Véronique Desnain is a Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in 17th century French literature and philosophy, with a particular interest in gender.


From the late 1200s to the end of the 1600s, there raged in France a debate known as the ‘Woman’s quarrel’. The arguments between attackers and defenders of women go back and forth, mostly in texts written by men, with a few exceptions like Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1430, The Book of the City of Ladies) or Marie de Gournay (1565 –1645, The Equality of Men and Women). While it is not surprising (given the level of education they were usually afforded) that few women took part in the debate, it seems astonishing that one of the most complete and convincing works by a woman published on the ‘woman question’ has been all but forgotten. Or perhaps it is entirely unsurprising, given the dangerous nature of Gabrielle Suchon’s text A treatise on Morality and Politics (1693). Behind this rather neutral title hides a remarkable attempt to address the legal and cultural subjection of women, as revealed by the subtitle: ‘Freedom, Science and Authority. Where we see that women, despite being deprived of them have a natural aptitude for them […]’.

In it, Suchon analyses and responds to the arguments that have been used over the centuries to justify women’s inferior position, whether in religious texts, law or literature. She puts forward the stories of women of note from antiquity to her own time and enjoins her female contemporaries to educate themselves in order to fight their oppression. Most subversive of all though, she suggests that to be free, women must live alone (ie out of marriage or religious ties) and in her second book, Celibacy freely chosen (1700), gives practical advice to women on how to achieve this.

Her work is unique in many respects and represents an important contribution to the discourse on women which occupied much of the early modern period and on our perception of women’s own take on it. As a vast overview of some of the most crucial social and theological issues of its time, this work is an important historical document, as well as a literary and philosophical one. The two treatises she writes between 1693 and 1700 quite simply constitute the most extensive text on la condition féminine written by a woman at the time. Suchon’s work is important because it is part of the growing body of evidence which proves that, although they may not have been deemed worthy of entering the ‘canon’, although we may not yet have heard of all of them, women have always taken part in cultural production. It also shows that women have been aware of the mechanisms used to keep their experience hidden and have attempted to counteract men’s efforts to exclude them from history.

Even from a purely anecdotal perspective, it seems astonishing that a figure such as Suchon should have made so little impact: here is a woman who writes philosophical treatises when most women have little or no education. She dares to criticize the institutions of marriage and convents at a time when the catholic church is clamping down on ‘dissidents’ after the threat of the Reformation As church and state insist on keeping women under control and strictly subdued to male power, Suchon demands the right for women to be educated, independent and free in all aspects of their lives, before moving on, with her second treatise, to a defense of female celibacy outside the Church. With this, she posits, in essence, a new legal status for women. So the fact that few of us will have heard of her until very recently seems incongruous.

Yet the reason for this is simple: Suchon was dangerous because she was writing in the hope that her work would encourage women to demand equality. One crucial difference between Suchon and her predecessors is that she does not affirm the superiority of either sex. Instead, she relies in a ‘different but equal’ position and argues that each individual should be dealt with in accordance to their abilities rather than their gender. She argues that female subjection is part of a social and political order, rather than a natural one. The notion was a threat to male hegemony but also entirely novel. Perhaps Suchon’s work found few echoes in her own time because of its very originality: as pointed out by Elsa Dorlin: ‘Only texts that theorize the natural inequality between men and women are made public and commented. Only those are deemed true and taught. Thus it is not the relative value of arguments or their scientific rigor which determines whether they are discussed, but their position in relation to a specific order of knowledge and power.’[1]

Indeed a number of features clearly distinguish Suchon’s work from what had come before. Unlike the male writers of the Quarel, Suchon is more interested in the topic than she is in demonstrating her rhetorical skills and dismisses the essentialist views of both detractors and advocates of women. Unlike Christine de Pizan, she does not address women as wives and mothers but as autonomous individuals who may dedicate themselves to any vocation they choose. And unlike Marie de Gournay, she does not primarily address an audience of educated male readers but makes it very clear that her intended audience is composed of women. In all those respects, her work can be seen as far more explicitly subversive as that of her predecessors. Her advice on practical issues meanwhile could be read as an encouragement to actively resist male supremacy.

Beyond its content, the very existence of Suchon’s writing is significant. For too long we have been told literature, philosophy, sciences and the arts in general were overwhelmingly male domains simply because women had not produced any work of note. The obvious response to this is that female access to such practices has been restrained until recently, not by lack of talent, but by lack of education and by the practical obstacles put in their way. But recent research has demonstrated, quite convincingly, that there is an even more insidious reason for the perceived absence of women from the history of literature, philosophy and the sciences: even when they were there, we do not hear about them. They are marginalized from the discourse of history; they are erased from history itself.

Writing then, not just fiction but any form of writing which illustrates her own experience becomes, for a woman, ‘the power to give shape and impact to one’s being through words; … It is the power not only to comprehend the past but to validate and justify the present, and to project oneself into the future. It is the power to create a precursor for those who will come after, to establish a pattern, to invent appropriate names and images corresponding to one’s knowledge of oneself, and to leave these names and images as beacons for others.’[2]

Indeed, Suchon’s whole project can be seen as such a ‘beacon’ which she consciously leaves for her successors. She has little hope to see change in her own time but seems to have anticipated future social shifts: ‘Women in my time will never attempt to dispossess men of their might and authority’ she says, perhaps reassuringly for the potential male reader, but the restrictive ‘in my time’ makes it clear that she thinks, and hopes, that others will in future.

Perhaps one of the most modern and subversive aspects of Suchon’s writing is that it identify the mechanisms of oppression and the more practical issues behind the theoretical discourse. As such, her method and arguments are relevant to the examination of any form of oppression and the implications of her writing may be rather more radical than they first appear. Indeed, despite the need to remain within the orthodox doctrine in order to avoid censorship, especially when her arguments find their source in religious texts, the attentive reader soon discovers ‘the existence between the lines of a hidden, far more fascinating side, which is revealed by the agressivity of some of her statements and to which Suchon refers through allusions to corrosive and dangerous ideas left unspoken.’[3]

While her contemporaries may have preferred to ignore those ‘dangerous ideas’, her absence from modern philosophy or feminist history is more surprising.

Eileen O’Neill offers a number of reasons for the ‘disappearance’ of women from the history of philosophy which may well apply to Suchon. She states:

One such reason I called “the purification of philosophy”. The bulk of women’s writings either directly addressed such topics as faith and revelation, on the one hand, or woman’s nature and her role in society, on the other. But the late eighteenth century attempted to excise philosophy motivated by religious concerns from philosophy proper.’ [4]

It is also the case that modern critics are still in many ways influenced by the assumption that, to be valid, philosophy must distinguish itself from religious concerns. Suchon’s defense of women is deeply enmeshed with issues of faith and theological discussions regarding the distinction between human and divine, the nature of vocation and the relationship between God and his creatures. Whereas the gender of the author may have been enough reason for many male critics to ignore her work, the religious nature of her writing is sometimes seen as a disappointment by feminists.

Yet Suchon’s reliance on Church authorities in her project is both to be expected in the context of her times and a useful rhetorical strategy which should not distract from the subversive potential of her texts.  Brought up in a society in which the church is at the heart of all social interaction, having spent many years in the convent (she was made to enter orders as a teenager and did eventually get released of her vows in her forties) , it is unavoidable that the author should perceive religion as an integral part of life, yet all the more remarkable that she should use, as the corner stone of her defense of women, the distinction between genuine faith and the repressive institutions which use it for their own benefit.

What’s more, her theological position allows Suchon to construct a logical demonstration that operates in the same realm as those of detractors of women. She bases her arguments on her interpretation of authorities which have been acknowledged as valid by those whose arguments she is attacking. Tackling this issue within their own frameof reference enables her to expose the flaws and fallacies of their arguments.

It may also be that, in the wake of the Reformation and the Catholic Church’s attempt to reassert its control, there may have been a greater need for female believers such as Suchon to profess their faith and demand the means to practice it according to their own spiritual needs. While this may be obvious in terms of doctrine, the androcentric nature of religious institutions means that women had long been left out of the equation. Suchon reduces female inferiority to a custom and contrasts it with vocation. Her defense of women is therefore based on an opposition between the secular and the divine, between historical specificity and the immutability of divine purpose.

In this context, to see Suchon’s use of religion merely as rhetorical or as a smoke screen for radical ideas about gender, or indeed as irreconcilable with such ideas, would be tantamount to dismissing historical circumstances and imposing an anachronistic frame of mind on her work. It would also to a large extent posit female spirituality as a mere adjunct of male spirituality and deny the very possibility that women could take a position on dogma and spiritual practices, as opposed to being passive followers of an institution which oppresses them.

All the factors above ensured that Suchon’s legacy remained hidden 300 years. Perhaps now is the time to re-discover her.[5] We may well find that this woman is still dangerous.

 


[1]Elsa Dorlin, L’Evidence de l’égalité des sexes (Paris : L’Harmattan, 2000), p. 102.

[2] Gianna Pomata, ‘Histoire des femmes, histoire du genre. Observations sur le Moyen Age et l’époque moderne dans l’Histoire des femmes en Occident’in Femmes et Histoire, ed. G. Duby et M. Perrot (Paris: Plon, 1993), pp. 29-30.

[3] Pierre Ronzeaud, ‘Note sur l’article de Paul Hoffmann’, Dix-Septième siècle, 121 (1978), pp. 276-7 (p.277).

[4] Eileen O’Neill, ‘Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy’, Hypatia 20/3 (2005), pp. 185-197 (p. 186).

[5] Fragments from Suchon’s work have been translated into English: A Woman who Defends all the Persons of Her Sex: Selected Philosophical and Moral Writings. By Gabrielle Suchon. Ed. and trans. by Domna C. Stanton and Rebecca M. Wilkin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, 2010)