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No. 920:
"Enlightenment" Sexism

Today, we view the conservative face of revolution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Movies and novels about 18th-century France show us salons run by witty and intelligent women -- women with a fine cutting edge, functioning as equals in that rational, enlightened world.

Two men give us a window into that world. They are the great author and wit, Voltaire; and Diderot, writer of novels and a great technical encyclopedia. Both were revolutionaries and freethinkers. Both were in constant trouble with the law. Both saw science and technology as major parts of 18th-century revolution.

When he was 35, Voltaire took up an affair with a brilliant aristocratic married woman, Emilie, the marquise of Châtelet. That went on for 16 years, during which time Emilie raised children, managed an estate, carried on a bone-crushing social life, and taught herself mathematics and physics on the side.

History now calls the indefatigable Emilie the greatest French woman scientist of the 18th century. Sleeping only 4 or 5 hours a night, she studied the flow of heat. She produced the first French translation of Newton's Principia.

Voltaire never got over her death in childbirth when she was 43. When he took up with a new mistress, he spent years vainly trying to draw the same mental brilliance from her that he'd found in Emilie. His later writings are populated with heroines who echo Emilie's strength and intelligence. Voltaire is frank about craving virtues which he perceives as masculine in a woman.

Diderot's story is similar. He lost interest in his marriage after his children were born and spent years in an affair with one Sophie Volland. Diderot wrote reams about women, and we're pretty clear on his beliefs. "Friendship," he says,

which needs firmness of spirit, right conduct, and discernment of choice, is ill suited to a sex that's weak by nature, frivolous by education, scatter-brained by pretension, coquette by vanity, & inconstant for want of occupation.

He rails against marriage -- calls its permanence a recipe for unhappiness. Yet he tells his daughter that, in marriage, she should put her husband's happiness above her own. Like Voltaire, he praises his mistress's masculine qualities. That theme of underlying masculinity also wreathes his fictional heroines.

Voltaire and Diderot waged 18th-century revolution as formidably as Ben Franklin did. Both were determined to improve a dysfunctional social order using the tools of applied science.

How odd, then, that each could be so easily trapped by unscientific 18th-century convictions about gender. Neither could see that the masculinity they so craved to find in a woman was no more than freedom. It was the very freedom that they, by writing and by action, were systematically stifling.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

French Women and the Age of Enlightenment. S.I. Spenser, editor, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. (Several of the articles in this volume deal with, and touch upon, Voltaire and Diderot.)