Across the various texts of Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Letitia Barbauld and William Blake, the argument of feminism comes in three different forms. Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist writers makes an excellent case in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Barbauld in her poem “Rights of Woman” uses irony to express her views on feminism.
Blake, lastly, in his poem “The Little Girl Lost” writes in terms of both Wollstonecraft and Barbauld to help explain the various cases of feminism that are presented. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft uses this essay as a platform to help explain the oppression of her underprivileged sex. In 1792, the time when her essay was written, women held no rights politically. Upon their marriage, all of their property was lost to their husbands and they held no rights in a court of law.
Wollstonecraft writes of the ignorance of society’s view of women saying, “…women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience…will obtain for them the protection of a man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless…” (Wollstonecraft 217). She makes many arguments for why women are more than just their obedience to men and their looks.
The subordination of women is directly correlated to a woman’s lack of education based on the oppression of males. In fact, to even know why she is being subordinate, a woman must be educated enough to understand what it means. She then says, “…they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood” (Wollstonecraft 217). Childhood is the epitome of innocence and purity, and by trying to keep them in a state of childhood; men are both putting them on a holy pedestal and keeping them subdued.
Wollstonecraft uses John Milton’s views of women to support her argument saying he thinks women “were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation” (Wollstonecraft 217). Women were around for men, and by keeping them uneducated; men were essentially making them unable to even understand why they should have rights. Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Rights of Woman,” is a direct response to Wollstonecraft’s work, but it is arguable that it is an ironic portrayal of a woman’s rights.
She is poking fun at a woman’s ability to have rights by portraying women as a “holy” figure ruling an empire. “Resume thy native empire o’er the breast” (Barbauld 48). Here, Barbauld is declaring that a woman’s right to rule would be based on her feelings, or her heart, which is located under her breast. She is making an argument that a woman can rule over man, but it is not in the same sense that a man would. A man rules a woman by using oppression, which leads to a woman’s obedience. This is not how a woman would rule, however. She would instead rule based on her feelings.
This could either be a positive or negative, but Barbauld is using this idea in a negative connotation, meaning that women are not fit to rule. She also states, “Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame, / Shunning discussion, are revered the most” (Barbauld 49). This directly counters Wollstonecraft’s view of speaking out and debating the issues of women’s rights. Barbauld is instead arguing with the standard view of the time that women are better beings when they are not seen or heard, and making any argument against this is not tolerable.
When she does talk of a woman being in charge, she says, “Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend; / Thou mayst command, but never canst be free” (Barbauld 49). She is warning women to always watch their back if they do obtain power, for men will always try to betray them. Barbauld then shifts her views again. Starting with a “but” in the seventh stanza, she explains again that women are pure and innocent of mankind that they are not fit to rule, but instead are made to be “subdued. ” She ends with, “Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought, / Conquest or rule they heart shall feebly move,” (Barbauld 49).
A woman’s heart will not be full with power; therefore she should just abandon her ambitious thought of having power, or even rights. This is the law of Nature and it is how women will be happy. In Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake shows the stages between innocence and moving into experience. In “A Little Girl Lost,” he represents this change sexually. The paternal rule of the girl’s father in the book showcases the oppression of a male towards a female. The girl was defiant until the father reined his tyranny over her.