A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature

By Marina Benjamin | Go to book overview

Reflections on the History of the Science of Woman

Sylvana Tomaselli

These reflections are part of a quest for a subject, the science of woman. 1 Within the context of the long eighteenth century, they consider a very simple set of questions, namely, whether there was such a science and whether what may or may not pass for one admits of a history. Also queried is whether these questions merit being raised. To be perfectly candid, there are ready answers to these questions, but as they gain in significance from being seen within a wider perspective, what follows is a somewhat roundabout way to them.

Men and women have written about women since antiquity. One would think them a perennial subject, were it not for the fact that the topicality of women was so enhanced in some periods as to make them seem almost entirely occluded in others. 2 In the early modern age, a good deal was said by and about them in the sixteenth century and a great deal again, possibly more, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 3 Work upon work was composed about their bodies, their minds, their education or lack of it, their rights, their promiscuity, their dress and other artifices. Were they capable of friendship among themselves? 4 Did they love more or less than men? Had they more intense pleasures? 5 Greater pains? Were they witty? Truthful? Faithful? Fickle? 6 Were foreign and ancient languages beyond their grasp? Should they be allowed to own property? To read what they wished? Even novels? To have skills other than domestic ones? Were they able to rule? And if so, could they head despotic as well as more moderate regimes? 7 What of their fertility? Their longevity? 8 What were women like, and what ought they to be?

Women were considered as a unified whole, the female sex, indeed the sex. But they were also differentiated, according to race, culture, nationality, and class. Some were even created as individuals

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