Women in the Enlightenment


Women in the Enlightenment

The active role of women during the Enlightenment has always been a strongly debated topic. Some support that women were completely oppressed and kept to the private sphere; some go so far as to say they were kept to be kept in the house. Others have delved into the female world to find out answers to their questions. How did women participate in the public sphere? What roles did they play in the evolution of rational thinking? Were there women who took an active role in changing the political and social institutions of the day? As more and more research is done, the role of women is open to more and more interpretations.

alons and Salonnieres

Dena Goodman puts forth a vision of women in the salons of France as a very small number of elite women who were very concerned with their own education and promoting the philosophes Enlightenment. Their purpose, Goodman says, is to “self-satisfy the educational needs of the women who started them.” [Goodman, Dena. "The Republic of Letters", Cornell Publishers 1994 p.77] These elite women would host a salon in a domestic setting, either in their own home or in a hotel dining room dedicated to the salons function. The salons developed from a late set meal where discourse was to take place afterwards to a meal early in the afternoon that would last until late at night. During the meal, dining would not be the focus of the event, but the discourse between patrons. [Goodman, Dena. "The Republic of Letters", Cornell Publishers 1994 p.91] There was an hierarchical social structure in the salons. The social rank of French society was upheld within the salons, just under different rules of conversation. The “conversation was meant to replicate the formality of correspondence in order to limit conflict and misunderstanding between people of different social ranks and orders” [Goodman, Dena. "The Republic of Letters", Cornell Publishers 1994 p.97] This allowed for the common person to be able to interact with the nobility. Through these salons, many men and women, were able to make contacts and possibly move up the social strata due to their knowledge and opinions. Within the hierarchy of the salons, women assumed a role of governance. “As governors, rather than judges, salonierres provided the ground for philosophes serious work by shaping and controlling the discourse to which men of letters were dedicated and which constituted their project of Enlightenment. In so doing, they transformed the salon from a leisure institution of the nobility to an institution of Enlightenment.” [Goodman, Dena. "The Republic of Letters", Cornell Publishers 1994 p.53] Women were able to take this position within the salons because of their gentle, polite, civil nature. Using the salonniere, Suzanne Necker, Goodman supports her claim that these salons had an impact on politics. Necker was married to the financial minister under King Louis XVI and therefore concludes that the political talk in the salons undoubtedly had an impact on the policies being released at the time. [Goodman, Dena. "The Republic of Letters", Cornell Publishers 1994 p.100] Essentially Goodman puts forth a view of the salons as a place where elite, well educated women continue their learning in a place of civil conversation governs the politic and people of all social orders may interact.

Antoine Lilti offers a differing opinion on the salons of France than some other authors. Lilti does share a few similarities with Dena Goodman’s depiction of the salon. First, Lilti acknowledges that there was a visible hierarchy within the salons which was respected in the salons as in the public. “The politeness and congeniality of these aristocrats maintained a fiction of equality that never dissolved differences in status but nonetheless made them bearable.” [Lilti, Antoine. "Sociability and Mondanite:Men of Letters in the Parisian Salons of the Eighteenth Century", Fayard 2005 p.5] The salons allowed for people of varying social classes to converse but never as equals. The differences between the arguments begin to be realized when they are speaking about the roles of women and why they are holding the salons. Lilti explains two reasons as to why women were partaking in the salons. The first is they took the role of “protectorate.”

The women of the salons played a role not unlike the one traditionally played by women in court society: offering protection, acting on behalf of such or such a person, mobilizing ministers or courtesans. Whether it be in averting the wrath of censors, helping an intrepid author out of the Bastille, securing an audience or a pension, or jockeying for a place in the French Academy, membership in high society and the support of female protectors was indispensable. [Lilti, Antoine. "Sociability and Mondanite:Men of Letters in the Parisian Salons of the Eighteenth Century", Fayard 2005 p.7]
The second reason women were involved in the salons was because the salons were based on High Societies mixed gender sociability. “The women of the salons ensured the ‘decency of the household’, enlivened conversation, and served as the guarantors of politeness.’” [Lilti, Antoine. "Sociability and Mondanite:Men of Letters in the Parisian Salons of the Eighteenth Century", Fayard 2005 p.17] Women had a presence to ensure civilized conversation, but not as ‘governors’, but as a discrete way to persuade men to watch themselves in their conduct. Lilti also upheld the view that the salons were not used as a way for women to further their education, but as a gathering for social events involving both men and women “in which hostesses welcomed into their homes both male and female socialites, as well as writers, as part of a mixed-gendered sociability dedicated to elite forms of entertainment: dining together as a group, conversation, theatre, music, games, belles-lettres.” [Lilti, Antoine. "Sociability and Mondanite:Men of Letters in the Parisian Salons of the Eighteenth Century", Fayard 2005 p.7] There was no emphasis on a serious attitude and intellectual discussion; it was merely a form of entertainment that emphasized the hierarchy of social ranks.

Coffeehouses and Debating Societies

Brian Cowan’s description of a coffee house is a place where the English virtuosi would gather to partake in conversation with others who wished to increase their knowledge in a civilized social setting. “The peculiarly ‘virtuosic’ emphases on civility, curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and learned discourse made the coffeehouse such a distinctive space in the social world of early modern London.’” [Cowan, Brian. "The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee Houses", New Haven: Yale University Press 2005. p.89] What a person learned in these coffee houses depended on personal interest. People of all levels of knowledge gathered to share information.

The coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate, to read, as well as to learn from and to debate with each other, but it was emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse there was of a far different order than any university tutorial. [Cowan, Brian. "The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee Houses", New Haven: Yale University Press 2005. p.91]
These informal practices of education were often condemned. There was an air of arrogance with some educated men; “the coffeehouse was an inappropriate venue for the learned discourse that was common currency to all virtuosity.” [Cowan, Brian. "The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee Houses", New Haven: Yale University Press 2005. p.111] Despite who was partaking in the coffeehouses and what was being taught, Cowan’s version of the coffeehouse is a completely male dominated institution.

Another view of the coffeehouse, put forward by Helen Berry, is one where women were quite involved. One woman in particular, Moll King, was involved in not only running her own coffeehouse but degrading the picturesque educated club house that was trying to be expressed. Moll King’s “familiarity with urban street life is suggestive of independence and a wild, untamable nature, as well as denoting the more obvious implication of sexual disrepute” [Berry, Helen. "Rethinking Politeness in Eighteenth Century England:Moll King's Coffee House and the Significance of 'Flash Talk"', Royal Historical Society 2001. p.69] When Moll married Thomas they opened up a small coffeehouse which kept late hours and catered to a populous very different from the virtuosi.

Lectures in natural philosophy could be heard at Man’s near Charing Cross or Garraway’s in Exchange Alley, while the Grecian coffeehouse in the Stand was closely associated with the Royal Society. Moll’s was clearly one of the seedier coffeehouses, yet it was popular and attracted fashionable men-about-town. [Berry, Helen. "Rethinking Politeness in Eighteenth Century England:Moll King's Coffee House and the Significance of 'Flash Talk"', Royal Historical Society 2001. p.72]
Berry’s expression of Moll King’s coffeehouse shows one area during the Enlightenment where women were not glorified for being the timid sex, governors of polite conversation, or protectorates of aspiring artists.
I have suggested that the text may be interpreted as a ‘discourse of impoliteness’, one that requires us to rethink politeness itself, not as a uniformly observed set of rules, nor as an attribute which all were striving to attain, but as a potentially repressive social force that eighteenth-century men and women, given the opportunity, took peculiar pleasure in transgressing. [Berry, Helen. "Rethinking Politeness in Eighteenth Century England:Moll King's Coffee House and the Significance of 'Flash Talk"', Royal Historical Society 2001. p.81]

Also happening in England around the time of the coffee houses were debating societies. Donna Andrew depicted these debating societies as people that gathered for “the appeal and purposes of meetings that combined instruction with entertainment, gentility with mass audiences, affairs of state with affairs of the heart.” [Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.405] Debating societies would rent a hall, charge an admission, and allow the public to discuss many topics in the public sphere. What separates them from other institutions is they specifically invited women to partake in their discussions. “They (women) were explicitly invited not only to attend, but to take part in debate.” [Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.410] Unlike the salons, the women were there to participate as equals, not governors or protectors. This is shown with the occurrence of violence during some debates.

Even the societies themselves agreed that their proceedings ‘might be better regulated.’ The president of the Westminster, for example, lamented the presence in the societies of ‘men of a restless, factious spirit [who] sow dissension in the minds of otherwise peaceable subjects. [Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.405]
Debating societies began as male dominated spheres of discussion, developed into a mixed-gender organization, and grew an arm where it became a women’s only event. At the end of 1780, there were four known women only debating societies; La Belle Assemblee, the Female Parliament, the Carlisle House Debates for Ladies only, and the Female Congress.ref>Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.410] The topics of debate in these societies often dealt with questions of male and female relations, marriage, courtship, and whether women should be allowed to partake in the political culture. Though women had begun to be asked to partake in the debating societies, there were stipulations on which societies they could be a part of and when they were permitted to attend. The main stipulation was the availability of alcohol. “’tis remarkable that debating societies which admit ladies, allow no liquor; and those who allow liquor, admit no ladies.” [Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.409] Although women did both attend and partake in the debating societies, there was much opposition to this movement at the time. One writer, INDIGNUS, was openly and strongly against the partaking of women in debating societies.
Were it really a Fact that these female Orators were any Thing more thanThe hired Reciters of a studied Lesson, It would be very little to their Honor… But the Truth is….Their lessons are all composed for them; so that they have no more to do with the Arguments they utter, than my Pen has with the Characters I force it to trace. [Andrews, Donna. "Popular Culture and Public Debate: London 1780" The Historical Journal 1996. p.420]

Women In Print

In her book, The Other Enlightenment, Carla Hesse shows that women were much more involved in publishing their writings than previously thought. Hesse explains a major problem that may have led to a decreased number of perceived women writers than before. It comes down to the difference between a woman being ‘published’ and a woman’s ‘publication.’ For a woman to be published, she had to have been given the credit for the writing. During most of the Enlightenment, a woman was considered property of her husband. In order for her to publish a work, she had to have the written consent of her husband. When the Old Regime began to fail though, women became more prolific in their publications. The publishers stopped being concerned about which women had consent from their husbands, and adopted a completely commercial attitude. The books that were going to sell, were going to be published.

The data on women writers suggests that the economic and commercial vision of the Enlightenment and Revolution opened up possibilities for female participation in an absolutely central arena of modern public life that was at odds with the dominant male conception of appropriate relations between the sexes. [Hesse, Carla. "The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern" Princeton University Press 2001. p.42]
After the opening up of the publishing world, it became much easier for women to make a living off of the profession. Writing was a profession that was able to be done anywhere; it could work around any of life’s circumstances as long as the person had a pen and pencil. ‘Writing and publishing, as difficult as they are, could be adapted more easily to the contingencies of women’s lives (married or unmarried) than any other profession that was as intellectually satisfying and as economically remunerative.’ [Hesse, Carla. "The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern" Princeton University Press 2001. p.45] Many women who were did not write because they needed the money often wrote for charities. Hesse also shows that the majority of what women were writing at the time defied the gender roles of the day. “Their literary careers had no generic boundaries/Novels were a cherished form of self-expression... but by no means a predominant one.” [Hesse, Carla. "The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern" Princeton University Press 2001. p.53]

Another area where women were previously seen as not having participated in a significant way was through Academic Prize Competitions. Historians, such as Pieretti and John Iverson, have promoted the idea that the participation of women in the concours peaked during the time of King Louis the XIV and slowly tapered off, others like Robert Darnton, simply fail to mention them at all. Jeremy Caradonna brings forth evidence to show otherwise. Caradonna shows that 49 of the over 2000 prize competitions were won by women. This number is a little misleading, however, because many of the women won on more than one occasion. “The abundance of repeat champions brings the total number of female laureates down to twenty four. Yet numerous women played the circuit without ever ending up in the winner’s circle.” [Caradonna, Jeremy. "Dissertation" p.192] The idea that women only won because the Prize Competitions were completely anonymous, is dispelled by Caradonna as well. “Mlle do Bermann referred to herself as a ‘une femme,’ and the anonymous concurrente at Chalons began one of her opening sentences with, simply, ‘comme je suis fille…’” [Caradonna, Jeremy. "Dissertation" p.199] The shift of the structure of the question also shows that women were being more heavily encouraged to partake in the Prize Competitions. The questions moved from being related to things believed only men would be interested in, to questions involving women’s rights. The Academy of Besancon even asked a question regarding the education of the woman. After receiving many entries during the two years the competition was open, one of the members of the Academy released a pamphlet chastising misogynist opinions.

The Academy sternly rebuked the contestants for having suggested, audaciously, that women were ‘physically incapable,’ ‘domestic animals,’ bred so as to make their spouses ‘happy.’ [Caradonna, Jeremy. "Dissertation" p.202]
Though there were many women who participated in the Prize Competitions, it does not mean that they were published. Only winning a prize competition ensured being published.

References


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