2. On the Equality of the Two Sexes (1673) – Essential Feminist Reader

By , February 7, 2013 3:20 pm

I recently picked up The Essential Feminist Reader (which I’ll be shortening to TEFR) a collection of 64 essays and excerpts on feminist from the last six hundred years. Because they’re all delightfully short (an average of about seven pages each) it seems like an approachable way to dive into what I hope will be a much larger self-directed course of study around feminism. My goal is to read at least one essay a week from TEFR and respond to each one over the course of the coming months. I expect the responses to be varied  a summary and commentary (like today), a free-writing process, a poem, whatever  feels right at the time. All of these posts will be under the tag TEFR.

The second piece in TEFR is by François Poulain de la Barre, an excerpt from On the Equality of the Two Sexes. It’s a really interesting piece, due in large part to the contradictions therein. Specifically, de la Barre speaks simultaneously  of not pre-judging women as lesser than men while also speaking repeatedly about how we can pre-judge people on their physical makeup. For example:

Indeed, all of us, men or women, have an equal right to truth since the minds of both are equally able to apprehend it, and since we both react in the same way to objects that make an impression upon our bodies.

I’d completely agree with that statement. de la Barre also discusses the problems of using “effeminate” as an insult, noting that there’s a cyclical nature to how men perceive women: language encourages behavior which encourages language. And yet:

We cannot dispute that those men who are most coarse and heavy are usually stupid, and that, on the contrary, the most delicately built are always the cleverest.

Hilariously, this is part of de la Barre’s justification for saying women should be viewed as (intellectual) equals to men:

Therefore, since the fair sex is of a more delicate disposition than ourselves, women would be sure to be at least our equals if only they applied themselves to studying.

Really? This is the conclusion you arrive at?

Later:

Experience shows us, however, that brute force makes men unfit for anything but manual labor, whereas those who have less physical strength usually have greater intelligence.

de la Barre is able to make the leap that women are given fewer opportunities, in spite of their (potential) intellectual prowess. Then, he seems to directly contradict himself: biology is destiny, and physical strength equals intellectual inferiority.

To me, there seems a striking similarity between de la Barre’s contradictory position and that of some transphobic second wave feminists. de la Barre says that women shouldn’t be judged by their bodies, since one’s brain can be strong even in a weak body. But then he goes too far, saying that weak bodies are either the cause of or result from strong brains; we can and should judge people’s intelligence on their physical strength, the relationship is simply inverse.

Second wave feminists, meanwhile, argue strongly that biology isn’t destiny. Great. But then they take an odd turn and clarify that female biology isn’t destiny, that “penis” always equals “man,” and that early socialization is the root of all gender identity and behavior.

It’s fascinating how the first two pieces in TEFR show signs of problematic reasoning that continues to exist into the modern era.

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