French Women and the Age of Enlightenment

French Women and the Age of Enlightenment

French Women and the Age of Enlightenment

French Women and the Age of Enlightenment

Excerpt

Since women find the paths to fame and power closed to members of their sex, they achieve these goals via other routes, using their charms as compensation.

--Mmede Lambert (Oeuvres, pp. 69-70)

DURING the eighteenth century, foreign observers identified the women of France as a distinct and probably dangerous species. The essays by Katharine M. Rogers, Charlotte C. Prather, Carolyn Hope Wilberger, and Eva M. Kahiluoto Rudat, which conclude this volume, demonstrate that, national and cultural differences notwithstanding, English, German, Russian, and Spanish visitors concurred that French women differed--unfavorably--from those at home. According to David Hume, the French nation "gravely exalts those, whom nature has subjected to them, and whose inferiority and infirmities are absolutely incurable." Melchior Grimm, that dauntless chronicler of the Parisian literary scene, was similarly disturbed by the libertine social mores, social influence, and political power of French women, whose unwarranted behavior threatened proper family and civic structure. In their different ways, Russian and Spanish commentators recognized the power and attraction of French culture, but they also recognized the wide freedom of French women as disruptive of traditional values.

These views instructively point to the special quality of women's status in eighteenth-century France. All foreigners, apparently, saw the French case as one of excess, as a deviation from the norm. No matter, for the moment, that the norms of, say, England and Russia differed considerably from each other. The recognized divergence of French women from all norms presents a paradox, for, by common agreement, French women were seen to enjoy power and freedom that correspond imperfectly to the modern view of the constraints that hedged in their lives.

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who, in 1862, wrote the first comprehensive interpretation--and the first modern cultural and social portrait--of La Femme au dix-huitième siècle, called attention to the paradox, even if they did not explore it fully. "When during the . . .

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