Despite his obscurity, François Poullain de la Barre is a philosopher who thought beyond the constraints of his time. In 17th-century France Poullain articulated a case for gender equality. His proposal was so radical few took it seriously at the time. Poullain is still relevant today for his analysis of how oppression is “justified” and how to unlearn prejudices.
Poullain Believed in Gender Equality in the 17th Century, written by Paul Meany
Aristotle and Libertarianism, written by Aaron Ross Powell
Rationalism and Hayek in Conflict: Feminist Practice, written by Grant Babcock
00:00 Paul Meany: It is a great tragedy when a radically forward thinking mind is either misunderstood or wholly underappreciated in its time. François Poullain de la Barre was a philosopher who was completely ahead of any of his contemporaries on the topic of gender equality. However, he was a desperately obscure philosopher. When the 20th century French psychologist, Henri Piéron, by chance found a copy of Poullain’s work in the French National Library, the pages were still uncut, meaning no one before him had read the book. From the year 1673 to 1675, in a flurry of literary activity, Poullain wrote three main texts on gender equality. Firstly, in 1673, he published On the Equality of the Two Sexes, in which he argues that men and women’s intellectual abilities are equal and that the unequal treatment of women has disenfranchised them from contributing to society.
00:57 Paul Meany: The second text, entitled On the Education of Ladies, published in 1674, comes in the form of a philosophical dialogue between a group of French intellectuals discussing the status of women. Lastly, in 1665, he published On the Excellence of Men, where he satirically dissected arguments for male supremacy. In these three works, Poullain provides an unapologetic argument for women’s full participation in society, that they be given the same rights and access to the same opportunities that were afforded to their male counterparts.
01:26 Paul Meany: Besides a few biographical details he left nestled in his writings, we know very little about Poullain. What we do know is that he was born in July of 1647 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 a Catholic priest. He presided over two small parishes in Northern France. However, Poullain was not particularly happy with his educational experience. He would later explain that his education merely prepared him to speak esoterically in Latin about subjects he did not fully understand or comprehend.
02:05 Paul Meany: Despite diligently studying since the age of nine until he was 20, Poullain believed he had made little, if any, intellectual progress through formal education. However, Poullain’s intellectual curiosity was revitalized when a friend invited him to a conference on Cartesian physiology. This conference changed the course of Poullain’s intellectual pursuits by introducing him to the philosophy of René Descartes, which would come to form the core of his philosophical method. Cartesianism is a system of philosophy and science based upon the writings of René Descartes. Descartes believed that philosophers relied too heavily upon the authority of previous thinkers, in particular the theories of classical philosophers such as Aristotle, who were a huge part of the scholastic curriculum Poullain studied. Descartes believed that the best way forward was to start the search for truth with a mind akin to a blank slate, with no preconceived notions or prejudices.
03:06 Paul Meany: For Descartes, true knowledge must be above doubt, and only two methods of inquiry were immune to doubt: Intuition and deduction. Descartes’s highly rationalistic philosophy avoided sensory evidence as a source of knowledge. To illustrate why we should be skeptical of sensory knowledge, Descartes describes a slightly odd scenario. He asks the reader to imagine an evil demon is tormenting us and has the ability to easily trick our senses. You may think you’re listening to this podcast, but the demon could be deceiving you and in fact you are not listening to anything at all. The slimmest chance that this illusion-loving demon might exist throws into question our senses. Since we cannot definitively prove that this demon does not exist, some doubt will always remain as to our senses’ reliability. As a small aside, the idea of an evil force deceiving your senses was partly an inspiration for the movie of Matrix.
03:58 Paul Meany: Descartes did not literally believe there was a demon tricking us at every turn. The scenario was concocted by him to explain why doubting everything can in fact lead to knowledge. By applying such a radical skepticism, we are freed of preconceived notions and prejudices. According to Descartes, this method provides us with a direct and straightforward path to immutable truth. At a time when authors were constantly buttressing their arguments on the authority of religious texts and famous philosophers, Descartes’s methodology was wholly alien and perplexing. Cartesianism had been banned by French universities and was suspected of being heretical to the Christian faith but, for people such as Poullain, abandoning one’s personal experiences and biases in order to search for true knowledge was a liberating experience.
04:43 Paul Meany: Poullain applied Descartes’s teachings on the topic of gender equality and realized that the vast majority of philosophers throughout history were deeply mistaken about women’s abilities, nature and role in society. So what was Poullain up against?
05:00 Paul Meany: An immense prejudice towards women, which had been cultivated over hundreds of years through legal and social oppression. One of the most shocking examples of Poullain’s misogynistic contemporaries is Alexis Trousset’s Alphabet of the Imperfection and Malice of Women. Trousset alphabetically ordered what he believes were feminine vices. In his preface, Trousset violently lashes out against women, calling them, and I quote, “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”.
05:44 Paul Meany: Trousset’s book was reprinted throughout the 17th century and even across the Channel with an English translation, sadly, a sign of its widespread popularity. The playwright, Molière, a contemporary of Poullain, wrote two renowned plays named The Pretentious Ladies and The Learned Ladies. Both of these plays berated the idea of educating women. Departing sharply 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 choose without interference from the state or society’s overbearing judgment.
06:19 Paul Meany: Supporters of inequality between the sexes based their claims of female subordination and inferiority on two main sources: Authority and nature. Poullain proceeded to demolish both of these claims. 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? By quoting from famous sources, misogynists bolstered their arguments with the veneer of timeless wisdom. However, the greats before Poullain tended to have a very negative assessment of women. Selective quotations from scripture and ancient philosophers allowed opponents of equality to portray women as mentally feeble, overly emotional and irrational beings who were best suited to diligently serving their husbands and bearing children.
07:06 Paul Meany: Poullain attacked this 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 a respected institution. Instead, Poullain believed that almost all of us have enough reason and good sense to seek the truth. Many invoke scripture when arguing that women should be subordinate to men, but Poullain dismissed the arguments based on scripture. For Poullain, the Bible contains truths that human reason cannot grasp without divine assistance. By contrast, the question of equality between the sexes is within reason’s grasp. He explains, “For whatever falls within the scope of reason should be known by reason.” Therefore, for Poullain, it was completely unnecessary to invoke the Bible to decide what was essentially a secular matter which can be answered by human reason without divine assistance.
07:53 Paul Meany: Poullain believed his contemporaries personified the past as a venerable old man who has great wisdom. However, the ancients were human just like us and no less subject to error. Even an esteemed thinker such as Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe, yet Copernicus had proven that this was simply 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 judgment.” Poullain even says that his beloved Descartes is not infallible or all-knowing. He was just human like everyone else, and to err is human. There is no shame in being wrong because we can always correct ourselves.
08:35 Paul Meany: Secondly, misogynists argued that women were physically and mentally inferior by their intrinsic nature. They argued that if women were in fact equal, they would engage in scholarly debate, command armies and hold political positions like their male counterparts. Many learned scholars argued from the fact that something exists, it follows that it is possible. But because women didn’t hold political office, therefore, they were incapable of holding political office. This sounds like a bizarre argument today, but at the time it was taken as evidence that women were naturally inferior to men in both physical and intellectual ability. Many ignored the obvious legal and social barriers women faced and assumed that they simply could not engage in any activity which required rationality, an apparently male trait.
09:22 Paul Meany: But Poullain showed that women’s inferiority was not in any way natural. He explained how women came to be forced into positions of subordination by speculating about the development of civilization. The first men, being physically stronger than women, became the warriors and protective of primitive societies while women were limited to the tasks of child-rearing and homemaking. The first men, being physically stronger than women, became the warriors and protectors of primitive society while women were limited to the tasks of child-rearing and homemaking. This social order was based upon male physical dominance and was mistakenly preserved throughout the ages. This led to women’s exclusion from the newer arts of science, literature and politics which developed in tandem with civilization.
10:05 Paul Meany: According to Poullain’s theory, women were excluded based on differences in physical strength. Poullain explained that this argument makes literally no sense in the modern world. He writes that, “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.” Women’s current status was not natural in any sense of the word. Instead, it was a result of chance, custom and the demands of war. The gender hierarchy of 17th century France was a product of generations of prohibitive practices and a lack of access to education and opportunities.
10:42 Paul Meany: Physicality is not what matters in the modern world; for Poullain, the brain is the most important part of the body. Reason is what separates us from the animals. 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”. Poullain radically stated that the mind has no sex. Both men and women have the same intellectual potential. As long as they were allowed to freely apply themselves to their field of work, they would be equal. This idea is very obvious to us today. Of course men and women have similar minds, but why was this so hard for people to grasp in 17th century France? Poullain had a nuanced answer for us: Prejudice, what he dubbed “the greatest enemy of truth”.
11:29 Paul Meany: Prejudices commonly stem from our lack of reflective and careful thinking about a topic, leading Poullain to define prejudices as “judgments that are made about things without examining them”. Poullain believed that not only the tyranny of laws oppressed women, but also that of opinion, a social tyranny, which was a crucial factor in women’s continued subjugation. He thought that we have a tendency to believe if some practice is well-established, then it must be right. By seeing our current situation as the natural or only way of organizing our affairs, we enslave ourselves to the present state of affairs regardless of its absurdity. Because of this, we find it difficult to imagine things could be right any other way, and it seems that we could never change them however hard we try.
12:14 Paul Meany: Even those who were hurt by the status quo internalize it as truth because they’ve been told “this is the way things have to be” so many times. Due to the tyranny of opinion, women become slaves both in the external world and their own internal minds; a miserable situation. The effects of prejudice are heightened when it benefits a particular party at the expense of another. Poullain believed that the status quo benefited some groups at the expense of others. He says that, “If one examines the foundation of all these various beliefs about women, one finds that they are based on self-interest or custom.” He believed that “everything men commented about women was to be considered suspect, because they are at once both judges and litigants.” This quote would later be used as the epigraph to the famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
13:02 Paul Meany: Poullain’s egalitarian approach was not meant to be applied solely to the topic of gender equality. He chose to discuss the status of women because he believed it was the most deeply ingrained prejudice of his day. If this prejudice could be refuted, then a whole host of other misguided beliefs could be swept away. Prejudice not only affects women, it spreads to issues of class and race. Poullain cheekily asked, “Why is it that the artisans, the farmhands, 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 noticed that peasants were treated as if they were dirt. No one is born good at anything. Education is what makes us better people.
13:45 Paul Meany: Poullain longed for a future where peasants could be doctors, scholars, or even lawyers. People may not be equal in ability; however, they are all equal in their potential. Everyone possesses reason; however, not all people have the same opportunities. Poverty and discrimination stop people from fully flourishing and contributing to society. Despite his comprehensive and radical philosophy, Poullain was not an influential figure in his lifetime or immediately after his death. His treatise did not elicit much excitement. Besides being anonymously quoted later by English feminist writers, including the author of a treatise entitled Woman Not Inferior to Man, Poullain was relegated to pretty much obscurity.
14:27 Paul Meany: Poullain, possibly dissuaded by the deafening silence to his treatise, ceased writing on gender equality. No one ever replied to his revolutionary ideas, possibly because they were so radical for the time that no one thought he was actually serious. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with scholastic philosophy, Poullain abandoned the Catholic faith and converted to Calvinism. Being both a Cartesian and a Calvinist in the majority Catholic France was a dangerous combination. Knowing this, Poullain moved to Geneva where he married and spent the rest of his life. He wrote some more works including language books teaching French and a defense of the people’s capacity to read bibles for themselves. And then Poullain died at the age of 76, 1723.
15:11 Paul Meany: I do not wish to portray Poullain as a lone defender of equality. Writers such as Marie le Jars de Gournay had argued for women’s equality around the same time as Poullain. 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. The famous Roman historic, Marcus Aurelius, once said, “Does an emerald lose its beauty for lack of admiration?” Poullain’s work might not have had a huge impact, but he is a model of an independent mind that strove for a more egalitarian society, in which all people could apply themselves free from legal and social tyrannies.
15:43 Paul Meany: 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. It can be all too easy to fall into the habit of accepting the world as it is, rather than striving for something better. The best way to embody the spirit of Poullain is to follow his simple advice: Examine everything, make judgements about everything, reason about everything. Thanks a mil for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast and, if you did, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you may listen to podcasts. Visit the website www.libertarianism.org to find more podcasts like this one. I hope to see you next time.