Mary Robinson, Thoughts on the Condition of Women and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799)

Let me ask this plain and rational question,--is not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man? Has not woman affections, susceptibility, fortitude, and an acute sense of injuries received? Does she not shrink at the touch of persecution? Does not her bosom melt with sympathy, throb with pity, glow with resentment, ache with sensibility, and burn with indignation? Why then is she denied the exercise of the nobler feelings, an high consciousness of honour, a lively sense of what is due to dignity of character? Why may not woman resent and punish? Because the long established laws of custom, have decreed her passive! Because she is by nature organized to feel every wrong more acutely, and yet, by a barbarous policy, denied the power to assert the first of Nature's rights, self-preservation. (8-9)

In arguing for women's rights, Robinson does not argue for equality of feeling between the sexes. For her, women naturally have more acute emotional experiences, and also more noble ones. In fact, she goes so far as to separate male and female passions as being qualitatively different:

The fact is simply this: the passions of men originate in sensuality; those of women in sentiment: man loves corporeally, woman mentally: which is the nobler creature? (10)

Of course, Thoughts... is intended to be polemical, but the valorization of a specifically feminine sensibility is characteristic of others of Robinson's works. These include a novel, The False Friend, at the end of which the heroine dies from an excess of feeling; and the sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon. In an address to the reader in the latter work, Robinson says that she wishes to combat the image of Sappho portrayed in Ovid and in Pope, and to deal sympathetically with her "fatal passion."

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography