Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Historicizing the Gender of Emotions: Changing Perceptions in Dutch Enlightenment Thought

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Historicizing the Gender of Emotions: Changing Perceptions in Dutch Enlightenment Thought

Article excerpt

From Virgil to Van Amerongen

We could easily fill a whole library with books that have taken their inspiration from the emotional nature of women. From Virgil's "Varium et mutabile semper femina" (Woman remains a changeable and capricious creature) to the more recent, ironic "We men do not cry" from Martin van Amerongen, [1] history is paved with casual comments that attribute to women a different way of relating to emotions from men.

The idea that women are more emotional than men appears to be embedded in Western culture, not only in the opinion of the general public, as expressed down the ages by poets and journalists, but also in science, which has from its beginnings projected the phenomenon of emotionalism almost exclusively onto the female body. Whereas in earlier times the explanation was sought in the uncontrollable motions of the uterus, a chronic imbalance between bodily fluids or weak nerves, [2] nowadays all this is translated into a biochemical and evolutionary jargon that explains the origins of "natural" differences of psyche and behavior between the sexes in terms of the sex-specific workings of hormones and the structure of the cerebral hemispheres. [3] So from antiquity right up to the present day, Western culture has had what one might almost call a "respectable" tradition of presenting emotionalism and womanhood as unquestionable equivalents.

Differences in interpretation

Yet despite this apparent solidity and continuity, the concept of the emotional woman has been subject to erosion in the course of history, and the meanings attached to the phenomenon of female emotionalism have been highly changeable. For whatever the differences between women's and men's bodies, they were not always held to imply an automatic inequality of mind.

In classical philosophy the soul was in principle sexless, and this was also true of early Christian theology, which preached the spiritual equality of the sexes. [4] Thus the refusal to attribute different mental faculties to men and women on the basis of their physical differences can also boast a long tradition. It is not their bodies but their upbringing and poor education that explain why women behave in certain ways, Christine de Pisan posited around 1400 in response to misogynous comments by contemporaries. Her assertion started off a fierce debate that continued for several centuries, and which became known in early modern times as the Querelle des femmes. [5] This historical debate introduced the opposition that still determines the debate on the psychological differences between the sexes today: the opposition between nature and culture, between biological determination and social conditioning, that De Pisan had been the first to express.

Another opposition that greatly influenced the meanings attached to female emotionalism was that between positive and negative appraisals. As early as 1748 the Dutch journalist and encyclopedist Egbert Buys reflected on the complexities involved:

It is true that Women's passions are in general far stronger than those of Men; this is why their wrath, hatred, vengefulness, unchastity, pride and other impulses far exceed those of Men: but it is equally certain that where their inclinations are for the good, they surpass Men in their qualities of patience, love, mercy, chastity, humility and endurance. [6]

It is no coincidence that Buys should have chosen the year 1748 in which to champion female "inclinations," as will become apparent further on in this article. But what concerns me here is that female emotionalism may be associated with the most diverse types of emotional responses, from wrath to patience, from hate to love, from vengeance to mercy, which are not only quite different in content but which are also valued quite differently.

So although the concept of the emotional woman appears to be a standard historical fixture, we can find ample historical grounds for questioning the monolithic and supposedly unchanging essence of this female emotionalism. …

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