Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Sexual/textual Politics in the Enlightenment: Diderot and d'Epinay Respond to Thomas's Essay on Women

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Sexual/textual Politics in the Enlightenment: Diderot and d'Epinay Respond to Thomas's Essay on Women

Article excerpt

In January, 1772, Antoine-Leonard Thomas, member of the French Academy and habitue of Mme Necker's prestigious salon, published a 140-page treatise titled Essai sur le caractere, les moeurs et l'esprit des femmes dans les differents siecles.(1) In it, he proposed to examine women's role and condition in various periods and cultures and to probe to what extent their character, behavior, and capabilities are derived from nature or nurture. After a lengthy historical survey, Thomas returned to his central question: "Si aucune femme ne s'est mise a cote des hommes celebres, est-ce la faute de l'education ou de la nature?" (74) The response he offers is highly ambiguous. Because of their sheltered life, "delicate fibers," and "natural" modesty, women are in his view less able than men to feel and express strong emotions, and hence less able to create great art: "Je demanderai si leurs fibres, plus delicates, ne doivent pas craindre des sensations fortes qui les fatiguent," he asks. "Sauront-elles, comme l'auteur d'Andromaque et de Phedre exprimer les transports d'une ame troublee qui joint les fureurs a l'amour...? non: et c'est la nature elle-meme qui le leur defend." (75-77) Thomas further maintains that women are less apt to excel in artistic or intellectual pursuits, since the inferiority of their minds is compounded by their "natural" impatience and lack of perseverance. Invoking traditional gender stereotypes and hierarchies (man as active creative principle, woman as passive mirror), he subtly shifts from the physical to the psychological, from the natural to the social, which he presents as mutually reinforcing and mutually justifying:

L'homme toujours actif est expose aux orages. L'imagination du poete se nourrit sur la cime des montagnes, aux bords des volcans, sur les mers, sur les champs de bataille... Mais les femmes, par leur vie sedentaire et molle, eprouvant moins le contraste du doux et du terrible, peuvent-elles sentir et peindre, meme ce qui est agreable? ... Peut-etre leur imagination, quoique vive, ressemblet-elle au miroir qui reflechit tout, mais ne cree rien. (76) In this passage, Thomas extends the notion of separate spheres and the sexual division of labor from the social world to the realm of ideas and artistic creation. He also implicitly adopts the assumptions underlying traditionalistnaturalist discourse(2) on women: that they are by nature inferior to and dependent upon men, that their primary function is to serve as wives and mothers, and that they should therefore be excluded from the public sphere and educated for a strictly domestic role. Like other traditionalists, Thomas appealed to history, to custom, and above all to nature to justify women's continued subordination.

Although Thomas expresses sympathy for the oppressed condition of women, he in no way challenges traditional gender structures. In fact, his essay tends on the whole only to reinforce misogynic stereotypes: "Par leur nature, [les femmes] sont plus portees a tous les genres de dissimulation," he maintains. "Ouvrez l'Histoire, vous les verrez toujours voisines de l'exces de la pitie ou de la vengeance: il leur manque cette force calme qui sait s'arreter." (99; 101) Thomas also points to women's intuition, sensitivity, and supernatural gifts, to their schizoid and hysterical tendencies--again implying that these are natural traits and not culturally conditioned ones.(3) A number of his arguments seem to have been borrowed almost word for word from Emile. For example, Thomas writes: "La nature a donne a l'un des desirs et le droit d'attaquer; a l'autre, la defense et ces desirs timides qui attirent en resistant." (77)(4) As in Rousseau's writings, the central argument that emerges from Thomas's essay is that the differences and inequalities between the sexes are derived from nature.

After lamenting the moral corruption of eighteenth-century society--due largely, in his view, to a confusion of gender roles and to a disintegration of family ties--Thomas concludes his essay by criticizing his female contemporaries' "unnatural" desire to meddle in politics or to participate in the public sphere in other ways. …

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