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Women in the Enlightenment Period Research Paper

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Political activism does not necessarily have to take place in grand halls or out in the riotous streets, it can be very subtly done because anyone in any place can become a political agent. The women living in France at the time of the Enlightenment must have realized this and used it to their advantage. Salons at the time were all the rage with carefully selected patronage that required a certain amount of prestige for one to get admittance. The women to be found there were at the time seen almost as being part of the décor- delightful to look at and rarely anything more. But the women had their own agenda. It shall be looked at what impact these women had on advancing the fight for women’s liberation and women’s right in their time.


History is made by men; this is a gross assumption that is made when the recorded history of humankind is studied. It was the men who went on voyages to discover and conquer new lands. It was the men who ruled empires, made political decisions that determined the fate of nations, built and tore down empires, passed decrees and went to battle.

A critical examination of history shows that women have been excluded to the point of invisibility. Unless a woman carried out a phenomenal feat, like Egypt’s queen Cleopatra did, her role was considered too insignificant to record. Yet at all times the women were there somewhere in the picture; they fought alongside their men, they gave political counsels, they suffered from consequence of war as their men did, they had the same hopes and fears as their men folk did. They had their own triumphs too (Hufton, 1995).

It is said that every generation rewrites history in the light of its own understanding and appreciation of it. Major events become minor; heroes are transformed into villains and acts that at one point lauded for their ingenuity are at another point booed for their gaucherie (Smith, 1988).

The historical role of women has been for a long time sidelined as being too minor to be considered of any significance. This is probably because in the past women rarely got a say or a platform from which they could voice their opinions. It was the men who dictated what went into history books and they also dictated what aspects of their nation’s histories were important. This is how the women came to be left out. The history of France is no exception to this rule. There are French women who were active participants of the French reformation period of the mid 19th century (Smith, 1988).

Women tried in their own limited way to be part of the reformation and restructuring going on in the Enlightenment period though society put stipulations and restrictions that held them back. There were women who defied all norms of society to fight on the barricades of Paris in the memorable June of 1848. One of the women who stood out in this fight was Victoria Charlemagne who was recognized by the French government for her efforts (Streissguth, 2005).

It shall be examined how the women of the Enlightenment period used their influence in salons to push for women’s right in France and to advance the liberation of women.

The position of woman in society in the 17th and 18th century France

The ideal for the woman living in the age of Enlightenment in Europe was the married life. It can be said that it is what a woman was born and bred for. From the time in childhood that a young girl could grasp the nature of her gender, she was inculcated with the understanding that she had only one true purpose in life: she would grow up to get married-if the occasion allowed, to a man of higher social standing and/ or means- bear children for her husband and be a good hostess to his guests. A woman could not own property, she could not actively participate in politics, she could not hold a job that was in anyway male oriented. For genteel society, a young woman could not even go out without a suitable male companion or chaperone (Hufton, 1995).

Though the women of the aristocratic and noble classes received an education, it rarely went beyond what would furnish her with enough finesse on the charm and grace needed to run a good home and what to do in polite society (Whitehead, 1999). It must have been a miserable existence indeed.

Lower class women especially had a hard time of it. Since there wereminimal to no chances that they would marry rich, they started saving for their married life as soon as they could be put to work. Once married, they had to constantly see to domestic chores; they washed, scrubbed, cooked, baked, mended and sewed. There was not a moment’s rest in the bustle of single-handedly looking after families that were relatively larger than the ones that are there in modern Europe today (Kavanagh, 1893).

At the time, it had not even been articulated that women had their needs too, that they had opinions on issues that affected them directly such as what number of children to have, or how the financial matters within the home could handled. The men who had never known what a misery it was to be born a woman could not comprehend the woman’s plight of being a voiceless mule, a chattel to be handled as callously as the nature of the man in whose possession it was held allowed (Chastain, 2004).

Women were perceived as being inherently evil: their beauty and delicacy was a constant temptation to men. They were treated with suspicion; almost as if they were a foreign and un-understood species. Out of this misunderstanding arose a cruelty toward women that would be found most unnatural today (Hufton, 1995).

Another institution which had a major role in women’s lives at the time was the church. The church cast the type for gender and sex roles; they regulated what men and women were meant to do. Of course the church advocated for the man being the head of the family and the woman subjecting herself to his will (Hufton, 1995).

On the other hand, the church provided an alternative to marriage. This was especially true of the Catholic Church who trained them to become Ursulines in professions such as teaching and nursing. There were other orders formed such as the Sisters of Charity and it is noted by Hufton (1995) that by the time of the French revolution in the latter part of the 18th century, approximately one in every one hundred and twenty women had dedicated their lives to the church. It leaves one to wander just how despicable the married life was (Hufton, 1995).

The age of Enlightenment

In the late 17th century, there arose a new school of thought that advocated for application of reason as being the basis on which justification of actions and authority could be founded. It called for logical deduction and rationalization where things had once been taken for granted. The age of Enlightenment was one that called into question institutions which before had been taken at face value. Everything had to weighed and analyzed before being deemed as acceptable. Arguments had to be followed to their most logical conclusions before they could be declared sound (Mealy, 2008).

What remained the driving force and a characteristic for this period in history was that the focus was on the freedom and equality of all men. There was a notable shift from the traditional focus on aristocracy, nobility and theocracy.

The age of Enlightenment had a major impact on the cultural and social aspects of peoples’ lives. Everything could be brought under scrutiny, even the highest authorities including the church. While before there had been a silent acceptance by the masses of whatever dictum was passed to them, this changed. Philosophers, artists and scientists alike questioned the established systems that were to be found at the time (mealy, 2008).

The Enlightenment was like a time of renewal and revival. There was conceived the idea of the ‘public sphere’ which referred to the open group discussions of issues that touched the lives of the general public. This laid the framework for the salons where matters touching on the lives of the masses were picked up and re-assessed. It also created room for more open and meaningful discussions by the masses on political as well as social issues that had once been considered the preserve of the aristocracy and the nobles (Mealy, 2008).

The age of Enlightenment provided fertile ground for the liberation of women. While the position of women had always been taken for granted; that they were mere appendages to their men and made up a lower class in society who were meant to sit at home and be good wives, with Enlightenment such practices could safely be questioned (Mealy, 2008).

The women of the salons: salonnieres in France

The salons of France were the hub where the shape and pace of Enlightenment were forged. It was in these salons that there were conducted open discussions on what were still considered delicate topics such as the rights of men, Forethought, sciences and literature (Tallentrye, 1901). The women who ran these salons were given the name ‘salonnieres’ and they were infamous for their wit, their cutting sarcasm, their knowledge on a wide variety of subjects that were facing France at the time and their unerring intelligence (Tallentrye, 1901).

A salon simply means a gathering. In France it was a gathering of exciting people who met in the homes of the elite of French society and at the houses of one of their kind. The hostesses, for they were mostly women- were a charming, beautiful and witty kind. They were highly independent women who were not afraid to defer the normal standards that were set for women such as getting and staying married. Some, such as Madame de Deffund, took lovers, abandoned their husbands and were the source of scandal (Tallentrye, 1901).

Outstanding salonnieres of the age of Enlightenment in France

Madame de Rambouillet was the ‘first’ salonniere in France; at least she was the first notable salonniere. She ran her literary salon from her home the Hotel de Rambouillet in Paris. There were other women in her circle such as Mademoiselle de Scudery who later went on to establish her own renown salon, the Duchesse de Montpensier who established a famous social salon, Jean Louis Guez, the Duchesse de Longueville among others. Madame de Rambouillet and her lady friends can acclaim the origin of the term ‘blue stockings’. The ladies in this circle came to be refered to this way because of their blue stockings (bas-bleus) and the term came to have the slightly derogatory connotation for an intellectual woman. the term of the same name which was use for over three centuries to refer to intellectual women (Tallentrye, 1901).

Other famous salonnieres were such as Madame Geoffrin, Madam de Tencin, the duchesse du Maine, Madame d’Epinay, the Marquise de Lambrt among others (Tallentrye, 1901).

There are disagreements on what were the conversations that went on in these salons.

It is agreed that these discussions tended toward the radical topics that were not discussed in ‘polite’ society. However it is not clear whether there were specific topics avoided such as those that revolved around politics. It is also agreed that salons were the hub for the philosophers of that time who gathered there to expound their ideologies. The salons were like a testing ground where they could sound out their thoughts with the assurance that they would be open to intelligent incisive counterarguments or gain support that would garnish their original theories (Goodman, 1994).

As with other places where women played a dominant historical role, the function of the salons in the Enlightenment period was relegated to a back burner. The approach that was adopted was that of taking the women as individuals- not treating the salons as one compact entity. The focus was not on what went on within the salons themselves but rather on the personalities and dramas of the women who ran them. This undermined the actual role and importance of the salons. When the role played by salonnieres was looked at in the context of the actual goings-on in the salon itself, that it was these women who geared conversations and debates, then it became more apparent that their impact went beyond the simple image of being a salonniere (Mobius, 1983).

A salonniere had to show great tact when it came to handling people. As happens where there is an argument and two opposing sides, more so if both sides firmly and passionately believe that they are right, things tend to get out of hand. The salonniere had to learn the skill of diffusing potential scenarios before they got out of hand. It was a delicate job since the salonniere had to exhibit her wit by asking just the right questions awhile at the same time remaining neutral enough so as not to be seen as playing favorites (Tallentrye, 1901).

The salonniere toned down not only tempers but the language used as well. The salons attracted men from all walks of life and professions. There were philosophers, musicians as well as journalists and novelists. This was why the use of French was favored over the Latin that the scientists and philosophers preferred. Hence, the most suitable environment for debate was cultivated; one could air their views without fear of censure as long as the right language and tone was used, and he would get an interested audience (Goodman, 1994).

Salons in France gained such prominence in Europe that it was considered the number one intellectual hub. Philosophers, scientists and artists alike would make their pilgrimage from all parts of Europe to come and pay homage to the infamous gatherings (Goodman, 1994).

It has been argued that despite the fact that women were the central figures in the salon, their sphere of influence did not go far beyond this. However, the men that these women interacted with were the same men who governed France at the time, who were considered the heavy weights and as being the most knowledgeable (Goodman, 1994).

As Goodman (1994) asserts, these women were mostly well educated since they were mostly members of the aristocratic class or even the nobility. They were well informed on the issues that were facing France at the time and were highly intelligent in their own right. They were not shallow, attention seeking beauties that some historians make them out to be.

Since the salons were a ‘woman’ affair, it was up to the salonnieres to decide to choose who would be among their guests and what the nature of their salons would be. Most salons took either a social, literary or political bent. Goodman goes as far as to say that the salon could be thought of as a place where salonnieres and the women in their circles pursued some form of higher education. They were presented with the opportunity not only to harvest from the brightest minds in the land, but also to pit their minds against such minds. They also found a platform from which to voice their own ideas, a very rare occurrence indeed (Goodman, 1994).

What was the contribution of these salons to the liberation of women?

Just the title of ‘salonniere’ in itself was a mark of a certain level of liberation. The fact that these women had chosen to flaunt the norms lay down by society and gotten away with it was a beacon of hope for the other women of France. These women were proof that a woman could live by herself and thrive, not only that but she could have the attention of a man on her own grounds and on her own terms (Goodman, 1994).

The salonnieres were also the fore runners of feminist activism by intelligent, radical-minded women. These women withstood the ridicule and scorn with which they were treated and in the face of great opposition started the stone rolling for the advocating for women’s rights (Goodman, 1994).


The liberation of women has come a long way. From the 17th and 18th century when the woman was a subhuman being, when the question of women’s rights was not even raised because it was the norm for them not to have rights. It was taken for granted that a woman would get married and submit herself to the will of her husband at home and to the will of the men in society in general.

The salonnieres of Enlightenment France remain among the ranks of unsung female heroes who shaped history just as much as their male counterparts did. Since the perspective on history keeps changing there may come a time that they will be given just as much respect as the philosophers, artists and scientists that they once hosted


Chastain, Joy. Women’s Rights in France, 2004. Web.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Cornell University Press, 1994.

Hufton, Olwen. The prospect before her: A history of women in western Europe. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

Kavanagh, Julia. New York: Putnam. 1893. Web.

Meary, Linda. Women and the Enlightenment. New York: Macmillan Co, 2008.

Mobius, Helga. Woman in the baroque age. Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld & Schram, 1983

Smith, Bonnie. Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700. London: Wadsworth Publishing, 1988.

Streissguth, Thomas. Women of the French Revolution. San Diego, Calif: Lucent Books., 2005.

Ravenel, Florence. Women and the French Tradition. New York: Macmillan Co, 1918.

Tallentyre, S.G. London: Longmans. 1901. Web.

Whitehead, Barbara. (1999). Women’s education in early modern Europe A history, 1500-1800. New York: Garland Pub.

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