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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

La Renaissance & Ancien Régime

Gallery of Mirrors, Versailles, France. [between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The historical period before the 1789 French Revolution is referred to as the French ancien régime or old order. It emerged from the late Middle Ages and coincided with the Renaissance (which flourished at different times and locations in Europe). France at this time functioned as a feudal state ruled by the king of France. The population was divided into one of three groups: the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobility) and the Third Estate (peasantry and later urban workers). The injustices in disparity between these three classes were key factors in the Revolution, which toppled the ancien régime and created France's First Republic. Notable leaders during the ancien régime included Francis I (1515-1547) known as François Premier (1er), and Henry II (1547-1559) of the Angoulême branch of the Valois dynasty. With the reign of Henry IV the Bourbon dynasty commenced. This included the famous Roi Soleil or "Sun King", Louis XIV (1643-1715) and encompassed Le Grand Siècle. It was during this era that the palace of Versailles was constructed, and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière) and Jean Racine were writing plays. This section of the guide will also cover the Enlightenment or "Age of Reason" which was an intellectual and philosophical movement in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Leading up to this time debates around a woman's role were becoming increasingly common.

Mignard, artist The Stones of Paris in History and Letters. 1906. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

In the 1500s the querelle des femmes, or "The Woman Question" began to be debated by intellectuals of the era. Renaissance writers and thinkers began to raise the issue of women's status in society. Marie de Gournay (one of France's famous literary figures and feminist thinkers) argued that women, if given an education, could excel equally to men. Self-taught, de Gournay won the respect of essayist Michel de Montaigne who called her his fille d'alliance (adopted daughter). She published a novel, Le Proumenoir and used Montaigne's notes to publish a new edition of his Essais in 1595. She became active in the court of Henry IV and the salon of former French queen Margot (Marguerite de Valois). Her later works included the feminist tract, Egalité des hommes et des femmes (1622). Grief des dames, Apologie pour celle qui escrit (Apology for the Woman Writing) and Peinture de moeurs (Character Portrait) were included in a volume of her collected works, L'Ombre de la Demoiselle de Gournay (The Shadow of Miss Gournay) in 1626. [Note archaic spelling of some titles]

Undoubtedly, one of the most formidable characters of this period was Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII and predecessor of Cardinal Mazarin. But as scholar Bronwen McShea concludes in her biography La Duchesse, Richelieu's niece  Marie de Vignerot was equally instrumental in shaping not only the culture but the business and foreign policy of this era. Another woman of immense talent was Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), a renowned painter who had the patronage of Marie Antoinette (painting over 30 portraits of her and her family). After her exile during the Revolutionary years, she returned to France to paint the portrait of Germaine de Staël, a champion of women's rights (see Women in the Revolution). While not an advocate for women in an overt sense, being a woman artist in many eras was, in itself, somewhat subversive. She also painted primarily women, which had the effect of memorializing them as worthy subjects in both senses of the word. Within the scientific disciplines France also had several notable women. This was an age of scientific exploration in the world and a time when tremendous botanic and geographical discoveries were made. There were many women who participated in these discoveries and advancements. Elisabeth Ferrand (mathematician and philosopher), Jeanne Baret (field naturalist), Madeleine Françoise Basseporte (garden botanist and illustrator), Marie-Marguerite Biheron (anatomist and inventor), and Genviève d'Arconville (chemist) were all women of science in Enlightenment France picked up out of relative obscurity by the recent collective biography Minerva's French Sisters by Nina Rattner Gelbart.

There were several prominent men of the time who took up the cause of women's rights. François Poulain de la Barre (1648–1723) was a Catholic priest and Cartesian philosopher who wrote some of the most detailed analyses concerning women's rights in 17th-century France. His works include: De l’égalité des deux sexes [On the Equality of the Two Sexes] (1673), De l’éducation des dames [On the Education of Ladies] (1674) and De l’excellence des hommes [On the Excellence of Men] (1675). Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, known as the Marquis de Condorcet (September 17, 1743-March 28, 1794) was another proponent of women's rights and anchored many of his claims in Poulain de la Barre's rational arguments from the late 17th century. His loving and intellectual partnership with wife, Sophie de Grouchy was no doubt an influence on his astoundingly progressive works. In De l'admission des femmes au droits de cité (For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship for Women) in 1790, he makes a strong case that while women do have some essential differences, with equal education and opportunity, they are capable of achievements far beyond those of the traditional domestic sphere-and can be equal to men. He was also an abolitionist and was active in the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks) in the 1780s. He was one of the most radical thinkers in forging the new Republic after the fall of the ancien régime and during the French Revolution of 1789.


Women of Renaissance France

  • Marie Geneviève Charlotte Thiroux d'Arconville (1720-1805) French novelist and chemist who studied putrefaction. She suffered a bad case of smallpox that badly scarred her. She withdrew from society and began to focus on her studies and religion. She ordered books from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and set up a laboratory in her home. Among her many activities she anonymously published many works including Moral Thoughts and Reflections on Diverse Subjects (1760) and On Passions (1764).
  • Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) Considered the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe. Baret was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition on La Boudeuse and ëtoile in 1766. She disguised herself as a man, calling herself Jean Baret. In 1775, she returned home without any fanfare at all.
  • Madeleine Françoise Basseporte (1701-1780) French painter and botanical illustrator who taught anatomical illustration and taught the daughters of King Louis XV of France. She was the first woman to occupy the office of "Peintre du Roy, de son Cabinet de du Jardin". She not only painted plants, but also learned about plant's internal structures and designs.
  • Marie Marguerite Bihéron (1719-1795) French anatomist who studied plant illustration at the Jardin du Roi with Madeleine Basseporte for part of her life. She became famous for her wax models of human bodies and sold and exhibited her models to support her work. She moved to England as women in France were not allowed to teach anatomy.
  • Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706-1749) Marquise du Châtelet was a French natural philosopher and mathematician during the early 1730s until her death due to complications during childbirth in 1749.
  • Élisabeth Ferrand (1700-1752) French philosopher and mathematician who held a salon during the ancien régime.
  • Marie de Gournay (1565-1645) French writer and activist for women's rights. She taught herself Latin and so impressed her contemporary, Michel de Montaigne that she became one of his pupils. She published her first book, Le Proumenoir de Monsieur de Montaigne in 1594. She went on to publish Égalité des hommes et des femmes (The Equality of Men and Women) in 1622 and Grief des dames (The Ladies' Grievance) in 1626. [Sometimes considered a woman of the Middle Ages.]
  • Nicole-Reine Lepaute (1723-1788) French astronomer and mathematician and member of the Scientific Academy of Béziers. She calculated the exact time of a solar eclipse that occurred on April 1st 1764, predicted the return of Halley's Comet, and made calculations for astronomers and navigators.
  • Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719) Françoise d'Aubigné, also known as Madame de Maintenon was secretly married to King Louis XIV of France after the death of his wife Maria Therese. She was not officially recognized, but she exerted influence upon him in many ways, including as the governess to his children. By the accounts of Madame de Sévigné, the King was charmed by her frank manner of speaking to him and they discussed politics, economics and religion. She founded the boarding school for girls, Maison royale de Saint-Louis. While this school closed during the French Revolution, it marked an important moment for girls education and many notable women went there including Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, Elisa Bonaparte.
  • Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné remains one of the most well-known women in French history largely due to her numerous and articulate letters to her daughter after her daughter moved away with her husband to Provence. She spoke about the news of the day, her acquaintances, and was not above some of the town gossip. Recognized for remarkably vivid prose, her letters are still read by French students and lovers of the language and culture.

For further historical context see Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about Women in the French Revolution it is useful to browse by authorized subject heading. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections.

For more information on Library resources on Renaissance Studies see the research guide, Renaissance Studies.

There will be some overlap, and these subject headings are not always entirely comprehensive. For example, Women revolutionaries--France--Biography will not bring you every biography on revolutionary women in France. You will find additional works under Women intellectuals--France--Biography.

For biographies of individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).

For example, to find all forms of the names Sophie de Grouchy, browse "AUTHORS/CREATORS (Containing)":