A Woman Who Defends All the Persons of Her Sex: Selected Philosophical and Moral Writingsby Gabrielle Suchon
During the oppressive reign of Louis XIV, Gabrielle Suchon (1632-1703) was the most forceful female voice in France, advocating women’s freedom and self-determination, access to knowledge, and assertion of authority. This volume collects Suchon’s writing from two worksTreatise on Ethics and Politics (1693) and On the Celibate Life Freely/i>… See more details below
During the oppressive reign of Louis XIV, Gabrielle Suchon (1632-1703) was the most forceful female voice in France, advocating women’s freedom and self-determination, access to knowledge, and assertion of authority. This volume collects Suchon’s writing from two worksTreatise on Ethics and Politics (1693) and On the Celibate Life Freely Chosen; or, Life without Commitments (1700)and demonstrates her to be an original philosophical and moral thinker and writer.
Suchon argues that both women and men have inherently similar intellectual, corporeal, and spiritual capacities, which entitle them equally to essentially human prerogatives, and she displays her breadth of knowledge as she harnesses evidence from biblical, classical, patristic, and contemporary secular sources to bolster her claim. Forgotten over the centuries, these writings have been gaining increasing attention from feminist historians, students of philosophy, and scholars of seventeenth-century French literature and culture. This translation, from Domna C. Stanton and Rebecca M. Wilkin, marks the first time these works will appear in English.
“The material content of this volumeon study and reading as the basis of intellectual life, and on the place of women outside of more traditional roles in the Ancien Régimeis of use to scholars, not just students. The translation itself is eloquent, and the work it recovers reflects a unique perspective on gender in the age of Louis XIV. The introductory essay places this important contribution into biographical and cultural perspective and clarifies a number of aspects of Suchon’s philosophy. The notes do a good job of handling the translation issues that necessarily arise in an endeavor such as this.”
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A WOMAN WHO DEFENDS ALL THE PERSONS OF HER SEXSelected Philosophical and Moral Writings
By Gabrielle Suchon
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTREATISE ON ETHICS AND POLITICS, DIVIDED INTO THREE PARTS: FREEDOM, KNOWLEDGE, AND AUTHORITY
Conceived in the shadow of scorn, completed despite bodily infirmity, and published at her own expense, Gabrielle Suchon's Treatise on Ethics and Politics attests to the determination of a self-taught woman of limited means, working "without assistance or advice from anyone" (85). Suchon mounts a scathing indictment of the theories and practices that conspire to keep women from actualizing freedom, acquiring knowledge, and exercising authority. She works to prove that women are fully capable of benefiting from all three and thus that to deny them these attributes is to contradict God's will, natural law, and human reason. Like Marie de Gournay (1565–1645) and François Poullain de la Barre (1647–1725) before her, Suchon condemns the existing body of written laws and unwritten norms and customs that have been "established to [women's] detriment" (73). Her erudite yet passionate plea paints a stark picture of the misery of women, while it also provides, as no other pro-woman work of the early modern period does, a justification for their "advancement" that is grounded in the thought of Aristotle and the theology of the Catholic Church.
Suchon's treatment of "the woman question" is original. In the preface to the Treatise she insists on the individuality of her work in a forceful way that is unusual for her time: "This work represents my style, my way of writing, my thought, and my method.... I can truly say that I have worked only from my own ideas (78)." While recognizing—and noting in the margins of her work—the ancient and modern, Christian and pagan sources she has consulted, Suchon creates an eclectic synthesis that produces a new approach to an old problem. Unlike much of the pro-woman side in the querelle des femmes, Suchon is not concerned with comparing the two genders in order to assert women's superiority to or even equality with men. Instead, she focuses on three distinctive components of human experience: freedom, knowledge, and authority. To lack any one of these would be catastrophic for a human being, she emphasizes, but women have been subjected to systematic deprivation of all three of these interconnected attributes. Persons "of the [female] sex" are born free, yet by adulthood they are shackled with constraint; they are intelligent and able to acquire knowledge but are raised in ignorance; and they are capable of exercising authority, but have been consigned to dependence. "Privation presupposes a natural capacity to acquire and possess the very benefit the subject lacks" (74), states Suchon, and she measures the gap between what women are capable of and the limitations imposed on them. She makes palpable the injustice of the condition of women at a time when the modern notion of rights was emerging.
A "right," wrote the political philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), is "a moral quality annexed to the person, enabling him to have or do something justly." Reconciling the freedoms inherent in "natural" man with the imperatives of civil society, Grotius, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632–1704) grappled with the character of the "contract" by which a people submits to a sovereign. They construed rights as individual possessions, which though "inalienable" might nevertheless be voluntarily limited by law. Marginal references to Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government (1689) regarding the contractual nature of marriage and women's and men's equality in divorce (101–2, n. 84–85) show that, like Poullain de la Barre, Suchon saw a powerful ally in natural law. Poullain de la Barre begins On the Equality of the Two Sexes with what he calls a "historic conjecture" about "how men obtained mastery" over women. He traces the beginnings of all empires to "usurpers and brigands" and, borrowing Hobbes's state-of-nature heuristic, "imagines" power relations from the clan-like origins of human intercourse to the formation of civil society in order to underscore the arbitrariness of women's demeaned place in the latter. Similarly, in the third book of the Treatise, Suchon evokes the "original or primitive" form of government (190) and the usurpation of power by men (198). Suchon does not speak explicitly of "women's rights" or even of "rights" in an abstract way—e.g. "the right to freedom." Nevertheless, her Treatise on Ethics and Politics deserves to be recognized as one of the earliest discourses on the subject. Indeed, her systematic contrast between the value of freedom, knowledge, and authority and the pain of their deprivation anticipates Martha Nussbaum's (neo-Aristotelian) capabilities theory of human rights, wherein what people are capable of determines a set of basic entitlements.
Suchon grounds her discussion of freedom, knowledge, and authority in Aristotelian ethics. She takes up the Aristotelian idea that each thing tends toward a particular end, which, in the case of human beings, is to "pursue their innate desire for goodness and truth" (157) within a societal context: "we must do good as well as avoid evil in a civil and Christian society" (74). Of course, whereas Aristotle excludes women (and male slaves) from consideration, Suchon argues that women have been prevented from realizing their God-given human potential: "God created nothing useless: that is an established truth. He destined the least of His creatures for specific uses and appropriate ends.... these propositions should be accepted with no exceptions based on sex" (157).
Suchon's identification of freedom as the first and most basic moral quality common to all humans is unprecedented in other pro-woman works. Even Poullain de la Barre, the most radical pro-woman writer of the seventeenth century, does not deal as extensively with freedom in On the Equality of the Sexes. Suchon's conception of freedom comes from Catholic theology. Echoing Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and Jean Gerson (1363–1429), chancellor of the University of Paris, Suchon defines freedom as a gift of God; and free will, which distinguishes humans from animals and even angels, as common to men and women. The recipients of God's grace resemble Him in their freedom; consequently, it is a travesty of His will for one human being to deprive another of this freedom (93–98, 116–20).
Suchon decries the constraint that surrounds the most important "choice" a woman will make in her life: whether to marry (and whom to marry) or whether to join a convent (and which convent). Like other pro-woman writers, she observes that many marriages are monetary transactions indifferent to the young woman's interests, even though a bad husband can be "purgatory," even "sheer hell" (124). But a woman's "decision" to sacrifice her freedom to the legal and economic tutelage of a husband or to the confinement and strict regulations of a convent is merely the culmination of a life of constraint. Young, inexperienced, and misinformed, young women "commit to ways of life they cannot withstand" (87). Marriages "contracted through exterior signs and ceremonies without the inner consent of the will," she emphasizes, should not be legally binding (101). Suchon advocates delaying the age for taking vows but forcefully argues that the convent is not necessary for—or even effective at—preserving women's chastity (126–31). She furthermore defends the "right to rescind vows"—a veiled reference to her own struggle with the Church and her contested decision to become a lapsed Jacobin—and advocates in favor of divorce and separation (101–3).
Suchon's identification of the constraint experienced by women with the hardships endured by Job (116–17)—a biblical figure much beloved by Christian neo-Stoics—is symptomatic of the strong Stoic current that runs throughout her Treatise. The Stoics cultivated an ethic of detachment as the only true means to finding tranquility (1.20, fr. 109–14; 152); accordingly, she recommends "unconcern" as the way to contentment (106). Still, far from advocating the eradication of all passions, Suchon insists that good desires should—and must—be pursued. Tempering Stoicism with Aristotelian teleology, she argues that the "achievement and possession" resulting from the successful pursuit of good desires overcome frivolous or immoral desires (106).
For Suchon, the most worthy desire of all is knowledge (138). In the second part of her Treatise, she promotes the ideal of right reason, that is, the convergence of the quest for knowledge and virtue. Drawing on Poullain de la Barre's claim that "the mind has no sex," on Augustine's affirmation of the sexlessness of the soul, and on the ancient Stoic notion that "the seeds of knowledge and virtue" are present at birth in all people (138), Suchon states that "ignorance is a form of slavery," and female ignorance a product of biased customs and institutions designed to insure the "imperious domination" of women (184). "Women's deprivation of knowledge originates not in divine or natural law," she asserts, "but solely in manmade institutions and the will of men" (184). It is therefore improbable that these men would promote her wish to establish all-female "assemblies devoted to knowledge" and to see women become "fine ... humanists, eloquent rhetoricians, appealing poets, and subtle philosophers" (183), as indeed the numerous learned women she cites somehow managed to do in ancient and modern times. Molière's mockery in Learned Women (1672) of Philaminte's project to found an academy exclusively for women was but one of a legion of satires against female learning and cultural practices.
Suchon adapts the ancient trope that "enlightened minds are usually the most virtuous" to misogynistic fears about women's idleness. Study, she suggests, is the best way to overcome female slander, vanity, coquetry, and greed, which are all caused by ignorance (176–83). Indeed, fully anticipating Enlightenment philosophy, she believes that everything can be remedied with the light of knowledge. Thus Suchon vehemently opposes watered-down substitutes for substantial knowledge: devotional books designed specifically for women—such as François de Sales's Introduction à la vie devote (1609)—disgust rather than engage the woman eager for learning. And if women were allowed to study theology, spiritual directors would have no need to worry about the mystical illusions of their female flock; "positive" (i.e., academic) theology would fill the amorphous void of "negative theology" (i.e., mysticism) (149).
Despite her admiration for Poullain de la Barre, a devoted Cartesian, Suchon does not share his enthusiasm for Descartes—indeed she appears never to have read him. Her epistemology and natural philosophy remain solidly scholastic, reflecting the amalgam between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy that reigned in the university from the thirteenth century. In form as well as content, Suchon's Treatise is redolent of the university training she never received. In effect, she makes her case for women's freedom, knowledge, and authority through the most scholarly formats available: the treatise. No other female participant in the querelle des femmes chose to write as comprehensive and authoritative a treatise. Instead, many pro-woman works of the Renaissance followed the conventions of the declamatio or of the paradoxa—the defense of a dubious proposition, often for the sake of demonstrating one's rhetorical nimbleness. Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) proclaimed the superiority of women over men—an approach to "the woman problem" that Suchon rejects—in Latin, thus making it inaccessible to most women. In the seventeenth century, and in vernacular French, Marie de Gournay's pamphlet-length tract, On the Equality of Men and Women (1622), is reminiscent in its brevity and density of Montaigne's Essays, whereas Poullain de la Barre, in On the Equality of the Two Sexes (1673), adopts no authority other than the reason and good sense of an objective "I," arguing from observable truths. Suchon, on the other hand, bodies forth a full range of authorities to support her points—from scripture, patristic authors, and the pagan sages of antiquity, to "moderns" such as Poullain himself. Associating brevity with obscurity, she prefers an "expansive" prose studded with definitions and examples (83). The three parts of her Treatise comprise over six hundred pages.
In its scholastic style, Suchon's Treatise bears some resemblance to Anna Maria van Schurman's Dissertatio (1638)—translated into English as The Learned Maid, or Whether a Maid may be a Scholar (1659). The first woman to attend a Dutch university, Schurman studied with the Aristotelian philosopher Gisbertus Voetius at the University of Utrecht and wrote her Dissertatio as an exercise in logic, replete with technical vocabulary and requisite syllogisms. Although Suchon's Treatise is far broader in scope and much more heartfelt than Schurman's Dissertatio, both deploy the scholarly language of the university—the most traditional theoretical vocabulary available—to promote women's advancement. The strategy was perhaps effective, since Voetius, a conservative Calvinist, went on to author his own tract regarding the education of women. At the very least, Suchon's Treatise garnered the approbation of the four official censors charged with evaluating its orthodoxy. However, Suchon's lengthy, impassioned arguments on behalf of women's freedom, knowledge, and authority were controversial, especially in the repressive and religiously conservative climate that dominated the end of the seventeenth century in France. Surely, the most controversial book of the Treatise on Ethic and Politics is the third, on authority, because Suchon focuses on power, and thus on men and women in direct relation to one another. In a way that is consistent with the logic of deprivation that structures the parts on freedom and knowledge, she affirms authority as valuable because it enables women to accomplish good (not because it allows one human to dominate others) (3, foreword). Conversely, dependence, the deprivation of authority, is painful to rational creatures because it thwarts the innate tendency to pursue what is right (3.15).
Numerous tensions—especially in the biblical and historical examples she presents—pull at Suchon's contention that women can have authority without diverging from their biblically mandated submission to men. Because God gave dominion over nature to women as well as men, she reasons, men's dominance over women is a fundamental distortion of what began as a simple difference of degree. To be sure, God created ecclesiastic and secular hierarchies, and Suchon refutes those who argue that "today's dominions are no longer the works of God" (195). And yet the precise site where God's initiative ends and prejudiced, manmade custom begins remains—as it must—unclear. The ambiguous distinction between divine and human law may explain why, more than in the other two books of the Treatise, Suchon here professes respect for custom "for the sake of propriety" and claims that "good sense" requires that we submit to custom (220, 192),21 even though this con strains her to abandon the authority of reason she champions throughout: "The same prince of philosophers [Aristotle] teaches us that there are many situations in which reason must command, rather than men, since their authority sometimes degenerates into tyranny. Yet I will not say that the authority exercised over the sex is the same kind that Aristotle condemns, for I do not want to expose myself to the censure of those who rigidly observe custom instead of conducting themselves according to reason" (221).
Excerpted from A WOMAN WHO DEFENDS ALL THE PERSONS OF HER SEX by Gabrielle Suchon Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Domna C. Stanton is Distinguished Professor in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Rebecca M. Wilkin is assistant professor of French at Pacific Lutheran University.
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