HISTORY OF MODERN FRANCE
From the Pre-Revolutionary period to the 3rd Republic 1770-1870 - Part II
7 December 2022
Ladies of the Enlightenment and the Revolution:
The Paris “Salonnières”, 1760-1799
One of the great cultural phenomena of French society in the 18th century was the remarkable influence exercised by upper class women in weekly gatherings at their homes, called “Salons.” In their drawing rooms they entertained and lead into brilliant conversation male luminaries of all kinds, writers, philosophers, scientists and artists.
In the early 18th century, the philosopher Baron de Montesquieu argued that women make good rulers because “their very weakness gives them more gentleness and moderation; which can make for good government, rather than tough and ferocious virtues”. Buffon, the pioneering naturalist, also wrote that gender equality is “so necessary to the gentleness of society,” suggesting that allowing women to play a prominent role in the salons made for a better, more peaceful society.
Taking into consideration these quaint opinions of women’s character and potential, we will examine how in fact, a range of powerful hostesses, with often international reputations, ruled the world of ideas, culture and politics in Paris from the mid-18th century through the French Revolution. Madame Geoffrin, the marquise du Deffand, Louise d’Epinay, Madame Hélvetius, Madame Necker and her daughter Germaine de Stäel, Olympe de Gouges and Théresa Tallien are some of the most prominent of these early feminists, who asserted the intellectual and political influence of women in the French society of their day.
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