Ancient history

Women of the 1780s

Self-portrait, by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. 1790. Uffizi Gallery, Florence • WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun's self-portraits show her playing on the one hand with the conventions of male representation – at her easel, painting, she affirms her professional skills – and on the other illustrating, when she embraces her child Julie, the rise of the sensitivity of her time. The Age of Enlightenment allowed women – at least some of them – to assert themselves. The decline in illiteracy has benefited girls even more than boys, reducing the gender literacy gap. Female education has been put on the agenda.

The power of private correspondence

Frenchwoman living in London, Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) thus had the idea of ​​writing, to train governesses and school mistresses, small educational dialogues, the Magasins . Promised to be a great success, declined according to the age of the pupils, their sex and even their background (the Shop for the poor, craftsmen, servants and country people appeared in 1767), they were sponsored by the Empress of Russia and used very widely throughout Europe. Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830), who was in charge of the education of the princes and princesses of Orléans – including the future Louis-Philippe –, owes her fame to her edifying fictions, in particular Adèle et Théodore ou Education Letters (1782) and the Theatre for the use of young people (1779-1780). Louise d'Épinay (1726-1783) obtained in 1783 the utility prize of the French Academy for the Conversations d'Émilie , which testify to the interest she found in raising her granddaughter.

The presence of writing in everyday life is increasing significantly, partly thanks to the development of girls' education. Writing was used for practical purposes:craftsmen's wives wrote down orders and kept stocks, mothers copied cooking recipes or remedies for cramps or colds. Private correspondence also developed:familiar letters were exchanged with geographically distant relatives. We give news of his children, we talk about his aspirations, his activities, we tell the latest outings. The diary becomes for some a place to bare their hearts. The century saw women become famous in various fields. There are many portraits that we could have painted. We will mention only four:those of a scientist, a writer, a politician and a philosopher.

Portraits of extraordinary women

Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), first of all. Educated in ancient languages ​​as well as in the worldly arts of music and theater, this outstanding specialist in Newton, of which she is the first translator, is at the forefront of scholarly and philosophical investigations. She has, in particular on questions of physics, exchanges with scientists from all over Europe.

Daughter of Swiss Protestants, brought up in Paris, Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) had exceptional literary talents:she commented on Rousseau, proposed, with On literature (1800), one of the great theoretical works of the time, left two memorable novels (Delphine and Corinne or Italy ) and distributed widely in France, thanks to From Germany , the culture of the neighboring country and the beginnings of romanticism. She will be hated by Napoleon:the Emperor prefers the model of women who are silent without pretending to take part in social debates.

Daughter of a Parisian jeweler, Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (1754-1793) married in 1780 an austere and cultured man, Jean-Marie Roland de La Platière, twenty years older than her. A voracious reader since childhood, an admirer of Plutarch and Rousseau, "Manon" Roland was enthusiastic about the beginnings of the Revolution and actively collaborated with her husband, the short-lived Minister of the Interior, for whom she wrote speeches and letters. Sentenced to the guillotine, the muse of the Girondins went up to the scaffold in 1793, having believed in the possible intervention of women in the public space.

Finally, Sophie de Grouchy (1764-1822) held a very popular salon at the Hôtel des Monnaies, with her husband Condorcet. Lively and intelligent, she would have collaborated with him, before publishing a translation of the Traité des sentiments morales by Adam Smith and, above all, his Letters on Sympathy , an original reflection based on the theories of the Scottish philosopher.

High-tech salonnières

If these are exceptional women, who have benefited from special contexts to cultivate themselves and bring out their talents, others play a role behind the scenes. The institution of the salon, which enjoyed its period of glory in France in the 18 th century, allows, on the occasion of regular meetings, encounters between the two sexes and between individuals of different backgrounds and origins. Strictly speaking, these are not democratic places – one goes there by invitation or patronized by a regular – but the salon allows a fiction of equality to be maintained and discussions to be promoted. Without derogating from her rank, a lady of high lineage can receive an artist or a man of letters who, if not from a large family, is seen as belonging to an aristocracy of talent. This openness is in line with the popularization of knowledge essential for the Enlightenment movement.

Alongside the nobility of the robe and the sword, another aristocracy develops:that of the talents. Artists, philosophers or scientists are highlighted during the social gatherings of the famous "salonnières".

In some respects, the living room is a miniature courtyard over which reigns a kind of benevolent monarch, patron of the arts and letters. Among the great characters of "salonnières" - the substantive is late - we find the Duchess of Maine (1676-1753). Truly formed on the model of a small courtyard, its salon, in its early days, contrasted with Versailles, where the old age of Louis XIV and the devotion of M me de Maintenon make the atmosphere heavy. The faithful of the Duchess, who meet in an atmosphere of freedom of spirit and expression, for small meetings or sumptuous evenings, the "great nights of Sceaux", appear as rebellious intellectuals, and she will be a imprisoned time with loved ones.

If the Duchess of Maine has political ambitions, other salonnières are active to bring their proteges into the Academy. The Marquise de Lambert (1647-1733) supports the candidacy of Montesquieu, M me du Deffand (1697-1780), that of d’Alembert. Salons are like the private response to learned societies. Fascinated by their reputation, foreigners passing through Paris seek to be invited there. The provincials reproduce, at the local level, the model of the capital. In the living rooms, we converse, we sometimes attend scientific demonstrations, we listen to readings in preview. The French spirit and the art of conversation are seen as emblematic of this sociability that accompanied the birth of public opinion.

The parenthesis closes

The shows are held on a fixed day, at private homes. The character of meetings owes much to the sensibilities of the hostess. From 1726, the "rogue canoness", M me de Tencin (1682-1749), mother of d’Alembert, received men of wit in her home and conversations were very free. At the end of the Ancien Régime, at Suzanne Necker (1737-1794), the atmosphere was more restrained – M me d’Oberkirch, who does not like it, but salutes its culture and its benevolence, writes rather amusingly that “God, before creating it, dipped it inside and out in a tub of starch. The young girl in the house, the future Germaine de Staël, listens avidly to the exchanges.

Some women become true protectors. So M me Geoffrin, thanks to which several contributors to the famous Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert owe their financial independence.

The wealthy bourgeois M me Geoffrin (1699-1777) welcomes painters on Mondays in rue Saint-Honoré and men of letters on Wednesdays. A true patron, she intervened to get pensions given to artists, commissioned paintings from them, offered them furniture and clothing and became their protector in all respects. At home, we meet Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Boucher, Van Loo, Greuze or Hubert Robert, and also those who were involved in the preparation of the Encyclopédie . It is partly to her that some of the contributors to the large enterprise led by Diderot and d'Alembert owe their financial independence. Received with other well-known men, they earn a kind of patent of worldliness thanks to the salonnière whose fame extends far beyond the borders of the kingdom.

The 18 th century has thus allowed, within an unequal society, the growing affirmation of an equality of talents and spirit between the two sexes. The Revolution dealt a blow to the sociability of the Enlightenment and to the outspokenness of the salons. The ideal that emerges reduces women to the role of mother and wife. From the tip of their lips, we just concede that they publish educational works, as Marie Leprince de Beaumont or Louise d'Épinay had done. In 1793, Olympe de Gouges ascended the scaffold after having demanded an equality of rights in which she had been able to believe, but which was not to be really put back on the agenda for more than a century.

Find out more
The Factory of Intimacy:Diaries and Memoirs of Eighteenth C Women century, C. Seth, Robert Laffont, coll. “Books”, 2013.
Dictionary of Women of the Enlightenment, H. Krief and V. André (eds.), Honoré Champion, 2015.
Le Monde des salons. Sociability and worldliness in 18 th Paris century, A. Lilti, Fayard, 2005.


Publication of Physics Institutions and The Analysis of Leibniz's Philosophy by Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749).
Launch in London of the Children's Magazine , first volume of Marie Leprince de Beaumont's educational best-sellers.
Death of the Marquise de Pompadour, confidante and former mistress of the king, patron of artists and men of letters.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard are elected to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens d’Olympe de Gouges calls for the equality of the two sexes before the law.
Closure of the Royal House of Saint-Louis in Saint-Cyr, founded in 1684 for the education of young poor noble girls.

A woman of letters translated throughout Europe
Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780), novelist, journalist and pedagogue, shows the importance of women in the circulation of knowledge. She illustrates the European aspect of the Enlightenment through the success of her works, read in French throughout Europe and translated into Russian, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Danish, Serbian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Greek… In its Stores dialogued, the pedagogical discourse borrows the traits of fiction. She popularizes various modern ideas:faith in progress, belief in the perfectibility of man, cultural relativity, etc. She manages, as best she can, to live from her pen and offers an example of the professionalization of the profession of writer and the legitimization of women authors through “useful” writing. C. S.