Robert Burns Was A Feminist
Robert Burns was a philanderer, fornicator and father of bastart bairns, yes. But he was also a feminist.
Robert Burns loved women. In fact, without us, he would not have written a single word. He said, “I never had the least thought nor inclination of turning poet until I got heartily in love then rhyme and song became the spontaneous language of my heart.”
Burns also thought of women as the superior of species. He said, “Mither nature…her prentice hand she tried on man and then she made the lasses, O’” – That is how important we lasses were to Robert Burns. He loved the company of the fairer sex and, in fact, preferred it to that of men. He said, “The finest hours that e’er I spent were spent amang the lasses, O’.”
Quite apart from his lovers, two key women who informed his view on women, fuelled the young Robert’s imagination and fired up his passion for words and stories were his Mother, Agnes Burnes (the ‘e’ was later dropped) and one of her old friends – or ‘Maids’ – Betty Davidson.
Agnes Burnes was a small, vibrant woman with wild red hair who could not write but could read beautifully. She read traditional Scottish stories to Burns and sang old folk songs which she had picked up from the strong oral tradition that prevailed around that time – laying the foundations for her son’s passion for rhyme and song.
Betty Davidson delighted in telling the boy ghost stories involving the devil, warlocks and fairies. Robert Burns wrote Tam O’Shanter in one short evening, but it is clear that that poem had been bubbling away inside him since he was that small, terrified young boy listening to Betty’s tall tales of superstition, apparition and dragons by the dim light of the crackling fire.
Robert Burns also advocated for women’s rights at a time when Emeline Pankhurst was still a twinkle in Mither Nature’s e’e. The poem, The Rights of Women, may seem patronising to us today but in 1792 it was groundbreaking, shocking and even laughable – particularly amongst the men Burns fraternized with in his supper clubs and Masonic halls.
Burns wrote this poem for Ms Louisa Fontenelle, a London actress who performed it at a benefit night:
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!
In this poem, Robert Burns is calling to the social order, particularly the ruling classes, to pay attention to the attributes of women in society – and womankind in general – and to value their intrinsic worth – particularly as pacifiers in a time of war (it was the time of The French Revolution – a cause, it is widely thought, Burns supported.)
Robert Burns was a ‘ladies’ man’ in every sense of the word. Women made him, women inspired him and women educated him. Yes, Burns was a reckless romantic who fell in love – and into bed – too easily with women. But this does not mean that he disrespected them or treated them badly or thought them inferior to himself.
He loved women: He loved his mother, his aunts, his sisters, his wife, his daughters and, yes, his lovers. He loved women! But women also loved Robert Burns – and it is well-known that Celtic women extended freely what was euphemistically called ‘The Friendship of The Thighs’. The lasses – along with Robert Burns – worked long hard hours in the fields and barley. They were very close to nature. Particularly Mother Nature.
Burns valued and appreciated women for their beauty and intellect, along with their political views, their humour and their passions for words and language. And he stuck up for them and advocated for them at a time when women had no rights at all.
Robert Burns held women socially and intellectually his equals and did not understand why the men around him did not. In this poem he is asking – nee, pleading – with the ruling classes to appreciate and respect women and to give them the rights of decorum, protection and admiration. These ‘rights’ may seem condescending to us today but they were enlightened for – if limited by – the time.
So, if you are speaking at a Burns Supper this week, try to not be so cliché’d in your anecdotes about Burns’ many lovers. And he did not have as many as you may think. He had many affairs, yes, that is true. But he also fantasized about many more. And it is all these affairs, real and imagined, which informed his work.
He was a poet. A warrior poet at times. So, please remember also the wide range of other attributes which can be attached to Burns name other than ‘philanderer’ and ‘fornicator’.
Keara is a Burns Speaker, Comedian and actress. She also recites, by heart, The Address to the Haggis, To A Mouse, To A Mountain Daisy and does a mean Response on Behalf of The Lasses. She has also delivered The Immortal Memory on many occasions – and may sing Ae Fond Kiss if you get her very drunk. She is passionate about Robert Burns and, in fact, has written a new show paralleling To A Mouse for a modern audience and how it relates to her personal story: Keara Murphy: Mice and Men will début at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2013 in March.