Poullain Believed in Gender Equality in the 17th Century
Poullain provides an unapologetic and iconoclastic argument for women’s full participation in society, that they be given the same rights and access to opportunities that were afforded to their male counterparts.
François Poullain de la Barre is one of the most radical and forward‐thinking figures in the history of philosophy. He is also one of the most obscure.
Poullain was born in July 1647 and died on May 4th 1723. From 1673–1675, in a flurry of literary activity, he wrote, On the Equality of the Two Sexes, which argues that men and women’s intellectual abilities are equal and that the unequal treatment of women has disenfranchised them from contributing to society; On the Education of Ladies, which presents a group of intellectuals discussing the status of women; and On the Excellence of Men, where he satirically dissected arguments for male supremacy.
In these three works Poullain provides an unapologetic and iconoclastic argument for women’s full participation in society, that they be given the same rights and access to opportunities that were afforded to their male counterparts. This was already a radical thesis in the 17th century, but the implications of his philosophy went even further by affirming the egalitarian status of all people and questioning the nature of authority itself.
His Life Story
We know very little about Poullain’s life, besides the few biographical details he left nestled within his writings. He was born into a wealthy family which enabled him to attain a traditional education in a scholastic curriculum. He graduated with a Master of Arts in 1663 and three years later he studied theology and was ordained as a Catholic priest. His traditional education left him feeling unfulfilled, and he would later explain that his education merely prepared him to speak in Latin about subjects he did not fully comprehend. Luckily, a friend of Poullain invited him to a Cartesian conference on physiology. This conference changed the course of Poullain’s intellectual pursuits by introducing him to Cartesianism, which would form the core of his philosophical method.
Cartesianism is a system of philosophy and science based upon the writings of René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes believed that philosophers relied too heavily on the authority of previous thinkers. In particular, the theories of classical philosophers such as Aristotle were taught in universities throughout Europe. Descartes believed that the best way forward was to start the search for truth with a tabula rasa (latin for blank slate).
For Descartes, true knowledge must be above doubt. In this search for truth, only two sources could be trusted, namely intuition and deduction. By doubting everything, we can more clearly pursue philosophical truths. To illustrate why sensory experience cannot provide unshakable knowledge, Descartes creates a scenario. He asks the reader to imagine an evil demon which wholly tricks our senses. You may think you are reading a book, but the demon could be deceiving you, and in fact, you are not reading it at all. The slimmest chance that this illusion‐loving demon might exist throws into question our senses. Since we cannot once and for all prove that this demon does not exist, some doubt will always remain as to our senses’ ability to detect external influence.
By applying such a radical sense of doubt, we are freed of preconceived opinions or prejudice. According to Descartes, this method provides us with a direct and straightforward path to immutable truth. This idea of leaving one’s personal experiences and biases at the door when it comes to philosophical investigation deeply impacted Poullain’s intellectual life.
Attitudes of the Time
It is jarring to see how much men in power feared and loathed independent women in previous eras. One of the most shocking examples of Poullain’s contemporaries is Alexis Troussets’ miserably misogynistic Alphabet of the Imperfection and Malice of Women. Trousset alphabetically ordered what he believes were “feminine vices”. In his preface, Trousset violently lashed out at women by calling them “the most imperfect creature in the universe, the scum of nature, the breeding ground of evils, the source of controversy, the laughing stock of the insane, the scourge of wisdom, the rebrand of hell, the instigator of vice, the cesspool of filth, a monster in nature, a necessary evil”. Troussets book was reprinted throughout the 17th century and even crossed the channel with an English translation, a sign of its widespread popularity.
The playwright Molière, a contemporary of Poullain, wrote two renowned plays named The Pretentious Ladies (1659) and The Learned Ladies (1672). Both of these plays berated educated women, and The Learned Ladies served as the catalyst for Poullain writing his treatises defending women’s abilities.
Departing from the conventional wisdom of his time, Poullain instead argued that men and women are equals, and as equals, both ought to pursue any profession or position they without interference. Supporters of inequality argued for women’s subjection based on two claims: authority and nature.
Firstly, opponents of gender equality argued that all the greatest authorities believed in women’s natural inferiority. Who are we to question the authority of the ancients or even hallowed scripture? Selectively quoting from famous sources gave misogynist arguments more legitimacy. Church father Tertullian described women as “the devil’s gateway.” The influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas stated, “as regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten.” According to Aquinas, women’s subordination to man was for their own good. It is important to remember that Poullain studied theology at the Sorbonne, a university which enthusiastically adhered to the doctrines of Church Fathers including Tertullian and Aquinas.
Poullain attacked tradition by applying Descartes’ skepticism. According to Poullain, authority is not a good argument for anything. Sound reasoning does not need to be tied to a famous figure or respected institution. Instead, Poullain believed that “almost all of us have enough reason and good sense to seek the truth.”
Many skeptics also invoked scripture when arguing that women should be subordinated to men, but Poullain dismissed arguments based upon scripture. For Poullain, the Bible contains truths that human reason cannot not grasp without divine assistance. By contrast, the question of equality between the sexes is within reason’s grasp, “for whatever falls within the scope of reason should be known by reason.” Thus for Poullain it was unnecessary to invoke the bible to decide what was essentially a secular matter.
Poullain believed his contemporaries personified the past as “a venerable old man” who has great wisdom. However, Poullain argued that “the ancients were human just like us, and no less subject to error.” After all, even an esteemed thinker such as Aristotle believed that the earth was the centre of the universe, yet Copernicus had proven that this was not the case. Our ancestors are not endowed with superior reason or knowledge simply because they came before us. Poullain’s skepticism led him to state, “I recognize no authority here apart from the authority of reason and sound judgement.” No author was immune from Poullain’s critique, even his beloved Descartes, Poullain explains“But please take care that I do not claim here that Descartes is infallible, that everything that he proposes is true or unobjectionable, that one should follow him blindly and that others cannot discover anything as good as, or even better than, what he gave us.”
Nature and Inequality
Secondly, misogynists argued that women were physically and mentally inferior by nature. Women did not engage in scholarly debate or theological discussions, nor did they command armies or hold political office. (The fact that women did not participate in these tasks not out of free will choice but because of social and legal barriers did not occur to them.). Many learned scholars used the fancy Latin phrase “ab esse ad posse valet consequentia,” meaning “from the fact that something exists, it follows that it is possible.” Because women didn’t hold political office, therefore they were incapable of holding office. While it sounds like a bizarre argument today, at the time it was taken as evidence that women were naturally inferior to men in both physical and intellectual ability.
But Poullain showed that women’s inferiority was not in any way natural. He engaged in historical speculation about the first men and women. The first men, being physically stronger than women, became the warriors and protectors of society, while women were limited to tasks of child‐rearing and homemaking. This social order, based upon male physical dominance, was preserved throughout the ages, leading to women’s exclusion from the newer arts of science, literature and politics which developed in tandem with civilization.
According to Poullain’s theory of how women came to be subordinate to men, women were excluded based on differences in physical strength. Poullain argued that, in the modern world, “sheer physical strength should not be used to distinguish between human beings; otherwise brute animals would be superior to humans and, among men, those who are more robust would be superior.” He concluded that women’s current status was not natural in any sense of the word. Instead, it was the result of “chance, violence or custom.” The gendered hierarchy of 17th century France was anything but natural; rather it was the product of generations of prohibitive practices and a lack of access to education and opportunity.
In reality, aside from a few bodily functions, Poullain concluded that women and men were essentially the same. Physicality is not what matters in the modern world; for Poullain, the brain is the most important part of the body. Men and women’s brains do not differ; he wrote that the “most minute anatomical study reveals no difference here between men and women; a woman’s brain is exactly the same as ours”. The conclusions are obvious: “the mind has no sex.” Both men and women have the same intellectual potential if only they were allowed to implement their abilities.
This idea is obvious to the modern mind. Of course men and women have similar minds, why was this fact so hard for people to grasp in 17th century France? Yet Poullain had an answer for us incredulous moderns: prejudice, what he dubbed “the greatest enemy of truth.” Descartes, Poullain’s intellectual inspiration, often commented on the difference between informed, reflective judgements and the snap‐fire judgements we make spontaneously. Poullain defined prejudices as “judgements that are made about things without examining them.”
The Role of Prejudice
Poullain believed that the tyranny of opinion was a crucial factor in women’s continued subjection. He thought that we have a tendency to believe “if some practice is well established, then we think that it must be right.” By seeing our current situation as the natural way, we enslave ourselves to the present state of affairs, regardless of its absurdity. The status quo makes it so that “we find it difficult to imagine that things could be right any other way, and it even seems that we could never change them however hard we try.” Because of how pervasive these prejudices against women are, women themselves come to accept them as true. Poullain argued that “because they are born in a state of dependency, they share the male point of view.” Due to the tyranny of opinion, women become slaves both in the external world and in their own internal minds.
The effects of prejudice are heightened when it benefits a particular party at the expense of another. Poullain believed that the status quo benefitted some groups at the expense of others, stating that “If one examines the foundations of all these various beliefs (about women), one finds that they are based only on self‐interest or custom.” He believed that “everything men commented about women was to be considered suspect, because they are both judges and litigants.” This quote would later become the epigraph of famous feminist Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Poullain’s egalitarian approach was not meant to be applied only to the sexes. He had even grander hopes for his philosophy. The reason he chose to discuss the status of women was because he believed it to be the most deeply ingrained prejudice of his day. If he could refute this prejudice, then the rest would follow suit. Poullain’s critique of authority could be applied not only to male supremacy, but to all unjustified power, including race and class.
Prejudice affects not only women but all people. Poullain questioned,“why it is that the artisans, the farm‐hands and the merchants who contribute the greatest part of the State’s expenses are held in less esteem than the nobles who do nothing.” Despite being essential to the wellbeing of society, Poullain observed that peasants are in fact treated as “the scum of society.” He pondered if peasants could be doctors if they had the chance. People may not be equal in ability, however they are equal in potential. Poullain’s egalitarianism was based upon the proposition that all people had the potential to flourish. Everyone possesses reason, however not all people have the same opportunities.
His Limited Influence
Despite his comprehensive philosophy, Poullain was not an influential figure in his lifetime or immediately after his death. His treatises did not elicit much excitement. Besides being anonymously quoted by later English feminist writers–including the author of the treatise Woman Not Inferior to Man, written under the psuedonoymn Sophia–Poullain was relegated to obscurity.
Poullain was not a lone defender of equality. Writers such as Marie le Jars de Gournay had argued for women’s equality in Poullain’s time. However, none went as far as Poullain did in making a case for women’s full inclusion in all social, economic and political aspects of life.
But a diamond shines even if no one sees its brilliance. A testament to Poullain’s forward thinking is that his philosophy is still relevant and applicable today. His critiques of male supremacy should be applied to all areas of unjustified authority.