Article from the Encyclopedia: "Woman"

The article "Woman" was written by four contributors who considered the question from four angles: medicine and the history of opinions about women’s nature; writings about women’s place in the state and marriage; the social differences between men and women; and women’s legal status in different societies. Although the Encyclopedia, the fundamental compendium of the Enlightenment, repeated many traditional arguments for the subjugation of women, some of its authors argued that the subordination of women had its basis only in social convention and not in any natural differences between men and women.


[Part One concerns medical and theological teachings on women.]

The reproductive organs of men are absolutely similar to those of women. . . . The Anatomists are not the only ones who have observed that, in some fashion, women are "failed" men. . . . [Renaissance medical theorists] assure us that the generative property of each animal endeavors to produce a male as being the most perfect of its kind. However, basic nature sometimes calls for a female so that propagation, based on the collaboration of the two sexes, perfects the universe.

The various biases on the point of view of man's superiority compared to women result from the periodic modification of the customs, political systems, and religions of ancient societies. I exempt the Christian religion from this charge because it established . . . a true superiority of man, while nevertheless preserving equal rights for women. . . .

[Part Two concerns the legal status of wives in marriage.]

Even though husband and wife have the same fundamental interests in society, it is nevertheless essential that governmental authority rests with either one or the other. The positive rights of civilized nations, like the laws and customs of Europe, now grant this authority unanimously and definitively to the male, who, being gifted with greater strength of mind and body, contributes more to the common good in matters both human and holy. Women then, must necessarily be subordinate to their husbands and obey his orders on all household issues. These are the opinions of legal advisors, both in olden times and now, as well as the unequivocal decision of legislators.

. . . It would be difficult to demonstrate that the husband's authority [in marriage] comes from nature in that this principle is contrary to the natural equality of mankind. Even though we are likely to impose this authority, it does not necessarily mean that we have the right to do so. . . . It can thus be argued that there is no other subordination in the conjugal relationship than that of civil law, and consequently nothing prevents certain special agreements from changing the civil law, as long as natural law and religion determine nothing to the contrary.

We don't deny that . . . a woman who knows the precepts of civil law and who entered into her marriage purely and simply, is, by that fact, tacitly subject to that civil law. But if some woman . . . stipulates the opposite of what the law purports, and in that has the consent of her spouse, should she not have, by virtue of natural law, the same power that her husband has been given by virtue of the Prince's law?

. . . Nothing prevents . . . a woman from executing authority in a marriage between people of equal status in accordance with convention, unless a legislator has prohibited any exceptions to the law, without regard of the free consent of the parties involved. Marriage is by its nature a contract, and as with everything that is not prohibited by natural law, the contract committed to by husband and wife determines their mutual rights.

[Part Three is on "morality" and on the "equality" of women and men.]

. . . The character of women is mixed, intermediate or variable. Either education alters their disposition more that it does ours or the delicacy of their constitution renders their souls a mirror that takes in all objects, returns them swiftly, and keeps none. . . .

Nature seems to have conferred on men the right to govern, whereas women have had recourse in art to free themselves. The two sexes have reciprocally exploited these assets of strength or beauty to make others suffer.

Men have increased their natural strength through the laws that they have imposed. Women have increased the price of possessing them by the difficulty of obtaining them. It would not be difficult to say on which side servitude today lies. Whatever the case may be, the goal for which women strive [is to escape servitude] and [they] use love to achieve it while men lead them away from achieving their goal. To try to inspire men while feeling nothing themselves or at least hiding what they feel is the sum of women's politics and morals.

But the more women perfected the art of making themselves desirable, hoped for, and pursued as a means of getting what they are resolved never to give, the more men multiplied their means by which to gain possession of it. The art of inspiring desire that one is not willing to satisfy, has, if nothing else, created the art of feigning unfelt emotions. . . .

Finally there is another woman more securely happy. Her happiness consists of being unaware of that which the world calls pleasure. Her glory is to live in obscurity. Contained within her duties as wife and mother, she dedicates her days to the practice of obscure virtues. Occupied with governing her family, she reigns over her husband with kindness, over her children with gentleness, and over her servants with goodness. Her house is home to religious beliefs, to filial piety, to conjugal love, to maternal tenderness, to order, to inner peace, to deep sleep, and to good health. . . .

[Part Four concerns the juridical status of women.]

The condition of women is nevertheless, in general, different in several areas from that of men as such. Women are rather more nubile than men, reaching puberty at twelve years of age. Their mind is generally developed earlier than that of men. . . .

Men, by the prerogative of their sex and by the strength of their temperament, are naturally capable of all sorts of uses and commitments, whereas women, either because of the fragility and delicate disposition of their sex are excluded from several roles, and are incapable of certain commitments.

Source: Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers par une societé des gens de lettres, 17 vols. (1751–65) (Paris: Briasson, 1756), 6:468–76.