The Eighteenth Century
The feminist critique of women's subordinate status in Europe did not begin, as many recent interpreters have claimed, with the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. Its traces can be located in earlier centuries, not only in the French literary dispute known as the querelle des femmes, but well before. In the late seventeenth century, it received a great boost when François Poullain de la Barre turned the tools of Cartesian reason on the "woman question," and mixed-sex sociability evolved into a distinguishing feature of French courtly culture, which was swiftly imitated and further elaborated by urban elites. From that time forth women's "complaints" (emerging in an already simmering stew of discourse characterized by complaints about women) erupted into a full-scale critique of male domination and, by extension, male-dominated institutions. From a trickle, this critique began to gush forth in France and England, then in Holland, the German principalities, the Italian city-states, spreading eventually to the larger and smaller kingdoms of Central Europe. 1
The chapters in Part I confront and attempt to revise several decades of historical writing about European feminisms during the eighteenth century. In Chapter 2, I step outside the conventional approach to the Enlightenment, which in the French context has focused so heavily on the male philosophes, the Encyclopedia project, and on political and economic theorists, and in the German context on the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his influential 1785 essay "What Is Enlightenment?" 2 Instead, I will survey an abundant but understudied cache of published materials that openly critiqued the subordinate status of women. 3 By thus decentering the leading male philosophes, I insist instead on the multiplicity of publishing voices in which European women and men expressed what we would now call feminist concerns, and on the broader context in which Enlightenment thought on the woman question developed and to which its thinkers responded.
Eighteenth-century writers confronted a variety of issues, centering on male authority in families and the legal and moral relationships of in-