Translated by Maryame Camara and Juliette Damay

According to Geneviève Dorais-Beauregard: “There are no real men and real women, only correspondences to stereotypes dictated by society and stemming from history, religion and other factors”. 

If we take the definition of womanhood from a sociological point of view, it describes the position of women in the social system. We can acknowledge that strong expectations have been placed on women over the centuries, although they have constantly evolved. Various factors are responsible for the development of gender roles and, as we shall see, these influence the lives of individuals at many levels and times. 

In general, we can admit that patriarchal society has always participated in the elaboration of a female “model”, which entails a normative aspect and designates what the woman must do to validate her status and correspond to the various expectations that have been attributed to her. The expectations implied by gender roles share social characteristics, described as rules that are commonly understood by members of a group, which guide and/or constrain social behaviour without the force of law. These different codes, which are more or less restrictive depending on the era, have driven women into action and into the desire to fight. 

In many societies from the nineteenth century until today, women have demanded more rights. In some countries these rights are institutionalised or supported by law, local custom and behaviour, while in others they may be ignored or suppressed. However, the advocacy for women’s rights is necessary in order to achieve a more gender-equal society.

Moreover, we can see that across literary genres, the image of women has been portrayed in different ways. Is the status of women in literature a reflection of their status in society?

The Middle Ages: the alienation of women

The Middle Ages were a period of contrasts in terms of the image of women. The women of the lower classes, mostly rural, enjoyed a moderate degree of freedom in France and were considered to be of age as early as twelve years old, which allowed them to manage their own property, marry and even vote. They worked as much as men, both in the fields and in the city. They also spent much of their time looking after their children.

Literature, on the other hand, depicts women in society in different ways, depending on their conditions. On the one hand, common women are portrayed as servants and have modest living conditions, as in Tristan and Isolde (1170), where Beroul presents his vision of the common woman as stupid, poor and sometimes old. However, this does not prevent them from playing essential roles in certain works throughout history. On the other hand, medieval literary texts represent more the noble women, in the role of queens or warriors. They are mythical or historical figures, such as the Amazons in the flattering traits of warrior women who shun contact with men. We find them, for example, in the novel by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie (1170), where he recounts the fighting between the Greeks and the Amazons. Finally, in literature, knightesses take the form of beautiful, valiant and legendary warriors. This is particularly true of Joan of Arc, who was one of the most famous knightesses in history. Christine de Pisan spent a poem on her entitled Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). In this poem the author justifies the divine interventions, amplifies the summonses and exhortations of Jeanne. We can also mention Jehan Le Fèvre, author of the Livre de Leësce (1373), in which he honours female bravery and courage through nine great figures who have different equivalents in different countries, such is its resounding success. Their exploits are as remarkable as those of their male counterparts.

During this period, epidemics and wars forced poorer women into prostitution in order to survive, resulting in a deterioration of their status during this era. Submission to a male figure was now anchored in the laws and the father was considered all-powerful. The woman was no longer in control of her property and had no decision-making power over her children or her family. Furthermore, the Church considered that the sole purpose of sexuality was procreation. In the 14th century, the anonymous work entitled The Good Wife’s Guide (1393) explains the proper conduct of a woman in the household. According to this work, a woman must place her husband above all else, and it is her duty to love, obey and serve him. Beating one’s wife becomes a normalised act and sometimes even advisable in case of disobedience. The murder or confinement of a wife could, among other things, allow the husband to remarry later.

In the 13th century, the situation of women changed as they gradually had to submit to the Church. It was decided to cloister nuns and confine them to prayer, gradually limiting their education. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that, in the eyes of the Church, women embodied evil. The witch trials, a veritable cry of hatred against women, were the result of long centuries of clerical misogyny. In the Church, the aggressiveness and sexual perversion of the inquisitors were unleashed against women. There were even specific instruments of torture for women, such as the vaginal pear, breast claws, spanish spiders, the chastity belt, masks of shame and mouth pears. 

The heroine of the anonymous fabliau Perdrix (13th century) includes an interesting case of a quid pro quo orchestrated by the woman. As the moral of the fable states, “Woman is born to deceive. In her mouth, the lie becomes truth, the truth becomes a lie”. 

These texts thus present women as temptresses or as naive and weak.

The 17th century: gendered determinism

The seventeenth century was a period characterised by the exceptional vitality of French literature. As far as women were concerned, they were seen as a means for men to ensure the succession of their lineage and the maintenance of the household. No social class was spared this degrading attitude, and women’s education was definitely geared towards marriage. A wave of initiatives developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, specifically focused on female education, as little girls seemed to be the best targets for achieving the ideal of a Catholic society. The congregations that spent time on this provided free schools for poor girls and paid boarding schools for wealthy ladies. The conquest of education for girls became more important in the 1680s, when three authors drew up education plans for girls. First of all, the abbot and historian Claude Fleury published his Traité du choix et de la méthode des études in 1685. He proposed an educational plan for girls in which religious instruction, which was more moral than dogmatic, took priority. 

Two years later, in 1687, the theologian Fénelon proposed his Traité de l’éducation des filles, which was more accomplished and a little more permissive. In it, the author immediately writes that “Nothing is more neglected than the education of girls” (« Rien n’est plus négligé que l’éducation des filles »). Fénelon, taking into account the inferiority and weakness of the second sex, built a programme designed to remedy this, because “the weaker they are, the more important it is to strengthen them”. 

The third programme was composed in the 1690s but was not published until the 18th century. It bears a female signature, as it is Avis d’une mère à sa fille by the Marquise of Lambert, marked by Fénelon’s influence. Her education plan is based on the presumed intellectual inferiority of the second sex. The same applies to Rousseau who, in 1762 in his work Emile: Or On Education, still sets a precise and traditional place for women. 

The seventeenth century was a period of growth in the recognition of and respect for female thought, and it was also a turning point in terms of freedom of expression for women in high society, thanks, among other things, to the women of literary culture. Précieuse literature reminds us of the figures of the time who were able to receive a brilliant education. This is the case for Madame de Sévigné, Madame de Grignan, Madame de La Fayette, Madame de La Sablière and Madame Dacier. Although the status of female peasants had not changed much, the literary salons enabled women of the upper nobility to express their thoughts on various social topics. 

As their practices were not unanimously accepted by some of the prominent men of the century, the Précieuses received a lot of criticism and were given the nickname “Précieuses Ridicules”. Authors such as the Abbot of Pure, Somaize and Molière, with Les Précieuses ridicules in 1659 and The Learned Ladies in 1672, denounced their excessive practices. This largely contributed to this acerbic criticism, despite their erroneous representation of women, given their excess. Nevertheless, although women were criticised, in these salons they enjoyed the right to express themselves freely on many subjects.

The seventeenth century was thus a “mixed” period as far as women’s rights were concerned, because despite their initiatives in support of knowledge and literature, some men tried to extinguish the movement.

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