By Sophie Dowle.
Long before Bluestocking Journal was publishing articles on great women, Louise Marie-Madeleine Dupin (1706-99), a French saloniste, compiled and began writing a book on the history of women: Ouvrage sur les femmes. Unfortunately, this work was never fully completed, and the many boxes of notes, drafts and copies that Madame Dupin had worked on were shelved, unpublished. Although this seminal work did not see the light of day, Madame Dupin and her feminist mission deserve to be remembered.
Louise Marie Madeline Fontaine Dupin was born in Paris in 1706. In 1722 she married Claude Dupin, whose success as a tax farmer and government official enabled him to buy the château of Chenonceau in 1733. At Chenonceau Madame Dupin cultivated a salon of artists and writers. Notable thinkers who frequented her salon included Voltaire (who nicknamed her “the goddess of beauty and music”), Fontenelle, Montesquieu, L’abbé de Saint-Pierre and, most famously, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
It was Rousseau, one of the most prominent philosophers of 18th century France, with whom she began work on her Ouvrage sure les femmes. Rousseau’s later fame and success often leads to Madame Dupin becoming just a footnote, mentioned merely as the woman who helped Rousseau become an influential figure in Parisian society.
Ouvrage’s comprehensive and critical look at women’s history and sexuality make it, according to Angela Hunter, “unlike many other contemporary writings [such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges’s Les Droits de la Femme].” Despite the wide-ranging and unique nature of Dupin’s work, it was almost entirely forgotten until parts resurfaced to be sold at auction in the mid-20th century. Pieces are now scattered around the world, and some sections remain in private collections, or are lost.
The Ouvrage surveys the history of women’s social, economic and political status. The parts that we have include histories of famous women and rulers; discussion of the roles of women in the military and the church; analysis of criticisms of women throughout philosophy, history, literature, and legal and medical writings (Hunter, 2009). Dupin also included investigations of laws and customs that subjugated women. She focused on the role of the body and biology in established ideas about sexual inequality. She asserted that the usurpation of women’s rights was neither primitive nor natural; it was modern. In her drafts she states “I only ask that one show me some difference in feelings and inclinations between male and female children that was not created by the language and education that led to the idea of these differences.” This is akin to the philosophical writings of de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième sexe. They both acknowledge that differences in status exist between men and women that are historical, or ‘instituted’, and thus developed over time. It is unclear, given the vast amount of work carried out, why Madame Dupin did not complete the oeuvre.
Most of what we know of Madame Dupin and her essays and works, beyond the Ouvrage, are collected in Le Portefeuille de Madame Dupin, Dame de Chenonceaux, a 19th century text published by her great-great-nephew, le Comte de Villeneuve-Guibert. This consists of a collection of writings by Dupin, copies of letters written to her, and Villeneuve-Guibert’s commentary. Clearly, he strongly admires her, saying: « jamais femme n’a été plus adulée, plus enviée: tout lui souriait, elle vivait dans une atmosphère d’hommages et de plaisirs » [no woman was ever more praised, more envied : everything smiled on her, she lived in an atmosphere of tributes and pleasures] (Hunter, 2009).
Louise Dupin was very much a woman of her class and time. She was actively engaged with the ideas and thinkers around her, and her intelligence, wit and beauty brought her salon widespread renown. She was also savvy: during the French Revolution, she not only kept her head, but also stopped the château being destroyed. Eloquently, she argued that it was essential to the revolutionary forces because “it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.” Had she completed and published her Ouvrage, she would be on every feminist reading list, alongside Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir.
Buon, Jean. (2013) Madame Dupin: une féministe à Chenonceau au siècle des Lumières. Éditions La Simarre
Hunter, Angela. (2009) Eighteenth-Century Studies. “The Unfinished Work on Louise Marie-Madeleine Dupin’s Unfinished Ouvrage sur les Femmes”. Vol.43. pp.95-111.