The Rights of Woman

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things, The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings; While quacks of State must each produce his plan, And even children lisp the Rights of Man; Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention, The Rights of Woman merit some attention. First, in the Sexes' intermix'd connection, One sacred Right of Woman is, protection. The tender flower that lifts its head, elate, Helpless, must fall before the blasts of Fate, Sunk on the earth, defac'd its lovely form, Unless your shelter ward th' impending storm. Our second Right - but needless here is caution, To keep that right inviolate's the fashion; Each man of sense has it so full before him, He'd die before he'd wrong it - 'tis decorum. There was, indeed, in far less polish'd days, A time, when rough rude man had naughty ways, Would swagger, swear, get drunk, kick up a riot, Nay even thus invade a Lady's quiet. Now, thank our stars! those Gothic times are fled; Now, well-bred men - and you are all well-bred - Most justly think (and we are much the gainers) Such conduct neither spirit, wit, nor manners. For Right the third, our last, our best, our dearest, That right to fluttering female hearts the nearest; Which even the Rights of Kings, in low prostration, Most humbly own - 'tis dear, dear admiration! In that blest sphere alone we live and move; There taste that life of life-immortal love. Smiles, glances, sighs, tears, fits , flirtations, airs ; 'Gainst such an host what flinty savage dares, When awful Beauty joins with all her charms Who is so rash as rise in rebel arms? But truce with kings, and truce with constitutions, With bloody armaments and revolutions; Let Majesty your first attention summon, Ah! ca ira! The Majesty Of Woman!


Vivien Heilbron

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1792 and is read here by Vivien Heilbron.

More about this poem

Burns wrote 'The Rights of Women' for Miss Louisa Fontenelle, a London actress who is known to have performed in both Edinburgh and Dumfries.

Burns was apparently very taken with Miss Fontenelle and so in November 1792 he penned a letter offering her this verse, to be performed at a benefit night.

In this poem Burns communicates the idea that the ruling class would benefit from turning their attention to the female sex to generate humanity, as opposed to crippling civilisation with war.

And so, Burns's message here is similar to that of the bawdy song 'When Princes and Prelates', written at about the same time. The exclamatory conclusion of the poem, 'Ah! ca ira!', is taken from a French revolutionary song and reportedly contributed to the controversy surrounding the poet's politics, by implying Burns's support of the French revolution.

'The Rights of Women' also refers to the role of the female in eighteenth-century society. The poet states that 'The Rights of Woman merit some attention'.

The rights of which Burns speaks are 'protection', 'decorum' (or good manners) and 'admiration'. Society must protect and respect the delicacy of the female sex, and so Burns can be seen to assume a stance typical of his time.

The eighteenth-century notion of sentiment propagated by enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith did place women in what was considered to be a crucial role within society.

However, woman's contribution was measured in terms of the positive, more passive, sympathetic effect that they supposedly had upon their husbands.

This highly emotional influence, the very source of which was considered to be the 'fairer' sex, was believed to encourage sympathy in men, and therefore enrich the structure of society as a whole.

Pauline Gray

Themes for this poem

jacobitism revolution equality brotherhood

Locations for this poem


Selected for 06 February

On February 6, 1918, (some) British women over the age of 30 finally got the right to vote. Few poems written in the late 18th Century would have been entirely free of conditioned chauvinist condescension but, in this monologue written from a female point of view for a woman to perform, Burns give voice to sincerely egalitarian opinions, limited by, but enlightened for, their time. Through invoking the spirit of the French Revolution, in concluding his case Burns the Crown employee ran a considerable risk.

Donny O'Rourke

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