Nature, Nurture, and the Social Order

Imagining Lessons and Lives for Women in Ancien Régime France

in French Politics, Culture & Society

Focusing on the work of Choderlos de Laclos, Riballier, Mme d'Épinay, and Mme de Genlis, this article examines the ways in which, during the 1770s and 1780s, women's education and women's social identity were imagined as two related questions. Both questions were shaped by the perceived dictates of nature, tradition, and necessity, yet each was open to debate and re-imagination. In the works of these four writers, we will see not only considerable ambivalence regarding women's social and familial identities, but also a rift between understandings of those identities based on nature and understandings based on social utility or tradition. Moreover, we will see that along with that ambivalence and that discursive rift came a tension between women's importance as wives and mothers, on the one hand, and their autonomy as selves, on the other.

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