Now, upon first glance Barbauld’s poem might seem like she’s empowering women and cheering them on. Well, she’s not. Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) didn’t support women’s rights activism and this poem is a response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Most can probably sense the sarcastic tone by the end of the poem.
But it’s not fair to view Barbauld as petty right off the bat. She seemed to hold pretty pacifist views and was clearly against war. In fact, writing a criticism of Britain’s involvement in war quickly ended her career. So, she likely wanted peace, not for women to be oppressed. She was, after all, seen as an oddity for being a female writer at the time.
It seems like Barbauld just wanted people to get along. “Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend;Thou mayst command, but never canst be free.” This clearly suggests a fear of the ‘oppressed’ rising up only to oppress the other group. This sarcastic line, says she wanted friendship and companionship to be the end goal. She felt that this wasn’t being worked towards. Instead, one was being painted as the oppressor and the other the oppressed. That sort of thinking can oversimplify a situation too much, so her argument isn’t completely invalid.
However, one could argue that pacifist thinking like Barbauld’s is, unfortunately, only ideal and doesn’t work with human nature. But either way, Barbauld’s argument and beliefs are worth listening to.
Also, despite popularity in her time, Barbauld largely fell into obscurity. That was until her and many other female writers were re-discovered by feminist scholars. Irony?