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In the early modern era (15th to 18th centuries), a few exceptional men and women argued in favour of women’s abilities and for the provision of universal access to education, and some even fought for women’s right to hold public positions. However, the majority of thinkers continued to put forward Aristotle’s and Augustine’s vision of women, supporting severe limits on the access of girls and women to education. In general, these thinkers expressed views that fell within one or other of the two categories already discussed: either women are deficient males or they are inherently different from them. Although some of these views may seem to be complimentary to women, the ultimate conclusion that these thinkers generally reached was that women cannot, or should not, participate in the higher forms of thinking required for philosophical and scientific endeavour. It was views such as these that, for a very long period, prevented women from achieving equal access to education and to science. Even when such social barriers were removed, women still had to overcome psychological barriers, such as feelings of insecurity Chapte r 2 R Renaissance and Enlightenment 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 21 16/11/09 6:19 PM 22 THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE and low levels of self-confidence, that stemmed from over two thousand years of intellectual history that deemed them, for the most part, unintelligent and incapable of higher forms of thought. This chapter presents examples to demonstrate the type of arguments used during this era on both sides, for and against women, and the general attitudes towards women held by both sexes. François Poullain de la Barre In the first part of his Méditations métaphysiques (1641) the French philosopher René Descartes famously and influentially brought reason and the individual to the forefront through his use of introspection and the method of doubt. Using reason alone to establish what knowledge is certain, he meditated on what cannot be doubted. The indubitable starting point he discovered was “I think, therefore I am,” for to doubt is to think and to think is to be. Some commentators have suggested that by detaching the mind from the sensible world (our bodies) and extending the potential to reason to everyone, Descartes’ work opened up a space for women (Perry 1986, p. 70; Perry 1999, p. 184; Waters 2000, p. 67; Schiebinger 1999, p. 111). In De l’Égalité des deux Sexes (1672, The Equality of the Two Sexes) François Poullain de la Barre (1647–1725) extended Descartes’ views in just this way. Poullain argues (as quoted in Lewison 1989, p. 85) that it is easy to realize that the difference between the sexes concerns only the body—being, correctly, only [in] this part that serves for the production of men. Since the mind participates [in this activity] only by giving its assent (and giving it in all people in the same manner), we can conclude that it is sexless. Poullain’s point is that men and women differ physically in terms of reproduction but not in terms of the mind. The body 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 22 16/11/09 6:19 PM Renaissance and Enlightenment 23 is simply for reproduction, and the mind, which participates in reproduction only by giving its assent, is sexless. This assertion was in itself a radical departure from the mainstream view, established by Aristotle and his later interpreters, that women’s capacity to bear children is directly connected with their inferiority. If the mind is sexless, as Poullain claims, then women’s intellectual potential is no different from men’s. Poullain goes on to argue that the intellectual capacities of men and women are indeed equal. Invoking religion much as Aquinas did, he writes (as quoted in Lewison 1989, p. 85), God joins the mind to the flesh of a woman as to that of a man, and He unites them by the same laws. Feelings, passions, and will make and maintain this union. And the mind, not functioning differently in one sex than in the other, is equally capable of the same things [in both]. The mind is joined to the body by the same laws and interacts in the same way, through the feelings, passions, and the will. The only difference between men and women, as Poullain sees it, is in the form of the flesh to which the sexless mind is attached. By separating the mind from the body, one can account for the differences between men and...


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