Feminism and Anti-Feminism: Anna Letitia Barbauld

 

Although it seems in its first few stanzas to be arguing a feminist position, Anna Letitia Barbauld's "The Rights of Woman" 92.29–28) is in fact a satire of Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (2.166–92). The satire was probably inspired by Wollstonecraft's earlier attack on Barbauld's poem "To a Lady, with Some Painted Flowers," which begins by offering "Flowers to the fair," and concludes by telling the Lady that "Your best, your sweetest empire is —to please." In "The Rights of Woman," Barbauld responds with a deliberate misreading of Wollstonecraft's feminist argument. Whereas Wollstonecraft despised female coquetry, and hoped that male/female relations would be governed more by friendship than by passion, Barbauld sardonically urges "injured Woman" to use the tools of "wit and art" to "bend / Of thy imperial foe the stubborn knee," and make "treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend" (2.27, lines 17–19). Barbauld concludes by suggesting that this feminist position is an unnatural one: the militant female will soon find her "coldness" and "pride" melted when "Nature's school" instructs her that "separate rights are lost in mutual love" (2.28, lines 28–32).

As the Wollstonecraft-Barbauld disagreement makes abundantly clear, Romantic women writers held a range of divergent opinions on questions of women's rights, women's proper place, women's duties, and women's nature—and on other political and social issues, for that matter. Most of Wollstonecraft's female contemporaries did not challenge gender ideologies to the extent she did, but many nonetheless took stances radical for their time—‚arguing, for instance, that a woman's education should include philosophy, politics, and the sciences so that she might prove a better wife and mother. Barbauld was one of a number of female writers who believed that woman's nature differed from men's, but claimed that woman's "natural" characteristics—the greater emotionality and "sensibility" derided by Wollstonecraft—made women more powerful opponents of slavery and other forms of social injustice. Barbauld's apparent anti-feminism thus went hand in hand with the militant abolitionist position expressed in her "Epistle to William Wilberforce". And though Barbauld rejected the idea of women's "rights," she did not reject women's experiences as inappropriate for poetry. "Washing Day" (2.29–31), which deals with women's domestic labor, and "To a Little Invisible Being Who Is Expected Soon to Become Visible" (2.28–29), which frankly describes the emotions of a pregnant woman, both tackle subjects rarely addressed by male or female writers in previous eras.