By Richa Bijlani (Guest Contributor)
In a time where declaring yourself as a feminist also makes you a radical, it’s necessary to understand where the fight for gender equality began. Although the term “feminism” wasn’t coined in English (from the French féminisme) until around the end of the 1800s, discussion on equality of the sexes dates back to Plato in ancient Greece. However, these debates were not focused on equal wages or access to birth control; they were simply disputing whether or not women were even humans.
In France, François Poulain de la Barre was one of the earliest philosophers to argue for social equality between women and men (1647-1725). In response to opponents of equality, Poulain de la Barre borrowed Cartesian ideas to object the alleged lack of natural ability of women instead of appealing to the authority of the Bible or ancient texts, as many of his contemporaries did. Following René Descartes’ proposed split between body and mind, Poulain de la Barre concluded, “the mind has no sex.” In terms of the body, he found that other than bodily functions involved in pregnancy, the differences between the physicality of women’s and men’s bodies were not relevant to their exclusion from social, political, and economic affairs.
The idea of dualism, suggested by Descartes, distinguishes between the physical aspect of the body and the consciousness of the mind. Poulain de la Barre took this idea a little further in asserting that in body and mind women should be considered just as competent as men (“women are as noble, as perfect, and as capable as men”). In his effort to change the discourse surrounding gender equality, Poulain became the first Cartesian feminist. So why, then, were women still assumed to be the subordinate sex?
Much ahead of his time, Poulain de la Barre suggested that sexual inequalities do not stem from nature, but from customs and traditions. In his three essays On the Equality of the Two Sexes, On the Education of Ladies, and On the Excellence of Men written between 1673-1675, Poullain de la Barre analyzes common prejudices associated with women, suggesting that they stem from the historical isolation of women to the domestic sphere and not from their inherent lack of ability. He attacks the validity of these prejudices by essential saying that just because this is the way things have always been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should be.
The oppression of women, he argues, leads to their exclusion from positions of power in society. Poulain de la Barre advocated for equal educational opportunities that would allow for women to hold public offices. However progressive his ideas were in the 17th century, Poulain receives little attention as a precursor to the feminist movement that developed later in the 18th century period of Enlightenment. Nonetheless, we must not forget that men, like Poulain de la Barre, can in fact be feminists.
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Barre, François Poulain de la, Marcelle Maistre Welch, and Vivien Elizabeth Bosley. Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2002.
Clarke, Desmond, “François Poulain de la Barre”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
New World Encyclopedia Contributors. “Feminism.” New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 25 Mar. 2016. Web.
Richa Bijlani is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. She studies Anthropology as well as Neuroscience and French.