The Equality of the Sexes.
From its opening words "I recognize no authority apart from the authority of reason and sound judgment" (40), it directly confronted the traditional scholasticism on which all higher education in France was based. Ancient authority, Poulain insisted, was an unreliable guide to the truth. People must start to think for themselves. In the years following 1673 a work from a Huguenot ex-priest at a time when there was general persecution of Cartesians in France, was unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the authorities. Nor for the next half century was Cartesianism to make any impact on French colleges and universities.
When towards the end of his study for the priesthood, Poulain read Descartes, it was to revolutionize his thinking and to change his life. The Equality of the Sexes was one result. Within ten years Poulain abandoned his position as cure in Picardy, converted to Calvinism, and fled from the hostile environment of Paris to Geneva.
Was women's unequal status, he asked, due to the emergence of nature or of custom? Lawyers "who put women under the power of their husbands" argued it was "nature which assigned the lowest function in society to women" (82). Poulain argued that it was custom and dismissed the authority of the law by claiming that all laws seem to have been designed just to maintain men in possession of what they already have" (53). It was "enough to find a custom established to believe it was well-founded." "The mind has no sex" (87). It was equal in all human beings.
Women were as capable as men of studying science, theology, mathematics, law or politics. Any present faults or weaknesses in women were to be "explained completely in terms of the external conditions of their sex and the education which they receive" (121). Women must ignore all attempts to warn them off study, for education alone would provide them with the ability to think clearly and independently of others, however authoritative.
Desmond Clarke, in his useful introduction, firmly places Poulain's work in the context of the querelle des femmes, an ongoing debate throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which a wide range of views were expressed on women's role in society, their education, and the question of their equality or otherwise with men. Often such works were written in a style of "flowery exaggeration" (15). For many of the participants it was a game, more for the amusement and entertainment of their readers than for any serious purpose.
When the English translation of 1677 appeared, it seems to have made little impact. It is worth conjecturing whether this may be an illusion. In the sudden outburst of feminist tracts that mark the 1690s - Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal, the pamphlet ascribed to Judith Drake, the responses of "Eugenia" and Lady Mary Chudleigh to John Sprint's The Bride-Woman's Counsellor - it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Poulain de la Barre's work must have been known and that it exerted a profound influence. Three hundred years have done nothing to diminish the impact of his radical theory of equality.
BRIDGET HILL Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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