I am a Learning Intern here at the Burns museum, so I can often be found surrounded by a group of school kids up at the cottage. It is interesting because yesterday, with this talk in mind, I asked a class of Secondary 2 teenagers the very question that I’m talking about today, of whether Robert Burns was a feminist. One of the boys in the class tentatively put his hand up and said that although Robert Burns wasn’t a feminist in the way that we think of now, he was a feminist for the 18th century. I would say this is very astute for a teenage boy!
I’m really intrigued by the many different incarnations of Robert Burns; the way he is claimed by so many different people to be so many different things goes to show what an interesting and enigmatic person he was. The one that has recently interested me the most is the question of whether or not Robert Burns was a feminist. Well, Burns’ advocacy of women’s rights? Debatable. His belief in the equality of the sexes? Questionable at best.
There has been some speculation about Burns’ feminist credentials in the past, and of course not everyone has come to the same conclusion. With just a quick search, I found two articles, one of which argued that Burns was a protagonist for female equality, while the other dismissed him as a sexist drunk… I am arguing that neither of these is an accurate representation of the truth, and here’s a few reasons why.
Agnes, his mother, was obviously a huge influence on his life – she was not uneducated but could only read, not write, so was a part of the rich oral culture in which her songs and ballads were based. Despite little education, she had a ‘fine musical ear’ as described by Isobella Burns, and an ‘inexhaustible store of old ballads and songs’. In fact, I read that in each anecdote recorded of Burns on his mother, she was always singing.
I would now invite you to take a look at the chairs of William and Agnes Burns (see below) in order to understand how Robert’s upbringing might have shaped his perspective on women. The differences in the two chairs are plain to see, ultimately reflecting the roles of men and women so steadfastly fixed in 18th century society. I wonder if this picture of Agnes, nursing the children, cooking, and near to the ground, is one that Robert mapped on to all the women he met, and thus judged them accordingly.
Burns spoke of his perception of women in a letter to Robert Graham, stating that “even a silly woman has her warlike arts, her tongue and eyes, her dreaded spear and darts”. I would say that is pretty damning of the entirety of women. He also referred to women as “butterflies of the human kind; remarkable only for and distinguished only by the idle variety of the gaudy flore; sillily straying from one blossoming weed to another”. I think that it is quite clear that Burns was a product of his time. With this, we must conclude that Burns was inevitably not a feminist.