No Woman Is an Island: The Female Figure in French Enlightenment Anthropology

  • Jenny Mander


In April 1772 Denis Diderot penned a short but impassioned piece on the subject of women which was published by his close friend Friedrich-Melchior Grimm in his Correspondance Littéraire. 1 Conceived as a review of Antoine-Léonard Thomas’s Essai sur le caractère, les mœurs et l’esprit des femmes dans les différents siècles which had appeared in print less than a month earlier, Diderot’s Sur les femmes quickly became a vehicle for his own musings on the female sex at a time in his life when he saw women as a source of personal difficulties and disappointments.2 Although brief, unsystematic, even chaotic in its exposition, the piece was clearly more than a simple piece of hack work: the philosophe returned to it at least three times in the final years of his life, strategically bolstering parts of its argument with passages which he had originally prepared for the abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes.


Sexual Commerce Commercial Society Female Figure Political History French Speaker 
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  1. 4.
    Blandine L. McLaughlin, ‘Diderot and Women’ in French Women and the Age of Enlightenment (Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1984) p. 296.Google Scholar
  2. 16.
    Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.: 1990); Poulain de la Barre, De l’égalité des deux sexes, 1673.Google Scholar
  3. 48.
    Montesquieu also believed that women were an important mechanism of social change and that their freedom was essential to maintain a moderate kind of progress by helping continuously to change manners, thus preventing decay or revolution. See Tjitske Akkerman, Women’s vices, public benefits:women and commerce in the French Enlightenment (Het Spinhuis Publishers, Amsterdam: 1982), pp. 52–3.Google Scholar

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© Jenny Mander 2005

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  • Jenny Mander

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