Initially, I thought this poem was a powerful message to women who felt discouraged by their lack of rights during this time period. It makes sense that a female author would romanticize the idea of women coming together to defeat a common enemy, the man. While the first six stanzas support this reading, the content of the last two completely contradict it. In fact, by the end of the poem, Barbauld has given us reason to believe she didn’t have total faith in the pursuit of women’s rights.
The energy in the first stanza is reminiscent of a true activist. I think it’s the closest we’ll get to “girl power” in the late 18th century. I can almost hear her shouting from the rooftops, “Rise, assert thy right! Woman! Too long degraded, scorned, opprest…” (lines 1-2). She expresses that women are born to rule, despite the current laws which work to oppress them. What I find interesting is her word choice in calling all women to the battlefield. The inclusion of phrases like “divine”, “angel pureness”, and “grace” coupled with elements of war in the second and third stanzas seems like an attempt to feminize those elements. I believe she’s implying that the characteristics typically designed to patronize or belittle women into submission are now instruments of combat. Line 9, “Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store” is encouragement for women to not only embrace their grace and beauty but use it to their advantage. This is further supported in lines 10-11: “soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar, Blushes and fears thy magazine of war.” Our most feminine qualities are also our greatest weapons, apparently. (Disclaimer: I don’t fully understand the style of language back then, so I’m sure it’s possible to have a different interpretation of those lines. Let me know if you do!)
One of my favorite parts is the fourth stanza where we can see her perception of women’s rights in the 18th century. She says they are “Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost;” (line 14). This calls attention to how women felt entitled to certain rights which, during that time, weren’t reflected in social/cultural norms or the legal system. I’m not one hundred percent sure what she meant by “if debated, lost”. It could be referring to failed attempts to get women’s rights on the table for discussion by higher powers, or the idea that any woman who dares to speak up will lose the rights she currently has. In the next line, she compares their rights to “sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame, Shunning discussion, are revered the most.” Like the previous lines, I think she’s calling out the men who refused to address the inequalities between men and women. They didn’t want women to know what they were capable of and Barbauld confirms this when she states that the “mysteries” were “revered the most”. She’s implying women were meant to remain ignorant of the rights they could be fighting for. It’s as if they were afraid to empower women, and heavily imposed values that kept them interested in leading simple, quiet lives.
The poem takes a turn in the seventh stanza, shifting from the voice of a warrior to the voice of a woman who has been defeated. She even begins with “But hope not, courted idol of mankind,” (line 25), a reference to women being courted by men and led into a domestic lifestyle. Barbauld speaks directly to women and expresses in lines 27-28 that as a woman, you will eventually be subdued, softened, and your pride will “give way”. It’s the unfortunate truth about women’s roles back then: to be reserved, polite, and obey the men in their lives. The image of a woman marching off to war in a suit of armor existed only in the poet’s imagination. The last stanza continues to address women, “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” (lines 29-32). After women are beaten into submission, they will cast off their dreams and aspirations. What they are taught from the moment they enter this world is that they can’t be independent and be devoted to their husbands. Barbauld even went so far as to label this notion a part of “Nature’s school”, because the gender roles were so engrained in their culture that it seemed “natural”. I’m glad to live in a time period where keeping your daughter or wife cooped up in the house to learn/perform “wifely duties” would be seen as both unnatural and harmful to her intellectual development… because now, we do care about the intellectual development of young girls! Hooray! If you have any thoughts, please share them with me. I’m sure there are a few things I missed or overlooked in my reading of this poem. I’m interested to see how others reacted to her shift in tone towards the end.