Robespierre on women’s intellectual capacities, or Robey likes Bluestockings
In 1787, the Académie of Arras, a savvy society then in fashion all over Europe, decided to open its doors to women as well. Only few academies had done so until then, and this progress was short-lived, as Napoleon forbid to the academies to welcome women among its members. However, back in the Old Regime era, the Arras academy admitted, among some male savants, Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749-1828) and Louise-Félicité de Kéralio (1757-1821), later a rather un-feminist jacobine. In his virtue as the academy’s president, it was Robespierre’s task to welcome the new members. He profited from this opportunity to examine the benefits of a general admission of women to the academies for the academies, for women and for society as a whole. This resulted in a long speech. This speech was first printed in 1974 in the Annales Historiques de la Révolution Franҫaise. It is notable that it would be anachronistic to qualify Robespierre as a “feminist” here, as the term was only coined 100 years later and within a society that was, indeed, shaped not least by Robespierre himself during Revolution, namely a society based on democratic legitimation, but made no sense in an Old Regime society. His thoughts were not uncontested and rather progressive, though. He did not argue that women and men were equal, but intrinsicly different, though with the same intellectual capacities. His main argument seems to be that the presence of women “civilises” men and encourage them to even more efforts and merits. Thus, an active participation of women would be less important than a passive presence. Robespierre is highly heteronormative here: women are the “more interesting sex” - in men’s eyes. Because of that “empire” (ascendency) they possess over men (a very sexualised ascendency, as it seems) they spurn men towards social progress. Thus, women may be the motor of progress, as Robespierre suggests - but it is nevertheless men who are the drivers. Not very feministic in our nowadays’ eyes… I will quote only some passages from this rather circumlocutory speech.
“[…] This proposition could itself seem paradoxical, I know that a favorable view towards the sex [i.e. women] is suspicious even for those who vaunt their wisdom and seriousness; everything that bears the trace of sadness and austerity presents in their eyes the character of reason and men are generally drawn to view the useful and the pleasant as essentially divided. […] But why do I expect lively disagreements on this point? What are the most powerful reasons to force us to relinquish the sweetest of advantages? Will I have to fight those who, in sentencing all women to ignorance and frippery, will scandalise everything that assumes in them a taste in useful knowledges? I will well beware of renewing that big question which would itself be the scandal of an enlightened century. […] Prejudices are the plague of the world and sciences are its remedy. [….] One will never convince univers that the intelligent being, the being which reason and capacity for perfection distinguishes it from other beings could not perfect its reason, widen the bounds of its intelligence and develop its noblest abilities without becoming more spiteful and more unhappy in proportion to the progress of its enlightenment. But if one only grants women reason and intelligence can one deny them the right to cultivate them? The particular differences which characterise the both sexes could well determine the type of studies that suits them, but not forbid one of them the care of perfecting the abilities that are common to the whole human nature. [I shorten the argumentation here: Robespierre thinks that the “abstract sciences” are more for men, while women could ably dabble in literature, history and ethics. Ok, that was mean, he does not say “dabble” but “pick flowers”.] […] Nature has given each sex their own talents. Man’s genius has more strength and upliftment; that of woman more sensitiveness and pleasantnesses [”délicatesse et agréments”]. The perfection of the labours of human spirit consist in the union between these diverse qualities and the means to gather them is to associate women to literary companies. […] After that, imagine a society where one would see the most amiable and wittiest women chat with enlightened men on the most pleasant and most interesting ojbects that could engage beings made to think and to feel. [Note that the women are sort of excellent (superlatives!) while men just need to be “enlightened”, hum…] Ah! if those who have no other merit than the kindness of their sex can spread so much sweetness on life’s commerces, which will then be that of those who, unencumbered by the false disgrace of appearing well-read, without blushing on being more loveable and more enlightened would boldly in an interesting talk the alacrity of a delicate mind and the favours of a laughing imagination [? other translations of “riante” welcome] and the charms of a cultivated reason! It is an obligation that comes with their position as citizeness that does not allow them to refuse their patrie a service so important and which is so easy to render [i.e. for Arras women to attend at least one yearly meeting of the Arras academy]. There is more to it: it is a duty of their sex, because heaven has not lavished all the skills on them that embellish them just to be an unheeded decoration in the univers, but to contribute to society’s glory and happiness.”
Ferdinand Dubois-Fosseux, secretary to the academy, circulated Robespierre’s speech among affiliated societies. He received several responses, most of them adversing Robespierre’s opinion on the inclusion of women into academies (some of them argued, of course, that women’s complexion was to fragile for intellectual labour), mostly because this work would divert them from their household duties or would make them seem boring (I can affirm, that is the case!), or it would turn learnt women into unmarrigeable bluestockings.