On the Equality of the Two Sexes (France, 1673)



France 1673, François Poullain De La Barre

In the backdrop of the dominant Cathothic doctrine that dictates how God ordained women to be physically and mentally inferior, a new wind of Enlightenment rationalist thought is emerging with Rene´ Descartes’ et al. In lieu of these developments de la Barre makes a bold claim: mental equality of the sexes. Autobiographical landmarks that Freedman (the editor of the book) discloses are how de la Barre became disenchanted with Catholicism while studying for the priesthood, then relocated to Geneva to convert to Calvinism, marry, and raise a family. Sharply criticized throughout his lifetime, de la Barre’s ideas were revived in the 20th century by biologist Simone de Beauvoir.

Based on reason and observation, the difference between the sexes is solely physical, since the mind ‘has no sex.’ What causes differences between minds are education, religious observance, and environment. Not gender. Minute anatomical inspection demonstrates no differences in the heads of men versus women, except women’s sense organs are “usually more sensitive” which is an example.* Since women possess requisite tools – body and mind – there is no reason why they wouldn’t be equally as capable as men in learning physics or medicine. In fact, women are more suitable. This is because coarse and heavy men are usually stupid, and delicately built men are always the cleverest.**

The goal of all our actions is happiness. Happiness is achieved via ‘clear and distinct knowledge’ which, Jesus and St. Paul claim, will extend happiness into the next life. Women are equally able to apprehend knowledge as men are, and therefore should be granted equal opportunities for acquiring truth. It is deleterious to use of the terms “manly” to denote courage strength or intelligence, and “like a woman” to denote a dearth in courage, resolution, and firmness. Saying that a man is “like a woman” should be a compliment, since the traits intimately associated with women are virtue, gentleness, and honesty.

de la Barre concludes that it makes no sense to justify mind differences in the sexes based on physical distinctions.


*Modern medicine does indicate anatomical and physiological brain differences across genders. See “The Female Brain” (2006) by Dr. Louann Brizendine

** de la Barre’s initial argument was that the physical weakness of women compared to men does not translate into intellectual inferiority. In contradistinction, this current argument assumes that there is correlation between body and brain. Even according to the argument that there is a correlation between body and brain, women’s physical ‘delicate’ disposition puts them at a mental advantage.


de la Barre addresses men, and attempts to debunk what he sees as a common misconception: that the physical superiority of men over women translates to a superiority in intellect, and women’s physical frailty deems them intellectually incapable. He argues that women deserve the right to pursue knowledge and acquire positions and responsibilities that are highly regarded in the community (physics or medicine).

What strikes me here is the absence of the issue De Pizan’s 1405 work fought against. Specifically, de la Barre does not address the supposed moral inferiority of women. Perhaps the movement De Pizan was involved in had successfully debunked the myth that women are morally depraved and irresolute compared to men.

What’s curious is that de la Barre seems to address men – not women – in his appeal that women be granted access to knowledge. This is probably because men were the gatekeepers to the professions that involved intellect. I wonder if women were allowed to participate in the debate about “the woman question” regarding women’s capabilities and educational/professional opportunities. Even hundreds of years earlier there must have been some means of circulating discourse between women (recall that De Pizan’s work was addressed to women, not men.) And I wonder if there were many women who wanted to participate in such debates, since at the time many women must have also been convinced – by male intellects and the patriarchal and religious establishments – that they themselves were incapable of lofty intellectual pursuits, like engaging in public discourse about the role of gender in intellectual capability.

A barrier for males to accept de la Barre’s arguments is the ramifications it would have on their own livelihood. Allowing women into predominately male respectable occupations (physics, medicine) would intensify competition, and cost many men their jobs. So from a rationalistic economic perspective (whether or not those terms existed at the time), males had disincentives to embrace de le Barre’s argument of permitting women to engage in intellectual pursuits. So it’s no surprise that his work came under sharp criticism.

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