Gender and Society in Eighteenth-Century France
Recent research across a variety of disciplines about the status of women in eighteenth-century France has drawn attention to ways in which gender influenced the period's cultural practices, from literary representations to legal ramifications. Eighteenth-century thinkers tended to support centuries-old commonplaces such as the notion that women lacked reason but were endowed with extreme sensibility, and the idea that women's place was in the private sphere of the home while men's role was to participate in the public sphere of politics, commerce and intellectual debate. These views, deeply rooted in a particular understanding of the relationship between the individual and society, bring us face to face with the tensions between eighteenth-century proclamations of universal liberty, equality and fraternity, on the one hand, and the Enlightenment's failed promise for women, on the other hand.
create a context in which advanced undergraduates can engage with
the issues outlined above, this
fifteen-week seminar incorporates the study of French with analysis
of gender in eighteenth-century literature and culture. A variable-content
course with the general theme "The Individual and Society," this
seminar was a logical choice for a focus on the eighteenth century
because that era saw the formation of key modern concepts about the
relation between self and society, ideas that continue to exercise
profound influence in our world today.
A principle goal of this seminar is for students to become familiar with the understandings of gender and society prevalent in eighteenth-century France and some of the consequences of these understandings. However, I also strive to facilitate student engagement with more general issues, including the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity; the Enlightenment concept of reason's power to overcome authority; and modern notions of democracy. Attention to the impact of gender on social structures and interactions guides the course's investigation of the individual and society. Studying eighteenth-century France in this course is not just an end in itself. Rather, students gain an informed understanding of why this period merits exploration and analysis, because we are all the inheritors of its legacy.
Major Course Units
The five major
units of instruction all invite students to perform "reading in pairs," comparing
male-authored and female-authored texts, a methodology borrowed from
Nancy K. Miller. This reading strategy helps to highlight the ways
which gender matters in these works, providing a unifying thread that
reinforces the seminar's thematic focus on women. Due to the varying
amount of reading required in each unit, the class spends more time
on some units than on others (see the course schedule below).
Unit 1: Enlightenment and Satire
Unit 2: Exploration and Exoticism
and New Institutions of Sociability
Unit 4: Reason and Sensibility
Unit 5: Gendered Declarations and
French Revolutionary Culture
In the context of teaching French culture to American students, analyzing the U.S. Declaration in conjunction with the French Declaration activates students' background knowledge, helping them to relate the French document to a text with which they are more familiar. Furthermore, the inclusion of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments is useful for two principle reasons. First, it follows the Declaration of Independence article by article, just as Olympe de Gouges's piece echoes the male-authored French Declaration, enabling the class to perform an interesting rhetorical analysis and discuss the advantages of basing a text calling for women's rights on a well-known earlier document. Second, the 1848 Declaration's date of publication demonstrates the slow pace at which women managed to achieve some of the rights bestowed upon men during the eighteenth century. This fact illustrates the ongoing relevance of the Enlightenment legacy, including its emphasis on rights, precisely the point that I want my students to come away with. Eighteenth-century ideals and the documents produced to express them did not lose their pertinence with the end of the eighteenth century.
Pedagogical Approach, Assignments and Instructional Technology
As a seminar,
this course is driven by discussion, and includes frequent informal
The "General Discussion Questions," reproduced below, help
to guide the lines of questioning throughout the semester. I find it
helpful to use what is familiar in order to introduce what is unfamiliar,
as I explained above in the context of teaching the U.S. Declaration
of Independence along with other French and U.S. Declarations. Furthermore,
comparisons with current campus and community debates on sexism and
representations of women help to enliven class discussion about gender
roles in eighteenth-century France. The course assignments, described
in some detail below, encourage independent, synthetic thought, and
help students to organize and develop their ideas in order to make
contributions to class discussion. Motivating students to prepare carefully
prior to each class meeting helps to foster a student-centered classroom
environment. The course assignments are as follows, with each assignment's
portion of the total course grade indicated in parentheses:
Written Responses (20 %)
Painting Analysis (15 %)
Film Analysis (15 %)
Final Project (30 %)
I have found that the best Final Project
comes about when students submit their work in stages. In this seminar,
students are required to turn in a topic during Week 9, an outline during
Week 11, and a complete first draft of their paper during Week 13. At
each of these stages, I provide feedback to help students improve their
projects. The final version is due at the beginning of Week 15, when
students also present their research to the rest of the class. I encourage
students to turn in the final version early, so that I can give them
comments of use in preparing one last revision. While this process of
reading and re-reading requires a considerable investment of time, I
have found that it yields an overall superior experience both for the
student and for the audience listening to the final presentation.
Preparation and Participation (20
I have found that the major benefits of using WebCT include: the ability to post assignments and announcements, the easy accessibility of copies of the syllabus and other materials distributed in class, the ease with which I can direct students to useful websites, including those that have archived images of paintings and other cultural artifacts, and the availability of the online discussion so that conversations can continue outside of class time. The online discussion forum has been especially useful for ongoing collaborative reflection about similarities and differences between the eighteenth-century public sphere as manifested in salons, academies and cafés as well as through print culture, and the twenty-first-century public sphere that includes forays into cyberspace.
All of the Modern Language seminars
at my university are offered within a unique curricular context. Because
this context is so unique, I have not emphasized it here. However, a
brief description of it will help to suggest how this course can be
adapted to fit other curricular contexts. Every spring, a section of
each seminar is offered in French, in German and in Spanish. During
most class meetings, the language groups meet separately, while on other
days, all three language groups meet together to discuss one another's
texts, which the non-target-language students read in English translation.
Therefore, this course is designed around at least some French texts
that are readily available in English translation. In an appendix below,
I have included both French and English page numbers for the excerpts
of the Confessions that all of the students in my seminar read.
Selecting these passages was one of the more onerous aspects of preparing
this course, and so I hope my selections can be of use to other teachers.
As I prepared and taught this course,
three particular types of challenges arose: intellectual, curricular
and interdisciplinary. The course presents an intellectual challenge
because its ultimate aim is to provoke thought. It tries to get students
interested in the eighteenth century while encouraging them to apply
to their own life some of the most crucial ideas invoked in eighteenth-century
thought, including freedom, equality, individualism, and the interaction
between individual rights and desires, on the one hand, and social exigencies,
on the other. The use of film and other media, as well as frequent comparisons
to current debates on topics like gender rights and civic responsibility,
helps to elicit student interest and enthusiasm, motivating them to
navigate some of the intellectual challenges of the course.
Another important challenge is curricular.
This class and other seminars like it serve as capstone courses for
programs of study leading to Modern Language Certificates and Minors
at my university. However, the institution does not offer Majors in
Modern Languages or in cognate fields such as literature or English.
The audience for this course, therefore, consists entirely of students
whose primary area of study lies in other, and often quite different,
fields. The course's attempt to link study of the eighteenth century
to broader issues that still concern us today makes particular sense
in the context of teaching non-Majors, who are less interested in gaining
scholarly credentials than they are in relating what they learn in this
class to their other educational and life experiences. That said, however,
this course design could usefully be adapted to address other curricular
contexts, whether as an advanced language and culture seminar for French
Majors, as a Texts in Translation class, or as a course in Comparative
Finally, the seminar presents some challenges by virtue of its interdisciplinary design. This course requires students to engage with materials from a variety of fields, including not only literary and historical texts but also paintings and films. This cross-disciplinary scope is a serious yet invigorating challenge to anyone trained primarily in just one of the areas. I view this facet of the course as an opportunity for me to stretch my limits as a teacher. Well worth the extra effort required, this chance to expand my comfort zone yielded a richer course than a more traditional single-discipline class. The sustained focus on gender issues provides coherence, balancing the course's ambitious scope across genres and different types of media.
General Discussion Questions
1. What types of gendered identities
does this text express?
2. In what ways does this text represent
a break from the past, and in what ways does it seem
3. According to this text, what are
the proper spheres of activity for men and women?
4. How does this text negotiate the
boundary between public and private spheres?
5. How are the interactions between
people of the same and/or different genders portrayed in the
6. What stance does this text take
with regard to the centuries-old Querelle des femmes?
7. How does the gender of this text's
creator seem to influence the text?
8. What does this text suggest with
respect to the triple ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity?
9. How does this text portray individual
rights and their interaction with social constraints?
10. What types of social critique are either explicit or implicit in this text?
Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen
Danton (Andrzej Wajda) 1982
La Nuit de Varennes (Ettore
Ridicule (Patrice Leconte)
Valmont (Milos Forman) 1989
Clément Belle, Minerva Hands Hercules the Decree Abolishing the Vices of the Former Government
François Boucher, Morning Coffee; Breakfast
Jean-Siméon Chardin, The Young Schoolmistress
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Lock; The Swing
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Paternal Curse; The Betrothal
Noël Hallé, The Magistrates of the City of Paris Receiving the News of Peace in 1763
Louis Lagrenée, Horatius after Striking his Sister
François Guillaume Ménageot, Allegory of the Birth of the Dauphin, the 22nd October 1781
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France; Self Portrait (1790)
Weeks 1-2 Unit I: Enlightenment
Weeks 3-5 Unit II: Exploration
Weeks 6-7 Unit
III: The Encyclopédie
and New Institutions of Sociability
Weeks 8-12 Unit IV: Reason
Weeks 13-14: Unit V: Gendered
Declarations and French Revolutionary Culture
Week 15: Final Discussion and Final Project Presentations
Rousseau's Confessions: Reading Guide to Excerpts in French and English
Compiling the list of assigned reading
selections from the Confessions was one of the most labor-intensive
aspects of planning this course, and I hope it can be of use to other
teachers. Several of the more motivated students in the course chose
to read the whole book, but our discussions focused on the passages
French page numbers refer to the following edition: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, texte intégral, Gallimard Folio no 2776, 1973, ISBN 2-07-039393-3. English page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics edition, translated by Angela Scholar, 2000, ISBN 0-19-282275-6. Each reading assignment begins or ends with (and is inclusive of) the passage indicated between quotation marks. The beginning and ending points always coincide with the beginning or end of a paragraph. If no quoted passage is given, students should read the entire page indicated.
Bérenguier, Nadine. "From Clarens to Hollow Park, Isabelle de Charrière's Quiet Revolution." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 21 (1991): 219-43.
Bywater, Tim and Thomas Sobchack. An Introduction to Film Criticism : Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film. New York: Longman, 1989.
Charrière, Isabelle de. Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie. New York: MLA, 1993. Trans. Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché as Letters of Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993.
Curtis, Judith. "Françoise
d'Issembourg d'Happoncourt de Graffigny (1695-1758)." In French
Women Writers. Ed. Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne
Declaration of Independence U.S., 1776 available at <http://www.nara.gov/exhall/charters/declaration/declaration.html> accessed May 10, 2002
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen France, 1789 available at <http://www.justice.gouv.fr/textfond/ddhc.htm> accessed May 10, 2002
Declaration of Sentiments U.S., 1848 available at <http://www.closeup.org/sentimnt.htm> accessed May 10, 2002
Douthwaite, Julia. Exotic Women: Literary Heroines and Cultural Strategies in Ancien Régime France. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3, spec. issue on French Revolutionary Culture, 2001.
Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2, forum: Biology, Sexuality, and Morality in Eighteenth-Century France, 2002.
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers. Paris: Briasson, Le Breton, 1751-80. Reprint: Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann, 1966.
Fraser, Nancy. "Rethinking the
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Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Gouges, Olympe de. Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen available at <http://perso.club-internet.fr/herve_ga/femme.htm> accessed May 10, 2002
Graffigny, Françoise de. Lettres d'une Péruvienne. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993. Trans. David Kornacker as Letters From a Peruvian Woman, New York: Modern Language Association, 1993.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere : An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
Jarrassé, Dominique. 18th-Century French Painting. Trans. Murray Wyllie. Paris: Terrail, 1999.
Landes, Joan. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Miller, Nancy K. "Men's Reading, Women's Writing: Gender and the Rise of the Novel." In Displacements. Women, Traditions, Literatures in French. Ed. Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller, 37-54. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Popkin, Jeremy. A Short History of the French Revolution. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions. Gallimard Folio. Paris: Gallimard, 1973. Trans. Angela Scholar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Vila, Anne. Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
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Whatley, Janet. "Isabelle de
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