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The Enlightenment and Womanhood: Cultural Change and the Politics of Exclusion Paschalis M. Kitromilides -IThe Enlightenment, with its critical theory of society, inevitably invited reflection on the abuses connected with the social condition of women. The "Quarrel of Women," which had been fought in the form of satire of female vices versus abstract apologies for the virtues of women, had paralleled the "Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns" in European thought since the Renaissance. The partisans of the Moderns, like Perrault and Fontenelle, were also defenders of women, and, since the Enlightenment carried the day in favor of the Moderns, the Querelle des Femmes revived in the eighteenth century.1 If in the previous century the assertion of female presence, despite its conquests, could still appear as an imbalance to the classical mind and thus be subjected to the cutting satire of Molière's Ecole des Femmes,2 the triumphs of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century forced, essentially for the first time, a recognition of the seriousness of the problems deriving from the female predicament. The inescapable recognition of these problems, however, did not amount at the same time to a vindication of the rights of women. Although the rekindled quarrel of women 'See the chronological listing of pertinent works from 1713 to 1787 in M. Albistur and Daniel Armogathe, Histoire du féminisme français du moyen âge à nos jours (Paris: Editions des femmes, 1977), 185-86. For an overview of the quarrel during the Enlightenment , see Vera Lee, The Reign of Women in Eighteenth-Century France (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1975). 2See Dorothy Anne Liot Backer, Precious Women (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 259-63, 290-91. On the general social and literary background see Carolyn C. Lougee, Le Paradis des femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) and Ian McLean, Women Triumphant: Feminism in French Literature 1610—1652 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977). 39 40 Paschalis M. Kitromilides brought the problem of women's equality before the conscience of the age, the exponents of the Enlightenment became "feminists with misgivings," unable, as it turned out, to liberate themselves from the age-old fear of women as vessels of passion and vice.3 The ambivalence that was consequently built into the Enlightenment's view of womanhood remained at the source of the contradictions that modern liberal morality inherited from it. Montesquieu was the greatest of the Enlightenment's minds to point at the stigma attached to European society by the degradation of women. In the 38th of the Persian Letters, he directed his critique explicitly at European practices and prejudices in the treatment of women. He thus openly articulated the oblique indictment that runs throughout that work in the shape of his allegory of the monstrosities of the Persian harem. Yet despite the clarity of his perception of the problem, Montesquieu's assertiveness was considerably muted in his major political treatise, which laid the foundations of the eighteenthcentury science of politics. In the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu presented the condition of women as part of the political sociology of the three forms of government and thus appeared to relativize it. Female degradation in any case was tied to the effects of despotism and to this extent it remained an integral part of the political problem of modern society to which Montesquieu wanted to draw attention. Nevertheless he succumbed to the prejudices of the prevailing patriarchal culture in basing on reason and nature the subordination of women in the family. The affirmation of female subordination by nature, however, did not inhibit him from accepting the suitability of women as rulers of empires.4 The collision between deeply entrenched prejudices which shaped the assumptions and expectations of the whole Western Christian tradition, and the discoveries of reason and criticism which pointed toward the equality of the sexes, discoveries enunciated daringly by Poulain de la Barre at the threshold of the revived Quarrel of Women, determined the ambiguity that permeated the Enlightenment's view of womanhood. Characteristically, this ambivalence was not only codified in the pages of that compendium of the Enlightenment's authoritative opinion, the Encyclopédie; it also con- 'Peter...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 39-61
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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