The Rights of Woman
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) grew up surrounded by dudes. Seriously. Her father ran a school for boys, so other than her mother, she hardly spoke to any other women as she was growing up, and she didn't have any close female friends.
She received a basic education from her mother, which was common in those days. But what wasn't so common was that she also persuaded her father to teach her all the stuff he taught to the boys at his school: Latin, Greek, French, world history, you name it. So little Anna managed to get the same kind of well-rounded education that was usually reserved for boys in the 18th century.
And she put that education to good use. She liked writing, and she was encouraged by her family. She wrote not only poetry, but also religious hymns, books for children, and essays on the political issues of her day. She wrote powerfully and persuasively on issues like slavery (the slave trade was still going strong in those days), freedom of religion (she was a Presbyterian, and not a member of the official Church of England, so this was a major issue for her), revolution and reform. She was alive during the American Revolution and then during the French Revolution, and she was outspokenly in favor of the democratic ideals that inspired both of them. What can we say? She lived one heck of a life.
Barbauld was a revolutionary, democratic, freethinker in a lot of ways… but she did not consider herself a feminist. Her 1792 poem, "The Rights of Woman," is an obvious response to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in the same year. Most of the poem sounds like a "rah-rah-rah!" endorsement of women's rights. But don't break out the pom-poms just yet. When you get to the end of the poem, Barbauld says that if you actually love your husband, you won't worry so much about equal rights and conquering the world.
Easy for her to say—she and her husband had a great relationship and were equal partners in many things. Not all women in those days were so lucky (check out Charlotte Smith, for a very different experience). So, what does this mean? Is she really criticizing Mary Wollstonecraft, or is she being ironic, or is it some of both?
If she is criticizing feminism, does that make Barbauld an anti-feminist? Or is she just pointing some flaws in the approach that some feminists were taking at the time? It's hard to say, really. Many critics still argue about this poem (check out the "Best of the Web" for links to a couple of the major books and articles on this question). Read the poem, and let us know what you think.
Why Should I Care?
We may like to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we've finally achieved equal rights for everyone. But so-called women's issues—things like equal pay, access to healthcare, and just straight-up sexism—are still major problems in many parts of the world. So maybe we shouldn't pat ourselves on the backs just yet. These are complex and sensitive questions for many people, and even people who agree on the ideals of equal rights might disagree about how to get there.
Take Anna Barbauld, for instance. She was living through a period of many different revolutions. All over Western Europe and in North America, folks were fighting for democracy and shouting slogans about equal rights… but only if you were a white male. Barbauld was all about equal rights (after all, she did manage to persuade her father to give her the kind of education that was usually reserved for boys, and she was an outspoken opponent of slavery), but then again, she also criticizes the approach taken by many feminists of the period in her poem, "The Rights of Woman."
So if you're tired of thinking of these issues as being totally one-sided, read Barbauld's "The Rights of Woman" to get a better sense of the complexity and nuance that has been attached to these ideas from the beginning. And remember: even people with the same ultimate goals might disagree and need to find room to compromise on how to get there.