpation of power, and instead leads the reader along with a tone of submission rather than rebellion.
Upon the second reading, it is evident that the once-thought inspiring words are used to scorn what Wollstonecraft might call an escape from man’s “tyranny over his submissive wife. (Wollstonecraft 1403)” This attitude is not evident until the lat two stanzas, where the initial call to arms is contrasted with a rational realization that women are not, by nature, meant to overcome in such a way. Even the way in which the poem is constructed may in fact reflect her point made in the second to last stanza about striving women who will eventually “abandon each ambitious thought.
The first few stanzas seem, like her figurative woman, to be motivated in overtaking power, but who in the end finds herself her “coldness soften, and thy pride give way. ” So in this respect, the construction of the poem is a physical representation of the stages she feels women who make a stand will find themselves going through. There are three stages to this poem. The first is the highly ambitious, idealistic urge to make a stance and “bid proud man his boasted rule resign. In this stage, she charges women with the responsibility to take hold of their rightful position in life, and here is fully agreeing with Wollstonecraft’s standpoint. The phrases used are very militant, which is a near reflection of Wollstonecraft’s comparison of women to militia.
The second stage is the method in which she says women should reclaim their position. It seems as if Barbauld is attempting to attack every point which Wollstonecraft is making in her “Vindication. Firstly, throughout the whole poem, there is the call down of the attempt to fight for equality, whether directly or indirectly, but there is also an additional contradiction of one of Wollstonecraft’s main arguments of the mistreatment of women. She claims that it should not be an ambition of women to seek beauty rather than to expand their minds to become more like man and therefore to gain greater respect: “… and if women do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty – the will prove that they have less mind than a man.
Barbauld, on the other hand, asserts that the power of beauty is not arbitrary, but rather must be used to the advantages of women. If woman is to take control in society, it must be done subtly, and through a manipulation of sorts. This is where Barbauld makes the connection between war and women’s fight for equality, military and women’s vices: she compares grace to artillery, soft voices to thundering cannons, and blushes and fears to a “magazine of war. ”
She suggests drawing on the innocence (“angel pureness”) which is attributed to women, and using it as a protection against opposition (“Go forth arrayed in panoply divine. ) The use of the word “panoply” has two meanings here, the first being a splendid, striking display, which would play upon the power of a woman’s beauty, and the second is a covering, or protection, saying that women can hide behind this innocence as a shield. One critic submits that using these vices attributed to women would be “working within the constructs that men have deemed appropriate instead of forging new weaponry such as the mind” (Herrera) and therefore would not be an effective way to fight for the rights of women.
Would not, though, a wise woman be able to use what qualities have been given to her in order to achieve what she is seeking? The extreme of this, conversely, and the phrase that further supports the manipulative view of this approach, is when Barbauld says “Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame, / Shunning discussion, are revered most. ” Herrera says this is exemplary of how Barbauld does not value the intellect of women, saying that it suggests that women should play shy and withdraw from debate and conversation, attempting to gain positions this way.
Perhaps here Barbauld is poking fun of the improbability of women using such a method to gain position, and using this improbability as support to her anti-rebellion stance. Wollstonecraft’s position on this subject is that women should be allowed to be educated to the fullest, as much as any man, and therefore would be able to participate in such debates and conversations, thus proving her status through strategies of the mind and not of manipulation. In the fifth stanza, Barbauld takes ridicule to the extreme, again using exaggeration to prove her point.
She states, “Make treacherous Man they subject, not thy friend,” which, in a way, is demonstrating the unnecessary thirst for power which she feels Wollstonecraft exudes. She is taking Wollstonecraft’s point that “The most holy band of society is friendship” one step further, and showing that the rebellious methods which she suggests women employ would not aid in strengthening this “holy band,” but would merely reverse the roles (assuming woman is seen as man’s subject, which Wollstonecraft feels is true, but Barbauld does not) making human kind no better off than before.
She further demonstrates this at the end of the stanza when she says “Thou mayst command, but never canst be free. ” What point is made here is that, although women may use whatever it takes to take control, they will never be free from a system that is simply part of nature, or maybe she is taking it even further by saying that women will never be fully free from the rule of man. What would make woman better than man?
If woman were to seize rule, would she be a more just leader? Barbauld ends this argument by stating her final point and saying “Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way. ” The power struggle may continue, but women will in the end “abandon each ambitious thought” by the powers of nature:
“In Nature’s school, by her soft maxims taught, / That separate rights are lost in mutual love. She is saying that women, by nature, are softer and will not be able to maintain this coldness required for such insurgence. Perhaps she is stating that, with a man and woman who truly love each other, neither would feel oppressed by having different natural rights, brought forth by the different qualities which make men and women suited to different tasks, but would rather accept these roles through the harmony of mutual love, a point which Wollstonecraft would wholly disagree with.
While Wollstonecraft believes that it is essential that women prove, through intellect, that they are equal to man, Barbauld asserts that women already are equal to man, but will never be fully realized as such because nature will not allow women to sustain as the dominant of the two sexes.