Documents of the Enlightenment century indicate, and subsequent studies confirm, that – with the possible exception of the present century – women have never been so influential and prolific as they were in the Age of Enlightenment. Recently, a new generation of historians and literary scholars – women in particular – has greatly enhanced our understanding and appreciation of eighteenth century women. The purpose of this work is to include in a single paper a view of women’s political, social, cultural, literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments in the Enlightenment.
Further this work compares views of women at the time of the Enlightenment from times previous to the Enlightenment till those held today. Opening Statement, Assumption or Hypothesis Telling the story of women in the Enlightenment poses many methodological and conceptual challenges. The fundamental difficulty, of course, lies in the category ‘women’ itself. How can one write about ‘women’ when the term embraces more than half of the population and is made up of individuals from many different walks of life? Further, we are affected at the level of belief systems which may cause us to interpret women’s behavior differently from men’s.
Additionally, our own behavioral choices may also be influenced by social expectations regarding what is appropriate to our sex. Thus, social life is very different for men and women. As a result, the paper investigates women in the Enlightenment roles with the belief that women can offer something unique at the time of the Enlightenment. Discussion of Findings The eighteenth century was in many respects a good time to be a woman—at least for a female elite. As the Goncourt brothers suggested in a classic work, never before, perhaps, had women appeared to be so powerful or so sexually liberated (Gilmour 21).
At Court and in the world of the Parisian salons, brilliant society women wielded immense influence in their aristocratic and upper-class milieu. Royal mistresses such as Mme de Pompadour and Mme du Barry, or society hostesses such as the wealthy Mme du Deffand or the scandalous Mme du Tencin, mother of the philosophe d’Alembert, were only the most obvious examples: and to these could be added independent women who succeeded in earning their own living as writers, like the Marquise de Chatelet, the translator of Newton’s Principia and friend of Voltaire, or as artists, like the painter Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun.
Just as men were known (if not expected) to indulge in extra-marital affairs, so too in polite society female sexual infidelity was tolerated, provided it was not flaunted and the honor of a husband not impaired. The French aristocracy undoubtedly practiced birth control, which was the main reason that the birth rate in the families of the nobility fell from 6. 5 in the seventeenth century to 2 in the eighteenth century, and this in turn could only have diminished women’s fears of the dangers of childbirth, as well as of male sexual aggression.
In practice, if not in theory, the double standard of morality no longer applied to many women of the upper classes. Yet, as the Goncourts also recognized, women simultaneously appeared in another and less flattering light in the period. Anti-woman prejudice remained strong in the eighteenth century, and in many ways the unconventional behavior of women of the elite succeeded only in making it stronger.
The birth of a female child was not necessarily greeted as good news in eighteenth-century family. This inference of sexual equality was far from universally drawn, even from mainstream theories of the mind. Humans might be born mentally equal but this was consistent with environmental circumstances affecting in relevant ways a person’s intellectual and moral development. In the case of women a combination of social and biological circumstances was cited that legitimated differences of treatment.
Talleyrand, in his Report on Public Instruction of 1791, admits that at first sight it seems anomalous that half the human race is excluded from all participation in government by the other half and that they are, in effect, treated as foreigners by the law under which they were born and have grown up (Fitzpatrick 30). Nevertheless, the exclusion of women is for the good of the whole, permitting them to pursue their natural destinies as mothers, away from the distracting tumult of public affairs that would endanger their delicate constitutions.
The conservation of society has indicated this natural division of powers. Consequently the education of women should be directed to these responsibilities, not at denaturing their faculties. It is best conducted in the asylum of the paternal home to accustom women to a retired and calm life (Talleyrand 1791:168-71). This form of argument could appeal even to liberals and radicals, since it did not deny women their intellectual equality but justified differential education on natural and functional grounds.