An Enlightenment Also for Women

By Margaret L. King

Margaret L. King is Professor of History, Emerita, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the recipient of The Renaissance Society of America’s 2018 Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award. An Enlightenment Also for Women, her latest blog post for The Hackett Colloquium, features excerpts from her new book Enlightenment Thought: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett, March 2019).


The creators of the Enlightenment were men, but women were both participants in and beneficiaries of that movement—something that has not been sufficiently recognized. My new book Enlightenment Thought: An Anthology of Sources addresses that neglect in two of its twelve chapters.

Enlightenment Thought Book Cover

Chapter Two, “The Learned Maid: 1638–1740,” traces the arguments for women’s education and notes women’s entry into the mainstream of literary culture. It opens:

The Enlightenment is the first intellectual movement—in Europe, or anywhere else—where women play a significant role. They did so both as authors, remarkably enough, but also as participants in the new realm of scientific investigation, and as the facilitators of learned conversation in the salons they hosted, which were one of the hallmarks of the age. Women’s entry into learned society was made possible by the extended debate of the previous two centuries over women’s moral and intellectual capacity and equal humanity to men, largely overturning, in the realm of theory at least, prevailing anti-woman assumptions. These matters resolved, the education of women, and their participation in intellectual discourse, might follow, as seen in the five cases presented in this chapter.
The chapter opens with the pivotal defense of the education of women first published in 1638 by the Dutch philosopher and Christian Pietist Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678). It then looks at England where, during an era of political revolution and reaction, the aristocrat Margaret Cavendish (1623–1676) makes bold claims for women’s admission to the highest ranks of intellectual culture, and the gentlewoman Bathsua Makin (c. 1600–c. 1675?), founder of a school for girls—at this time, a novelty—presents the argument for the education of women in the advanced studies previously reserved for men. The French marquise and salonnière (salon hostess) Madame de Maintenon (1635–1719) also opens a school for girls, its more cautious but still audacious vision documented in her letters and lectures. Discussion then jumps to the year 1740, when Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise Du Châtelet (1706–1749) publishes her Fundamentals of Physics, an introduction to physics based on Newton’s Principia that she had read, and probed, in the original Latin. Over the course of a century, these five figures trace the emergence of women into the Republic of Letters.

madame du chatelet
Madame du Châtelet at her desk.

Chapter Ten, “Vindications of Women: 1685–1792,” observes the literary resistance by both male and female authors to an ideology of marriage that had long inhibited women’s progress. It opens by restating the importance of female access to education for women’s advancement, while noting that progress in that domain was not sufficient.

. . . Women’s advancement, however, accomplished not until modern times (and perhaps not yet accomplished), required not only education, but also the disruption of the ancient and enduring marriage system that, among the propertied classes, required the accommodation, and sometimes the sacrifice, of daughters to the economic and social interests of families. Arguments against this marriage system are heard from the seventeenth century forward, as in the excerpts given here from selected works by five English, Polish, and French authors, of whom four are female, and one male: Mary Astell (1666–1731); Anna Stanisławska (1651–1701); Denis Diderot (1713–1784); Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797); and Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793).

From Mary Astell, excerpts are given of her audacious Reflections on Marriage (1700). A rambling work driven by anger and impatience, it portrays traditional marriage as a malignant institution that sacrifices women to men, often their intellectual and moral inferiors, and to the family. There follows excerpts from Stanisławska verse epic Orphan Girl (1685): She tells the story of her coerced marriage and eventual triumphant liberation in twenty-nine verse “threnodies,” in which she laments her betrayal by her normally loving father, who for selfish and mercenary motives conveyed her into the arms of an impossible husband, but who in the end, from the grave, through his surrogates, achieved the dissolution of that unjust contract. The third excerpt is from Diderot’s La religeuse (The Nun, composed around 1760), which tells the story of another daughter coerced by her parents to enter a convent, as was a conventional means by which families rid themselves of surplus daughters. Diderot exposes the fraudulence of a marriage system that sacrificed women to a corrupt religious establishment, sustained by a patriarchal system that subordinated the welfare of daughters to the interests of men.

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft (c. 1797)

The fourth voice is Mary Wollstonecraft’s, who in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) assails a marriage system that confined and infantilized women, raised to value only beauty and trinkets, and to trade a brief moment of glory during their youth, as they experienced courtship and marriage, for later decades of tedium, constraint, and subordination. The fifth voice is that of the French author Olympe de Gouges, who infuriated that, in the early stages of the French Revolution, the official Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen did not recognize the rights and citizenship of women, responded with her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman as Citizen (1791). It closely follows its counterpart. Where the original Declaration, for instance, reads “Man is born and remains free,” Gouges writes, “Woman is born and remains free”; and where the original version speaks of “the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man,” Gouges writes of “the natural and imprescriptible rights of Woman and Man.”

While women’s contributions are highlighted in these two chapters, women authors also appear elsewhere in Enlightenment Thought: An Anthology of Sources, signaling that women do not speak only about women’s issues, even in the eighteenth century, but also about matters belonging to the mainstream of discussion. The battle to swim in that mainstream along with the other fish is now, in the twenty-first century, just about over. Now women and men together must build our civilization.


Read the Introduction, complete Table of Contents, and chapter 1 sample from Margaret King’s Enlightenment Thought: An Anthology of Sources here.