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  • Reforming the Female Class: Il Caffè’s “Defense of Women”
  • Rebecca Messbarger* (bio)

Ambivalence and disjuncture mark the reformative discourse about women of the Italian Enlightenment. Built upon a discordant integration of enlightened utilitarianism and conventional, androcentric notions of the polity, the Italian philosophes’ answer to the “Woman Question” simultaneously contests and confirms traditional constructions of femininity. By substituting the impartial touchstone of social utility for the unscientific moral precepts and social customs traditionally used to gauge women’s virtue, the illuministi sought to establish a new egalitarian rationale for evaluating and enhancing women’s impact on the public good. However, the ardent quest to promote women’s utility within the modern state did not issue solely from newfound concern about the common good or about women themselves. Bound up with key contemporary concerns about the components and parameters of modern social life, the polemic about women offered the illuministi rich and sweeping terrain on which to establish their authority and political agenda for the foundation of an enlightened state. By defining the ideal female citizen and assigning her place and purpose within the social sphere, Italian Enlightenment thinkers conversely defined themselves and their intellectual and political domain. Indeed, woman served both as an antithetical point of departure for a discourse by, to, and fundamentally about the ideal male citizen, as well as a means, symbolic and practical, for building a nation that suited his needs.

Il Caffè (1764–66), the most eminent and influential periodical of the Italian Enlightenment, epitomizes the fundamental ambivalence of the Age of [End Page 355] Reform in Italy about the essential nature and social functions of women. In the twenty-second issue of the journal, Carlo Sebastiano Franci’s anonymously published “Defense of Women” seeks to delineate women’s actual condition and roles within the social sphere and to prescribe a specific pedagogical program for the enhancement of women’s contribution to the public good. Representative of the progressive bloc in the prolific national debate during the Settecento about both the essence and the end of womankind, the article advocates the reform of women from a social, intellectual, and moral point of view within the rational terms of the enlightened discursive space. By reformulating the woman question according to the new standard of enlightened utilitarianism, the “Defense” asks not what woman is, but what her use is to the social collectivity. Il Caffè’s equivocal response to this question verifies the impossibility of absolute breaches between successive ideological movements and their modes of discourse. A variable strata of reformative and entrenched notions about women, the “Defense” at once speaks through and against Enlightenment ethics.

Why focus an analysis of gender construction and the Italian Enlightenment on a single article in one journal? Il Caffè defines and constitutes the rhetoric and ideals of Illuminismo as no other periodical of the age. The thirteen young patricians who collaborated in the journal’s creation were, as Franco Venturi elegantly stated, “a political class in nuce.” 1 Inspired by the foundational theories of Montesquieu, Condillac, Helvétius, Diderot, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, the caffettisti joined in a self-conscious endeavor to promote among the current generation Enlightenment ideals that would give rise to a more rational and cosmopolitan Italian society. They conceived of their journal as a model of modern discourse, a primer for transparent, egalitarian, and practical exchange. After the dissolution of the journal, most of Il Caffè’s contributors attained substantive political authority. They were assigned prominent government positions which allowed them to implement ideas proposed in the journal. Il Caffè is therefore a key repository of the leitmotifs and the ideological and discursive designs of a preeminent society of illuministi.

Given the cultural and historical significance of the journal, Franci’s article defending women must not be viewed simply as the opinion of a single author. The formal structure of Il Caffè in fact suggests that the contributors meant for the journal to be read as a unified expression of the ideals of Illuminismo. The names of the authors never appeared. Instead, one or two identifying initials usually followed an article (for example, C. for Cesare Beccaria, F. for Sebastiano Franci, X. P. for Paolo...

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pp. 355-369
Launched on MUSE
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