Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century France

Most of French eighteenth-century writers and philosophers that were famous during their lifetime, are still famous today. Just think of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, to name but a few. What about women? Except by scholars, they are pretty much forgotten. Were their writings worse than mens’? Not really. Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, for instance, was the second most published and acclaimed writer after Rousseau. Whilst, his work is still studied in high schools, hers had only a couple of publications over the past twenty years.

The discrepancy between men and women writers comes from the eighteenth-century society. Eighteenth-century women did not have access to college and university, and just a few of them received a good education. By the end of the eighteenth century, only 47% of French men and 27% of French women were able to read and write, and most of them were from the social and economical elites. Eighteenth-century rhetoric taught young women how to appreciate style rather than how to use it. Many women had intellectual aspirations but they rejected them, fearing to be negatively qualified as précieuse or femmes savantes. Indeed, women demonstrating too high intellectual aspirations where quickly stigmatized as pedantic and précieuses. They were mocked by their contemporaries, men and women.

Moreover, women were no legal individuals under the Old Regime laws. Under 25, they were under their father’s responsibility and married, under their husband’s. Widow and never-married women over 25 could handle their financial affairs, sign contract freely and represent themselves in court. For married and minor women, they had to have the authorization of their husband/father.

In the seventeenth century, the majority of the women writers were of aristocratic background, it was however reversed at the end of the eighteen century with the French Revolution. The few women who published under the Old Regime were usually unmarried or widowed women from an aristocratic or bourgeois family. the other had to use a man’s name to be published. Condorcet noted that it was quite common for men to sell their name to women authors.

Carla Hesse offers some statistics about women’s presence in print, showing that only 73 women were published between 1754 and 1765, 55 between 1766 and 1777, 78 between 1777 and 1788, and 329 between 1789 and 1800 – due to the revolutionary context that gave at first more freedom to women and the recognition of authorship in July 1793. Well, men’s authorship was recognized; women’s was subjected to the good will of her husband. full authorship for women was only given in France in 1965.

 

Sources

Hans Bots & Françoise Waquet, La République des Lettres (Paris, Belin, 1997).

Elizabeth C. Goldsmith & Dena Goodman (eds), Going public: women and publishing in early modern France (Ithaca; London, Cornell University Press, 1995).

Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: how French women became modern (Princeton, NJ; Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Carla Hesse, ‘Reading Signatures: Female Authorship and Revolutionary Law in France, 1750-1850’ in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 22, 3 (1989), Pp.469-87.

Antoine Lilti, Le Monde des salons.

Jolanta T. Pekacz, Conservative Tradition in Pre-Revolutionary France. Parisian Salon Women (New York, Peter Lang, 1999).

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