Louise Dupin’s ‘Work on Women’: Selections 
edited and translated by Angela Hunter and Rebecca Wilkin.
Oxford, 296 pp., £19.99, October 2023, 978 0 19 009010 4
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The Letters of the Duchesse d’Elbeuf: Hostile Witness to the French Revolution 
edited by Colin Jones, Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley and Simon Macdonald.
Liverpool, 411 pp., £60, October 2023, 978 1 80207 871 8
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Choderlos de Laclos​ ’s Liaisons dangereuses is remembered for its salacious intrigues, but it’s also about the condition of women. Addressing the Vicomte de Valmont, her partner in games of intimate deception, the Marquise de Merteuil declares that all aspects of social life are more fraught with danger for women: ‘As for you men, your defeats are only a success the less. In this unequal struggle, our good fortune is not to be losers; and your misfortune, not to be gainers.’ In 1783, the year after the novel appeared, Laclos wrote a manifesto, left unpublished until the 20th century, which called on women to effect a radical transformation of relations between the sexes: ‘Do not expect help from men, who caused your sufferings … To escape bondage, a great revolution is necessary.’

The concern in French intellectual life with the status of women predated the Enlightenment. In 1405, Christine de Pizan mounted a defence of women’s historical achievements in The Book of the City of Ladies. In 1673, François Poulain de la Barre, a Catholic priest and disciple of Descartes, published De l’égalité des deux sexes, deploying Cartesian doubt to call into question misogynistic prejudices. Such proto-feminism didn’t win the day. Poulain de la Barre converted to Calvinist Protestantism and fled to Geneva. Molière’s Les Femmes savantes, first staged in 1672, ridiculed women’s claims to a sophisticated education: ‘The hen oughtn’t to be heard when the cock’s there.’ The play was one of his greatest successes.

Yet the intensity of the debate revealed unsettled feelings. Even in Les Femmes savantes, female characters are forceful and wily. The infamous line about the hen and the cock is delivered by Martine, a kitchen maid, in order to foil the schemes of a foolish and pedantic man: crass misogyny, too, was being ridiculed. It is even possible that the respect afforded to elite women – notably greater in France than in many of its neighbours – in some ways trickled down through early modern French society. Not only was the European witch hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries much less fierce in France than in the Germanic world, but surviving records suggest that in France, men were convicted for sorcery as often as women.

Women played an important role in the overthrow of the Ancien Régime – including the thousands of Parisian women who forced the king and court to abandon Versailles on 6 October 1789 – and calls for women’s equality were especially strong in the early years of the revolution. In 1790, the mathematician and philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet demanded full civil rights for women: ‘Why should beings exposed to pregnancies and to passing indispositions not be able to exercise rights that no one ever imagined taking away from people who have gout every winter or who easily catch cold?’ The following year, Olympe de Gouges published La Déclaration des droits de la femme, a stinging parody of the 1789 proclamation of revolutionary values. Her Article 1 stated that ‘woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights’; Article 4 denounced male instead of monarchical despotism (‘the only limit to the exercise of natural rights by woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it’). Three weeks after the Legislative Assembly suspended the king in August 1792, it authorised divorce – a major emancipatory step for women. The same year, inspired by events in France, Mary Wollstonecraft established the terms of ‘the woman question’ in the anglophone world when she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Yet the French Revolution soon turned into a rout of women’s rights. In 1793, de Gouges was executed and Robespierre’s revolutionary government banned women’s political clubs. In 1804, the Napoleonic Code reaffirmed a husband’s authority over his wife and the Bourbon Restoration rescinded the right to divorce in 1817. No longer accused of culpable indulgence towards women, France became renowned for its scepticism towards féministes – initially a pejorative term, coined by Alexandre Dumas fils in his lampoon L’Homme-femme (1872) – and the timidity of its movement for women’s civil rights. In England, the doctrine of coverture, which subsumed a married woman’s legal existence under her husband’s, was dismantled in the 1870s, and British women obtained the right to vote on the same terms as men in the 1920s. In France, married women gained legal personality only in 1938 and it took the trauma of the Second World War to usher in women’s suffrage in 1944.

Historians have puzzled over the reticence of democratic France – one of the earliest adopters of universal male suffrage in 1848 – to grant equal rights to women. In Only Paradoxes to Offer (1996), Joan Wallach Scott pointed to the double bind in which the universalist republican discourse entrapped French feminists, confronting them with an impossible choice between an abstract (though in reality male) ideal of citizenry on the one hand and the promotion of the concrete rights of women on the other. By contrast, Mona Ozouf, in Women’s Words (1997), favourably compared France’s universalist horizon, which permitted a more peaceful process of advancement, with the conflict-ridden history of women’s emancipation in the Anglo-American world. A crucial factor was the secularist left’s despair about the Catholic piety of French women. The historian Jules Michelet suspected that ‘God changed sex’ during the Middle Ages, as the cult of Mary superseded that of Jesus. But his political concern was with the reactionary influence of the clergy over women in his own times: ‘Our wives and our daughters are raised and governed by our enemies – enemies of the modern spirit, of freedom and the future.’

The roots of France’s strange attitude towards women’s civil rights can be found in the years preceding the revolution. Two recently published manuscripts, one by Louise Dupin, née de Fontaine (1706-99), the other by Innocente-Catherine d’Elbeuf, née de Rougé (1707-94), offer useful clues. The French Enlightenment’s regard for women, both suggest, remained deeply enmeshed with the courtly culture of Ancien Régime France, and with that extraordinary informal institution, the salon. A considerable proportion of women continued to view themselves as members of an estate – a corporate body such as the nobility, whose privileges ought to be sustained – rather than as individuals waiting to receive their natural rights.

Dupin’s Work on Women dates from the 1740s. Left in draft, it was scattered in archival depositories in France, Switzerland and the US until the early 20th century. An edition of the 39 surviving sections or ‘articles’, out of a projected 47, was first published in French in 2022. Angela Hunter and Rebecca Wilkin’s selection of 27 articles offer a reasonable overview of Dupin’s analysis. Readers may, however, be perplexed by their argument that Dupin’s ‘Enlightenment feminism’ was limited by remaining

embedded in contemporary white feminism, in which middle-class and wealthy white women aspire to the goods and prestige the most fortunate white men enjoy, without questioning the exploitative mechanisms that enable that good fortune, and in indifference to the particular struggles of women of colour, working-class and poor women, and LGBTQ women.

So many presentist and ethnocentric misconstruals in a clunky half-sentence is a feat of anti-historicism, as well as an injustice to an extraordinary woman.

To begin with, Dupin was not middle-class or merely wealthy. The illegitimate daughter of Samuel Bernard, a financier who helped to fund the War of the Spanish Succession under Louis XIV, she married Claude Dupin, one of the directors of the tax-collecting Ferme générale. The Dupins lived in a splendid mansion near the Palais Royal in Paris, and – for a second home –bought the Château de Chenonceau, the former residence of the courtier Diane de Poitiers. Louise Dupin’s salon was one of the centres of the French Enlightenment, and her husband wrote a treatise, Oeconomiques (1745), that anticipated the calls of Turgot and Adam Smith for freer trade. The Dupins purchased some of their wine from the Baron de Montesquieu, though the two families fell out after Montesquieu published De l’esprit des lois in 1748 (Claude resented his attack on tax farming and Louise his tolerance for polygamy). Louise nonetheless remained on excellent terms with Voltaire and Georges-François Leclerc de Buffon. Between 1745 and 1751, she employed Rousseau as her private secretary.

The case of Louise Dupin shows that Ancien Régime society did not preclude social mobility, provided one had money, intellectual talents or beauty (Louise enjoyed a great reputation on the latter count, though she was no libertine, rejecting the advances of Rousseau and Montesquieu, among others). Her birth was tainted by illegitimacy, but also by the Protestantism that her father renounced only after it was outlawed in 1685. Claude was a middling commoner, who started out as a tax collector in the provincial backwaters of Châteauroux. Her father’s extensive speculations in the slave trade and slave plantations may seem to justify the editors’ barb at Louise’s limited awareness of racial injustice. But there were no abolitionists in the 1740s and Work on Women is noteworthy for invoking the example of illustrious Black historical figures – ‘most of the Carthaginian troops’, ‘Jugurtha’s soldiers’ and ‘the famous Numidian cavalry’ – to ridicule claims to masculine superiority based on the abundance of facial hair. ‘The colour of men varies,’ she admits, but this serves to bolster her point that minor physical variations, as also exist between the sexes, do not determine aptitude.

Echoing Buffon’s scientific approach, Dupin builds her demolition of sexual prejudice on a systematic comparison of men and women’s anatomical characteristics, rejecting the significance of small differences. She goes so far as to belittle the pains of childbirth as a ‘short-lived’ inconvenience and ridicules a myriad of what we would today describe as sexist clichés, including the notion that being more often on top during the sexual act ‘may have determined pre-eminence on the side of men’ (she nonetheless defends that ‘lovely position’ on the grounds that it was ‘more convenient’ and ‘more dignified’). Her response to the belief that men’s greater physical strength made them more apt to command illustrates her flair for deriding absurdities: she notes that no one would dare apply this principle among men, ‘and if we are not willing to argue that all strong men are more intelligent than weak men, then we cannot reasonably admit this proportion of forces as a legitimate distinction between men and women either.’

Unlike earlier defenders of women such as Poulain de la Barre, who argued that some of their qualities made up for their deficiencies, Dupin affirms equal aptitude between the sexes. Societies ‘mistake custom for nature’, she writes, and the rest of her treatise examines the ways in which the artificial superiority of men was established in Europe. In a section on history, she points to the Catholic Church’s rescinding of women’s prerogatives, from the exclusion of women from the priesthood to the enclosing of convents during the Counter-Reformation. In a section on legal reforms, she argues that the revival of Roman law, so central to state-building, reduced French wives to the ancient status of concubines, especially in matters of property rights: ‘dispossessing women’, she quips, was the ‘spirit of the law’. And in a final section on education and mores, she again blames the Catholic Church for having reserved institutions of learning to men and calls for an identical system of instruction regardless of sex, for the benefit of society as well as women.

Nature made men and women equal, but society has enslaved the latter to the former. The suggestion here of Rousseau’s claim that ‘man is born free and everywhere in chains’ is probably not a coincidence: most of the manuscript of Work on Women is in his hand, with corrections by Dupin in the margins. He also carried out much of the research into Church and legal history. In his Confessions, Rousseau admitted to the failure of his sexual advances – Dupin returned his love letter after three days, ‘accompanying it with a few exhortations that froze my blood’ – but he said nothing of his work for her, perhaps because acknowledging an intellectual debt to a woman was even more humiliating.

Yet if Rousseau’s thought resembled Dupin’s in a number of ways, it differed sharply on the status of women. In Discourse on Inequality, he inveighed against love, ‘a factitious feeling, born of social usage and enhanced by the women with much care and cleverness, to establish their empire, and put in power the sex which ought to obey’. In Émile (1762), his treatise on education, he pleaded bluntly for the submission of woman to man: the latter ‘should be strong and active’, the former ‘weak and passive’; ‘woman was specifically made to please man.’ Julie, the heroine of La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), the bestselling novel of 18th-century Europe, embodied this ideal of female modesty. Rousseau’s views on women were subtler, however, than isolated quotations suggest. His writings were exceptionally popular among women, not least because he considered their place in society a primordial issue. But due to the enormous influence of his ideas on French revolutionaries, a case can be made that the tepid support of the French left for women’s rights was rooted in Rousseau’s rebuttal of Dupin’s sexual egalitarianism.

Dupin lived​ to see the revolution, fleeing Paris for Chenonceau when crowd violence intensified in September 1792. She foiled an attempt by the revolutionary government to confiscate her château, and died there aged 93. An interesting parallel can be drawn between her life and that of Innocente-Catherine d’Elbeuf, who belonged to the upper stratum of the Ancien Régime aristocracy. The editors of a surviving fragment of her diary – letters to an unknown correspondent, written between 1788 and 1794 and published here in the original French – retrace her rise from already illustrious heights to the top of pre-revolutionary society. Born to a noble family in Brittany, she accumulated wealth and status through marriages, first to another Breton aristocrat and later to a scion of the House of Lorraine. After the death of her second husband, she retained the rank of princesse and managed a colossal fortune in landed estates and colonial investments, yielding 200,000 livres a year – about the same as the income of a general tax farmer such as Claude Dupin. The Hôtel d’Elbeuf, magnificently refurbished by Innocente-Catherine, stood across from the Tuileries, a stone’s throw from the Dupins’ mansion, and she had a second town house, in Versailles.

Very rich people can hold dissimilar worldviews. The Duchesse d’Elbeuf’s diary is not only hostile to the revolution but suffused with hatred for revolutionaries, contempt for the timidity of Louis XVI and revulsion for the equal rights granted to bourgeois, peasants, Jews and ‘coloured men’. After withdrawing to her estate in Picardy, and a short exile in Belgium, she returned to Paris in 1792, probably in an attempt to prevent the confiscation of her properties. There, she witnessed first-hand the worst of the revolutionary violence. The Hôtel d’Elbeuf directly faced the office of the Committee of Public Safety, the body that orchestrated the Terror. From her window, she had an unmatchable view over the guillotine in the place du Carrousel.

Her politics were as vehement as they were unsophisticated. She revered the old nobility – ‘this antiquity of pure birth, which, strengthened by alliances with similar families, is the gift of the Lord, and must inspire the most chivalrous feelings’ – and upheld the primacy of Catholicism. She despised the ‘vermin of so-called philosophes’ who had extinguished true faith in France: ‘Whoever does not believe in God becomes entirely abominable.’ She lamented new taxes on her landholdings and the Caribbean slave revolt that endangered her colonial investments. But she never complained about the revolution’s treatment of women, caring only for noble birth and piety. On 13 January 1794, the surveillance committee of her neighbourhood had her arrested – she was 83 – and seized her papers. She died under house arrest a month later.

For all their ideological differences, Dupin and d’Elbeuf inhabited the same cultural world. The last book that d’Elbeuf recorded reading, shortly before her arrest, was Claude Fleury’s twenty-volume Histoire ecclésiastique (1691-1720), an influential history of the Christian Church; we know from the notes taken by Rousseau that it was also the main source of Dupin’s reflections on religion in Work on Women. That world was shattered by the revolution, which disappointed the emancipatory hopes of Laclos and others. The revolution did little to enhance the status of ordinary women, and diminished that of elite women. Salons did not vanish, but their significance declined, until they featured as an amusing relic in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The abolition of privileges had another adverse effect on the social power of rich women, by curtailing their ability as widows to distribute property as they saw fit. The Duchesse d’Elbeuf was childless, but through complex legal instruments had planned to transmit her wealth and titles to her favourite nephews. New prescriptive rules about inheritance, including the end of entails, thwarted her designs. The French Revolution made all men equal before the law, but it consolidated the legal inferiority of women.

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