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Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises

Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises

by François Poullain de la Barre

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One of the most radical feminist theorists in Europe before the nineteenth century, François Poullain de la Barre (1647-1723) was a man way ahead of his time. Applying Cartesian principles to "the Woman Question," Poullain demonstrated by rational deduction that the supposedly "self-evident" inequality of the sexes was nothing more than unfounded prejudice.


One of the most radical feminist theorists in Europe before the nineteenth century, François Poullain de la Barre (1647-1723) was a man way ahead of his time. Applying Cartesian principles to "the Woman Question," Poullain demonstrated by rational deduction that the supposedly "self-evident" inequality of the sexes was nothing more than unfounded prejudice.

Poullain published three books (anonymously) on this topic in the 1670s, all of which are included in English translation in this volume. In On the Equality of the Two Sexes he argued that the supposedly "natural" inferiority of women was culturally produced. To help women recognize and combat this prejudice, Poullain advocated a modern, enlightened feminine education in On the Education of Ladies. Finally, since his contemporaries largely ignored Poullain's writings, he offered a rebuttal to his own arguments in On the Excellence of Men—a rebuttal that he promptly countered, strengthening his original positions.

A truly modern feminist, Poullain laid the intellectual groundwork for the women's liberation movement centuries before it happened.

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University of Chicago Press
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Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
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Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises

By Vivien Elizabeth Bosley

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Vivien Elizabeth Bosley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226676544


This treatise comprises two large sections, preceded by a Preface and followed by a Postface, all clearly identified by Poullain with titles. The Preface introduces the reader to Cartesian analysis. Poullain proposes to subject a common prejudice to rational inquiry. No prejudice is better suited to such a purpose than belief in the inequality of the sexes, the most pervasive of all of human errors of judgment. Applying the "rule of truth," that is, "to accept nothing as true unless it is supported by clear and distinct ideas," he proposes to challenge the views of the vast majority of the unlearned (part 1) and then of the learned (part 2). Anticipating the objection that his inquiry will bring about social disruption, he says his intention is only to draw women out of the idleness to which they have been condemned by encouraging them to study, inasmuch as study is "more or less all they are allowed to do at the moment." Poullain's biography shows that he is not a man of action. In retrospect, his ideas might appear revolutionary because they foreshadow the spirit of reforms that will rise from the age of Enlightenment, but Poullain neither promotes nor expects any profound disruption of the social fabric to result from his inquiry.His intention is rather to bring intelligent readers to a new sense of awareness and to give women enough self-confidence to begin their own intellectual emancipation, for which they are as well equipped as men.

Part One deals with the most prevalent prejudices about women embedded in all cultures since the beginning of time. His treatment falls neatly into three parts.

1. Poullain questions the validity of customs and traditions. Why do most people hold onto common beliefs (e.g., that the sun circles the earth) when scientists have proved otherwise? Why do we believe our country the best and our religion the truest? Self-interest or habit. The same is true of be-39 lief in the inequality of the sexes. Men believe that women are fit for the home but not for civic life. Had women been capable of public responsibility, so the argument goes, they would never have been excluded from it in the first place. The argument boils down to saying that "this is the way things have always been done, therefore they should be done this way." Men have passed laws to insure their rule, and women have tolerated their situation because they have been raised in a state of dependency and so see things as men do. But to hold to custom and usage because they are sanctioned by time (and male privilege) is pure prejudice. The concept of possibly breaking this cycle never occurs under this line of reasoning.

2. How did this situation evolve? In the manner of the new natural lawphilosophers, Poullain imagines a prehistorical, basically egalitarian society in which the forces governing human relationships were founded on mutual reliance between the sexes. During those innocent times, the constraints of the female anatomy imposed certain demands on women's activities, but their physical make-up did not mandate their subservience to the stronger sex. Ironically, in this presocietal epoch of the savages (as Poullain imagines humans in this state), women's rights were respected. This ideal status remained as long as marriages were endogamic and the family unit fairly simple. The situation evolved with the sophistication of social organization, especially aggravated by the practice of exogamic marriages. Furthermore, the establishment of the rule of primogeniture gave rise to a social revolt of younger males against their oldest brothers for possession of the family goods. At this point, defenseless women became regarded "as the most desirable part of their booty." Under the tyranny of their husbands and brothers, mothers and daughters internalized their new functions of peaceful homemakers while the males took charge outside. Consequently, "women were not included in the first occupations." For Poullain, they had been robbed of their natural rights. Defeated and scorned by their victors, they found that their physical weakness further diminished their social standing, rendering them subject to the violence and injustices of their masters. Poullain depicts the march of civilization in terms of bloody struggles in which "women's gentleness and humanity" disqualified them from sharing the glory and the spoils of wars. Women's role came to be deemed useless in those primitive societies, where sheer military might determined political control. Long before he would act upon his reformist beliefs to break away from the oppressive regime of the French monarchy, Poullain contests the concept of any line of command in which "the external deference shown to those in authority became associated with the idea of power," that is, that the more power a person yields the more respect is due him.

Thus, the initial "usurpation" of women's fundamental freedom of choice led to their exclusion from the dynamics of public life. Why, for example, were women excluded from the ministry in religion or from the sciences? Since the women's sphere of influence had been reduced to the maintenance of their household and the care of their children, they were prevented de facto from partaking in intellectual activities typically the reserved domain of men. Poullain singles out the exclusion of women from the male "academies" which were gathering sites of the French intelligentsia. But his criticism encompasses the tradition that has ostracized female participation from the pursuit of knowledge in any form of encounter. Not only were women placed at a disadvantage by the lack of opportunities to enhance their education, formally or informally; they were encouraged to give "themselves up to frivolity," for which alone they received positive reinforcement.

3. In a discussion as long as both the preceding two, Poullain questions the grounds for accepting common prejudices about women by presenting evidence against them. His evidence comes from two different perspectives.

First, women's manners distinguish them. Despite their lack of learning, their virtue and grace generally increase with age. They are discreet in look, expression, bearing, and movement (unlike men). The leadership of women in polite society sets the tone for elegance and style. Poullain praises women's natural talent for bringing into social intercourse a pleasantness devoid of pedantic erudition.

In addition, without being trained in intellectual subjects, women have often demonstrated far more good sense than learned men. Poullain conducted a survey in which he asked women of various social classes what they believed about God and the soul, but also about more empirical matters like the flow of blood and the erosion of rocks, and he discovered that the obfuscating answers given by scholars were far from their responses, which were concrete and down-to-earth.

Second, Poullain gives greatest attention in this section, however, to proving that women have as much aptitude for learning as do men. He does not appeal to history and its examples of illustrious women--standard fare since Boccaccio's Concerning Famous Women (1360). Rather, true to his methodology, he focuses on questions of their rationality. He cites, for example, their quick detection of pretense, their ability to speak eloquently and to present a law case logically and convincingly, their penchant for storytelling, their acumen in finding remedies for illnesses. A point of particular interest is Poullain's crediting women for having intuitively understood the influence of climatic conditions to explain the cultural differences in people's way of life.

As to why women know little of abstract sciences such as algebra, geometry, and optics, Poullain replies that these specialized topics rarely blend into polite conversation, and that because traditional institutions of higher learning like the academies have been closed to women, women have had little exposure to abstract scientific knowledge.

Throughout this discussion Poullain speaks against class distinctions. He asks: How many peasants might have become renowned scholars if they had been given a chance? His survey of women, both ladies and commoners, reveals an attitude that might evoke images of the French Revolution, but in Poullain's time his inclusion of classes below the nobility was too extreme to be taken seriously. He was on safer ground when he praised learning "among ladies." He had natural allies among the salonnieres, who aspired to play a positive role in the cultural life of the nation. At the top of his list he distinguishes the feminine "scholars" for having the courage and fortitude "to surmount various public obstacles" in the pursuit of their studies, none more difficult than "the unfortunate opprobrium in which female scholars are generally held." Moliere's successful mockery in his Learned Ladies the preceding year appears to have motivated Poullain's defense of the intelligent woman.

Poullain concludes by praising the virtue of women--in caring for those who are sick, in maintaining their virginity or their steadfastness in marriage, in the care and education of their children. Since women possess virtue, he suggests, they have the principal advantage of scientific study without the study itself. In attributing virtue without study to women, however, he argues as did his opponents.

In Part Two Poullain turns to the prejudices of learned men and attempts to "show why the proofs that could be used against the equality of the two sexes taken from poets, historians, lawyers, and philosophers are all vain and futile." His arguments can be grouped into three sections, identified in Poul-lain's original text by an extended heading.

1. Since truth is naturally associated with science, we are inclined, saysPoullain, to regard as true the claim of poets, orators, historians, and philosophers that women are inferior to (i.e., less noble and perfect than) men. In fact, however, all these scholars base their view of women on the Ancients, who are their authorities. Hence they, no less than common people, accept custom and opinion.

Take the poets. He cites Sarazin's sonnet on Eve and alludes to Moliere's rendition of women's foibles as examples of the influence of the Ancients' views of women on modern writers. But however much such writers assert the inferiority of women, we are hard pressed to find in their writings any reasons for why they are. Men think this way because they have the power; if women had power, as in the kingdom of the Amazons, ways of thinking about the sexes might be reversed. Thus the profession of judge or soldier is given great respect, while that of housewife is given very little, despite the fact that the work of women--safeguarding our lives--is much more important than that of any public official. Respect is arbitrarily bestowed according to the distribution of power.

Historians also base their work on the prejudices of the Ancients. Even if prejudices against women appeared in a thousand chronicles, they should still be considered prejudices and not authoritative. If historians follow prejudicial opinions, why should we be surprised that their readers concur? If we look at what women actually did in the past, however, we find that they governed great states and empires, meted out justice, led armies, suffered for religious principles. History has been used as a weapon against women, but it could more justly be used to show that women are no less noble than men.

Lawyers have erred just as grievously. Against the law of nature which makes all people equal, they have written laws declaring the perpetual servitude of women to men. No one in fact is perpetually dependent. Children are dependent on their parents only until they become adults; then they are free. Although men have been declared heads of families, what we find in practice is a reciprocal commitment in which good sense and power over the body are equal between the partners. And if the husband is given greater control over possessions, nature gives greater weight of authority over children to the wife. If a woman has to do what her husband wants her to, the reverse is also true. In saying all this, Poullain comes dangerously close to professing a doctrinal heresy with regard to the balance of power in the traditional family. He actually calls for the end of the patriarchal unit, which has placed women in a state of civil subordination. His transvaluation of values with regard to the matrimonial state is without a doubt one of Poullain's most radical solutions to the negative impact of the "historical conjecture" on a woman's life.

Last on Poullain's list of culprits but first in their misuse of intellectual authority are the philosophers, who have an authority greater than poets, orators, historians, or lawyers. By philosophers Poullain means "scholastic philosophers," whom he criticizes as given to abstractions and trivialities of speculation, all based on past authority (or prejudice) and irrelevant to scientific truth. Poullain's definition of science is a restatement of Descartes's methodology, which he demonstrates with a "definition of liquidity," making the point that it contains nothing ordinary women cannot understand. Indeed, more intelligence is required to learn needlepoint and tapestry than to learn physics. Poullain then proceeds to root out completely the contrary opinion.

2. A consideration of the disciplines just discussed leads to a more general maxim, namely, that "the mind has no sex," or, put differently, that "the mind is equal in men and women." The sameness of the sexes lies in their nature, the differences between them rests in custom and social practice. Poullain owes this idea to Descartes, though Descartes never specifically addressed women's issues in his philosophical consideration of the cogito.13Poullain discusses the scientific disciplines, from which he believes women should no longer be barred, grouping them into two categories: theoretical sciences, which he later defines as those areas of knowledge that directly concern men and women, and practical sciences, loosely defined as "sciences that deal with people in their relationship to others in civil society." But as he makes clear in the transitional discussion between these two groups of sciences, a person who can master one group can also master the other, contrary to the view that those fitted for one group are rarely fitted for the other.

The first group includes metaphysics (defined by Poullain in Cartesian terms as the nature of mind), physics and medicine (both based on observation and thus closely allied), the passions (motions of the body and emotions of the soul), logic and mathematics (both having to do with order), and astronomy. In the century of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes it was still possible to envision an all-encompassing scientific expertise of the human intellect. But to invite women to feed from the tree of knowledge was utopian.


Excerpted from Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises by Vivien Elizabeth Bosley Copyright © 2002 by Vivien Elizabeth Bosley. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Marcelle Maistre Welch is a professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages at Florida International University.

Vivien Bosley is an associate professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta.

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