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Bookish Women: Female Readers and Women’s Education in Molière

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, 2012
pp. 36-55 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0041

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While Molière was certainly unafraid to engage the controversial issue of women’s education, his works hardly provide a logical, progressive evolution of thought on whether or to what extent women should receive scholastic instruction. Instead, those female characters who seek a better life for themselves via a process of more sophisticated literacy are alternatively or simultaneously ridiculed, admired, ignored, accepted, tolerated, and rejected, leaving the reader/spectator perplexed as to where Molière stands. While the plays discussed here frustrate attempts to discern a firm position on gender issues, they nonetheless follow Molière’s general tendency to mock the self-delusion of individuals inflating their intellectual prowess for prestige and control, suggesting the playwright is more concerned about his characters’ obsessive traits than their gender.

Although Molière assigns less importance to the sex of the deluded, we should not ignore the more intense focus on female readers and writers in some of his major plays. Les Précieuses ridicules (1659), L’Ecole des femmes (1662), Le Misanthrope (1666), and Les Femmes savantes (1672) feature women at different stages of life struggling with various levels of literacy and power, all closely circumscribed by a largely male-dominated society. Their successes and failures illuminate Molière’s strategy of blending real-life elements of the historical conflict with his flights of imagination to create seminal characters who take various sides of the women’s education issue.

This ideological struggle begins in France at least with Christine de Pisan (1364–1430?) and is reignited at the beginning of the seventeenth century.1 The dominant attitude of the era, as expressed in numerous treatises, is that women were intellectually incapable of serious academic study. Jacques Olivier’s L’Alphabet de l’imperfection et malice des Femmes…, published in 1617, and Paul Caillet’s Tableau du mariage, appearing in 1635, were emblematic of all too common misogynist screeds that denigrated women’s moral and intellectual fitness especially during the first half of the seventeenth century (Reynier 30, 37). Nonetheless, other works such as Marie de Gournay’s 1622 Égalité des hommes et des femmes and Nicolas Faret’s 1630 Honnête homme, countered the anti-women current with writings proclaiming women’s equality and strengths (Reynier 38–39). Marguerite Buffet’s Nouvelles observations sur la langue françoise… (1668), emphasizing speaking and writing proficiency for women (Lougee 12), also cast doubt on the assumption that they were incapable of learning such skills. Opinions like Buffet’s were more widespread during Anne of Austria’s regency but were largely absent after 1660 as Louis XIV ascended to the throne in his own right (Stanton 124).

For girls and women belonging to families determined to defy this prevailing attitude, illiteracy, cost, and opportunity erected additional obstacles. Reliable figures on seventeenth-century literacy rates (male or female) are scant or non-existent. As researchers can only estimate France’s female literacy rate between 1686 and 1690 to be approximately 14% (Timmermans 57),2 it is reasonable to assume an even lower rate for women during most of the seventeenth century, which would have been a severe impediment to female instruction. Most universities did not admit women, while primary and secondary education for girls lacked consistent financial support from the State. For those who could afford them, private libraries and personal, in-home tutors provided some instruction,3 but the latter often arrived when girls were already in their adolescent years and were assigned the task of supplying “a kind of instant knowledge in a matter of weeks or months,” usually to prepare the young lady for her upcoming wedding (Gibson 24–25). Yet the rise of a bourgeois class, providing some married and soon-to-be married women with more time and financial means for an education, brought to the fore discussions on the best ways for women to use this newfound leisure.

Advocates of improving female education usually cited moral grounds to support their position, arguing that educated women would be better able to resist their passions and concentrate on their duties, would make more interesting companions for their husbands, and would amuse themselves better when left alone. Jacques Du Bosc, who allowed...

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