WOMEN IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT AGE
The Enlightenment was an event in 18th c Europe where traditional society and its institutions came under scrutiny and attack. This “Age” was one of the most important stages in the development of modern thought. Centuries of traditional thoughts in the spheres of religion, politics, education, legal transactions, etc. were now subject to investigation and assessment, to see whether changes were possible. Mostly historians have concentrated their remarks concerning this influential period on the male philosophes. Philosphes were well-educated intellectuals pondering plight of people. Women were an important part of this movement because they provided the venue for safe discussion and interaction to take place. Most all of Europe had absolute rulers who had almost complete control over their country’s religious, economic, political, and cultural practices. The plight of peasants was miserable, and aristocratic rights had been abridged, sometimes by choice, other times by fiat. However, English people were the exception, enjoying a fairly free society including freedom of the press, speech, and religion. With a common law and jury system that had developed over the years, English people’s civil and criminal rights were more fair and just. In England, a constitutional monarchical system was accomplished by the end of the 17th century, where parliament represented the will of the wealthy merchants and gentry. Following the major decades of the Enlightenment, by the end of the 18th century, France will have a revolution to correct many of the inequities of society. This revolution becomes known as “the mother of all revolutions”. Many of the freedoms enjoyed by the English will finally be instituted.
Women played an important part in this movement by hosting salons, which was the major venue where debate on the issues plaguing society took place. While France in the 18th century did not produce many female intellectuals of first rank, it did have an impressive number of famous and accomplished women who left a strong imprint on French culture. Elite women, including royal mistresses, influenced the customs of dress, house furnishings, and the decorative arts. By providing the physical environment French saloniers allowed the men to have the discussion, and move the debate into action. One of the paradoxes of the enlightenment for women was that the philosophes questioned all traditional limits on men, championing rights of commoners, citizens, slaves, Jews, Indians, and children, but not really those of women. Women in Europe before the advent of salons complained that they had no place to develop their intellectual or artistic interests, but the salons put them in a position to write about women’s issues concerning their education, political power, property, marriage and divorce rights.
We can make some analogies of 18th century salons to what are the various mediums today that are used to influence people. In the 18th century, salons played essentially the social and political function of the press and television today. Salon hostesses had to be educated to guide conversations on everything from politics, literature, science, and the cultural arts, the latest plays in Paris, German philosophy, political reform, and financial remedies for France. After Louis XIV’s forty plus years of fighting to expand his absolutism, and gaining just one city, France was on the verge of bankruptcy. Under Louis XV and XVI, their choice of ministers was strongly influenced by the backing of powerful saloniers as their gatherings attracted not only intellectuals, but statesmen and ambassadors. Saloniers could make or break careers. Interesting enough, Salon life was separate from the court of the monarchy, which resided in Versailles a half a day’s travel from Paris. In the beginning, salons were free of sexual intrigue, but eventually women and men’s sexuality were utilized to their fullest. France’s allowance of sexual freedom for the aristocracy was legendary, and even mistresses generally kept their class affiliations without any consequences for their sexual behavior. Saloniers never achieved the same prestige and influence in other European capitals as in Paris. London, Vienna, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin and others major cities had salons. In London, salonieres tended to be middle class. Originally these women who ran the English salons were called “blue stockings”, but became a derogative term for women that aspired to be educated. In Germanic capital cities, saloniers were often Jewish women. In many cases, salons allowed women to meet and marry men of superior social rank or wealth.
What were some of the characteristics women needed to be acceptable hostesses in the salons? Women tended to be well off or wealthy; invariably women were middle age (at least forty years old or older); women were usually single, separated or widowed rather than married; and the most important traits for these women to have were cleverness, tactfulness, and charm. Being beautiful and well educated was not necessary, but helpful. To draw out one’s guests and to make them sparkle, was the women’s main function. As Jean Jacque Rousseau said “Women existed merely to nurture and to comfort men,” and the poet Le Brun’s advice to women was for them to inspire but not to write.
Distinguished men of the period wandered from one salon to another one. In the end these exchanges of ideas percolated down throughout society, and the French will fight a revolution, resolving centuries of abuse.
Catherine de Vivonne Rambouillet, 1588-1665. was a French noblewoman born in Rome. At twelve she was married to the son of the Marquis de Rambouillet. When Catherine was twenty-one, her husband became the Marquis and she the Marquises. For fifty years she gathered together the talented and witty of France in her famous townhouse, the Hotel de Rambouillet, which still exists. Hers was a salon devoted to literature and cultured conversation, where nobles and men of letters could mingle on equal footing. Her salon became the setting for the development of French Classical Literature. After the birth of her seventh child at age thirty-five, she developed a mysterious illness that prevented her bearing direct heat from fireplaces. She then directed conversation from her bed for the next twenty-five years. Catherine literally created the salon in both its senses, the room itself (drawing room), and the institution where conversation freely flowed.
Madame de Maintenon, 1635-1719, was born Francoise D”Aubigne. Cardinal Richelieu, the Chief Minister for Louis XIII, had imprisoned her father. This forced her mother, Martinique, to raise her daughter on the streets while living off of charity from her relatives. Francoise was married to a middle-aged man, but he died soon after the wedding. France’s ruler at the time, Louis XIV had many mistresses. One of them, Madame de Montespan, chose Francoise to educate the illegitimate children of the king. In 1670 Francoise was elevated to the title of governess. Due to her devotion to his children, Louis XIV began to seek her guidance and comfort. In 1674 Louis gave her a new title, Madame de Maintenon. Six months after the death of Louis XIV's wife, Maria Theresa in 1683, Louis secretly married Madame de Maintenon. She became his morganatic wife. This meant that she signed basically a pre-nuptial agreement, disallowing her from inheriting any of Louis’ regal titles. Madame de Maintenon’s influence on the king was to get him to act more religious. She influenced him to participate in religious celebrations. For society in general, Madame de Maintenon’s greatest activities involved education of girls. She taught and organized a school for poor children, and hired Ursuline nuns to teach them as well. It was called the Institute of St. Louis or House of St. Cyr. Eventually it housed two hundred young poor girls if they were able to prove four degrees of nobility on their father’s side. When the maidens left school, they each got 3000 crowns for a dowry. Madame’s goal was to educate young women, that did not choose to become nuns, for their future role of mothers. This support allowed women to gain influence and prestige.
Suzanne Curchod Necker, 1739-94, was the daughter of a Swiss Pastor. At first Suzanne was engaged to the famous English Historian, Edward Gibbon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but either her father broke it off or she decided she did not want to live in England. Around the age of twenty-five she married Jacques Necker, a banker who became Finance Minister to Louis XVI. Suzanne encouraged her husband in his political career, but she also had a brilliant Parisian salon. The hospital that she founded ca. 1776, still exists. Two of her well-known writings were Reflections on Divorce, 1794, and On Inhumane Precepts, 1790. She was also the mother of another famous salonier and writer, Madame de Stael, who will be covered in the chapter on Women’s Activities in the French Revolution.
Madame de Sevigne, 1626-96, wrote thousands of letters that are considered literary masterpieces at the time.
More later on her.
Marie-Therese de Geoffrin 1699, 1777, was perhaps the most important salonier in the 18th century. While beginning her life as the daughter of a valet, she eventually became the wife of an ice-cream manufacturer when she was fifty. He was never influential in her life. Marie-Therese was one of the major sponsors of Denis Diderot’s Grand Encyclopedia, the multi-volume inventory guide to knowledge in the Enlightenment. Madame de Geoffrin even corresponded with Montesquieu and Catherine the Great of Russia.
Madame de Pompadour, 1721-64, was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson. Receiving a good education, she was also extremely talented in the cultural arts of acting, dancing, singing, and playing the clavichord. She soon became known as one of the most beautiful and wittiest women in Paris. At the age of twenty-four she became the mistress of Louis XV for five years, and this is when he ennobled her at the Marquise de Pompadour. While married at the time, she divorced her husband. Louis XV had the tendency to be always bored, but Madame de Pompadour knew how to keep him entertained. Even after she was no longer his mistress, she was his close friend for fourteen more years. The apartments she occupied at Versailles can still be seen today. Her Paris mansion, the Elysee, is now France’s Presidential Palace. Madame de Pompadour was an important patron of the French Painter Francois Boucher, the writer Voltaire, and Denis Diderot and his Grand Encyclopedia.
Madame de Stael, Susan Necker’s daughter, 1766-1817, was considered to be one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century. She led an intellectual and political opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte from her salon. More comments on her are in the Chapter on the French Revolution.
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