The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures

The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures

The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures

The Labor of the Mind: Intellect and Gender in Enlightenment Cultures


How did educated and cultivated men in early modern France and Britain perceive and value their own and women's cognitive capacities, and how did women in their circles challenge those perceptions, if only by revaluing the kinds of intelligence attributed to them? What was thought to distinguish the "manly mind" from the feminine mind? How did awareness of these questions inform various kinds of published and unpublished texts, including the philosophical treatise, the dialogue, the polite essay, and the essay in literary criticism?

The Labor of the Mind plumbs the social and cultural logic of the Enlightenment's trope of the manly mind; offers new readings of the textual representations of it; and examines the ways in which the trope was subverted or at least subtly questioned. With close readings of the writings of well-known and less familiar men and women, including Poullain de la Barre, The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Madeleine de Scudery, David Hume, Antoine-Leonard Thomas, Suzanne Curchod Necker, Denis Diderot, and Louise d'Epinay, and tracing their social networks and friendships, Anthony J. La Vopa explores the problematic opposition between mental labor as concentrated and sustained work, a labor of abstraction and judgment for which only men had the strength, and an aesthetic of effortless and tasteful play in polite conversation in which women were thought to excel. Covering nearly a century and a half of cultural and intellectual life from France to England and Scotland and then back again, La Vopa locates, beneath the tenacity of assumed natural differences, a lexicon imbued with ambivalence, ambiguity, and argument. The Labor of the Mind reveals the legacy for modernity of a fraught gendering of intellectual labor.


In one of his private pensées, written sometime in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, laments that the French no longer have a taste for the works of Corneille and Racine, two of the most exalted figures in seventeenth-century neoclassicism. Works that require concentrated mental effort (esprit) have come to seem “ridiculous.” the “problem,” he continues, “is more general”:

Nothing that has a specific object is bearable anymore: men of war can no
longer stand war: men of politics can no longer stand politics, and so
forth. Only general objects are known, and in practice, that amounts to
nothing. It is the company of women that has led us there, because it is in
their character not to be attached to anything fixed. [Thus we have
become like them.] There is only one sex anymore, and in our minds (par
) we are all women in spirit (esprit), and if we were to change faces
one night, no one would notice that anything else had changed. Even if
women were to move into all the employments that society offers, and
men were deprived of all those that society can take away, neither would
be disoriented.

The entry sounds virtually all the themes pursued in this book. French high culture is in decline, and this cultural change is due to a social innovation, the modern commerce between the sexes. the change has not simply feminized society; it has resulted in a process of effeminization, the emasculation of the male mind. in the world as it should be, and as it once was, there is in fact nothing neuter about the mind’s sex or gender: there are manly minds and feminine minds, different by nature. But in the unnatural culture of polite sociability that the word “company” evokes, the manly mind has disappeared. the connection between mind and sexed body has become irrelevant. a manly mind could endure sustained concentration; female minds—and now all minds—flit about in a void of nothingness. Implicit is that the widening commercialization of print culture has combined with the commerce of the sexes to produce this situation. Since the mind is no longer required to labor, a sexual division of labor no longer has any justification. If women began practicing occupations once exclusive to men, no one would notice.

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