Women's Involvement in the French Salons (Early 18th Century)

A research study done by ILS202 students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Hannah Zundel, Sophie duPont, Emily Olsen, Marisa Rondinelli


Overview
An artist's recreation of what a typical salon gathering looked like.


The French salon, a product of The Enlightenment in the early 18th century, was a key institution in which women played a central role. Salons provided a place for women and men to congregate for intellectual discourse. In a male-dominated society, women served as the hostesses, decided the agenda of topics to be discussed, and regulated the conversation. This led to reduced marginalization of women in Paris. The emergence of salons allowed for leadership and involvement for women in intellectual areas in Paris in the early 18th century.1



Social Influences

In the early 18th century, several specialty movements emerged, allowing for citizens to have authority and status in certain realms. Salons were another outlet that influenced how women regarded social status and power. During the reign of Louis XIV from 1643-1715 (pictured left2), there was a movement to organize scien
ce and the arts under the umbrella known as the royal academies. The founding of academies for sculpture, painting, music, dance and the sciences gave the monarchy a sense of grandeur that solidified absolutist ideology and glorified participation in the arts.3 The ideal of absolutism created a spectacle of royal court life that involved both noble men and women. The court served as a public symbol of status and power for elites and the court atmosphere ushered in the emergence of the salon in Paris. The salon acted as an extension of the royal court atmosphere since royal courts had already allowed women to assume authority in some matters of "taste and pleasure."4 The salons provided an alternative to the court for women to gain status in the elite realm.5

The emergence of widely circulated printed gazettes and journals contributed to the decrease in cultural isolation. It also resulted in the significant increase in access to political information and opinions.6 The availability of these periodicals allowed citizens to become more informed and resulted in the formation of the "public opinion" - also influenced by the French Enlightenment ideal of free thinking.7



Role of Family Life

The lack of fulfillment that most Parisian women found in their family life encouraged them to find other societal roles, such as that of a salonniere - a leader in the salon. During the 17th and early 18th century, women were married by their early-to-mid teens. These marriages were selected by the woman's family based on advantages that the family would receive rather than the woman's personal preference or happiness. Relationships between husband and wife were mostly non-fulfilling, leading women to seek "careers" and center their time and effort around roles of salonnieres, or ladies in waiting.8 Pre-arranged and passionless marriages played a large role in a woman's dedication to and the success of a salon.



Social Structure of the Salons

Social hierarchy and behavioral social guidelines allowed common people to interact with the nobility at Parisian salons. Dena Goodman argued that there was a hierarchical social structure within the salons which helped to maintain the social rank of French society, but with different rules for conversation. While a hierarchy was acknowledged, commoners were able to interact with the nobility by upholding rules of speech and behavior. This "formalized rule-bound discourse" decreased the risk of insult or misunderstanding that may come with cross-class communication. Through the unprecedented discussion among different social ranks and orders, salons helped to break down social and intellectual barriers and brought the nobles and bourgeois together in new ways.9

Common perception of women as gentle leaders contributed to their ability to govern salons. Saint-Gabriel urged France not to model itself after male-dominated and war-torn Germany, but instead that of peaceful Italy, so that France would function “under the goodness of the governance of the ladies.” In the 18th century, Baron de Montesquieu made a similar argument that women make good rulers because “their very weakness gives them more gentleness and moderation; which can make for good government, rather than tough and ferocious virtues”. Those men who agreed with these sentiments allowed female governance in the salons of Paris because they too thought that a feminine touch could create a harmony and order amongst male predominated conversations. Buffon also wrote that gender equality is “so necessary to the gentleness of society,” suggesting that allowing women to play a prominent role in the salons made for a better, more peaceful society.10 In this way, it is clear that the beliefs of popular philosophers of the time allowed for woman's  powerful role in Parisian salons. 

Salons were places of enlightened conversation, and thanks to the increased attention to gender equality and emphasis on the gentleness of women, salons offered an ideal location for women to take a leading role. The determination of women for equal rights should not go unnoticed, however with the support of famous philosophers, like Montesquieu and Buffon, the emergence of women as salonnieres was accelerated and accepted. Pictured to the right is Madame du Deffand, a well-known salonniere of the 18th century.11

Women escaped the constriction of not being able to publish their own works by choosing the topics for discussion within their salons. Because the segregation of men and women was still rampant in the 18th century, women were not afforded the same opportunity to publish their ideas. However, at the salon, which provided an open platform for the discussion of ideas between men and women, the salonnieres were responsible for setting the agenda of topics of discourse and running the conversation. This powerful ability to control the content of discussions also determined on which matters philosophers would focus, and therefore steered the direction of their works.12



Cultural Influences

"Gender Complementarity" contributed to the structure of women as leaders of the salons in Paris. This concept explains that intrinsic female characteristics must compensate for masculine vices in order to create balance. Although it did not suggest gender equality, it nonetheless suggested a need for women within the public sphere and opened the door to opportunities for women to be a contributing force in society. According to Goodman, this delicate "compensation of feminine selfless for male ego" was a key foundation upon which the French Enlightenment was built. However, many traditional male philosophes felt uncomfortable with this new need to recognize and incorporate women into Enlightenment cultural practices. So, this tension was resolved by displacing women into their own institution of intellectual sociability. This institution was found in the salons. Parisian salons served as the ideal outlet for this balancing union of female and male qualities to take place because women were thought to use their sensitivity and gentleness to monitor and lead the discussion of the men. In this way, the ideas of the Enlightenment bore great influence on women's involvement in the salons.13

The Enlightenment's core ideal of free thinking and the ability to question the surrounding world created an atmosphere where discussion in salons could flourish. The French were especially fascinated by natural philosophy and its history,14 and salons provided a place for intelligent conversation on these topics as well as many other ideas. This free thinking and skeptical attitude helped to form the new "public opinion" in France.15 For the first time, French citizens were openly questioning and analyzing the world around them, and the discussions in salons were a result of this Enlightenment influence.



Political Influences

Because women did not particularly play a role when it came to politics, salons gave women an opportunity to indirectl
y participate in political dialogue. Women played a prominent role in the organization and itinerary of salons, but their voices were absent during Salon conversation, especially when it came to politics.

The popular political activist of the18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued avidly against salons in his misogynistic writings, causing a brief disappearance of salons in the 1780s. Arguing for women's "dismissal from political life, their banishment to the domestic sphere, and their ultimate silencing," the Rousseauin ideology rejected the idea of female-governed salons.16  Rousseau frequently described women as “the moral centers of family,” with a “status unavoidably dependent on a man’s.”17 He explicitly promoted the exclusion of women in the political realm because of his “belief in the power of women to influence men,” stating that, “all perish through the disorder of women.”18 He claimed that women’s “gentle, soft, and docile” nature inherently “emasculated men,” “distract[ed] men from their duties,” and was an eventual “threat to the constitution.”19 Because of Rousseau's overwhelming popularity and influence, female governed "salons were swept from the public sphere temporarily" during the rise of Revolution-era "masculine political sociability," but reemerged by the late 1790's. 20 Rousseau is pictured to the right.21


The French Revolution was a time of immense upheaval and change in France, so it must be noted in our reflection of political circumstances surrounding 18th century salons, although its effects on salons were inconsequential. While one major aim of revolutionaries was to end the social inequality between different classes, especially the nobility, the rights of women and feminist claims were largely ignored.22 Prior to revolutionary times, women's civil rights depended on their marital status and class, and once a woman married she was no longer considered an individual but as part of a "partnership."23 While some non-elite women fought for more equality prior to and during the Revolution, it was never even seriously considered by revolutionary legislation, and their rights remained unchanged.24



Religious Influences

The rapidly changing beliefs in the Catholic Church directly influenced much of the discussion that occurred in the salons and also led to the embrace of the intermingling between classes that was also found in the salons. Previously, intellectual gatherings had been restricted to nobility, however the common thread found in questioning religion led to the convergence of several classes in the salons.

The rise of the bourgeois class in the
18th century subsequently led to the erosion of the significance and importance of the Catholic Church in both the elite and middle class. The bourgeois n
o longer simply accepted religious doctrines, but began to analyze and question these teachings for themselves.25 This changed the fundamental relationship between the community and the church, specifically the role of the priest as the "teacher" and the role of the people as passive "listeners."25  This new attitude spread to the middle class French as they followed the example of the higher class, reflecting the need to somehow feel related and similar to those of the more elite social classes.27 This new type of Catholicism not only began to believe in less of the Catholic teachings, but also less strongly about them. This decline in the support of the Catholic Church greatly weakened the institution and gave it a less substantial and decreasing role in the lives of many French citizens.28 The questioning of religious beliefs accurately reflects the changing tone of a time when people began to question and analyze their lives, searching for proof of knowledge, and engaging in discussions of this nature. This was exactly the atmosphere that allowed forums for discussion of politics, natural philosophy, religion, the arts, etc, to emerge in Paris through the salons. The Notre Dame is pictured to the left.29




Why it Matters

The Parisian salons of the 18th century allowed women to play a positive role 
in the public sphere of French society. Salons provided a unique outlet where women's ideas could be heard. Women, in addition to conversing with men at an academic level, had the power to influence the topics major philosophers studied. The cross-class communication that salons fostered also allowed social groups, which had never before interacted, to share ideas. Women's contributions to the development of intellectual and scientific ideas through their role as salonierres marked a cultural shift in how women should be accepted and involved in society. Though still limiting, salons forged the way for women's rights and leadership in the arts and sciences.  



Works Cited:
1. Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 88-114. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=sl7LM2WJPMIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0
2. http://edu.glogster.com/media/2/8/97/55/8975581.jpg
3. Klaits, Joeseph. Printed Propaganda Under Louis XIV, 1976, p.13-14
4.
Landes, Joan B. Women in the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988. Print. p.24
5. Landes, Joan B. Women in the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988. Print. p.22
6. Klaits, Joeseph. Printed Propaganda Under Louis XIV, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. Print. p.21
7. Thames and Hudson. Society, Government and the Enlightenment, German Democratic Republic: C.B.A. Behrens, 1985. Print. p.153
8. Spencer, Samia. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1984. Print. p.98
9. Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters, p. 97
10. Goodman, The Republic of Letters, p. 7
11. http://www.visitvoltaire.com/images/deffand_madame.jpg
12. Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters, Cornell Publishers, 1994, p.53
13.Goodman, The Republic of Letters, p. 9
14. Sutton, Geoffrey. Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture & the Demonstration of the Enlightenment, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995. Print. p.1
15.
Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters, p. 97
16. Rosenblatt, Helene. French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. "On the 'Misogyny' of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Letter to d'Alembert in Historical Context." Duke University Press, 1961. Print. p.91
17.
Rosenblatt, Helene. French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. "On the 'Misogyny' of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Letter to d'Alembert in Historical Context." Duke University Press, 1961. Print. p.114.
18. Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 88-114. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=sl7LM2WJPMIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0
19.
Kale, Steven D. French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. "Women, the Public Sphere, and the Persistence of Salons." Duke University Press, 1957. Print. p.116.
20. Kale, Steven D. French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. "Women, the Public Sphere, and the Persistence of Salons." Duke University Press, 1957. Print. p.165
21. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0c/Allan_Ramsay_003.jpg/220px-Allan_Ramsay_003.jpg
22.
Thames and Hudson. Society, Government and the Enlightenment, German Democratic Republic: C.B.A. Behrens, 1985. Print. p.22
23. Spencer, Samia. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1984. Print. p.35
24. Spencer, Samia. French Women and the Age of Enlightenment, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1984. Print. p.66
25. Groethuysen, Bernard. The Bourgeois: Catholicism vs. Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France, New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Print. p.6
26. Groethuysen, Bernard. The Bourgeois: Catholicism vs. Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France, New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Print. p.31
27.  Groethuysen, Bernard. The Bourgeois: Catholicism vs. Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France, New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Print. p.23
28.  Groethuysen, Bernard. The Bourgeois: Catholicism vs. Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France, New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Print. p.39
29.
http://nlife.ca/sermons/Gospel/series/10-myths1/notre-dame-cathedral-montreal3.jpg

Other Sources Used:
29. Kale, Steven D. French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1. "Women, the Public Sphere, and the Persistence of Salons." Duke University Press, 1957. Print. p.130
30. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/A_Reading_in_the_Salon_of_Mme_Geoffrin,_1755_Small.jpg

 
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