La politique

The History of Feminism: Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet

Gender equality was not the only controversial cause espoused by
Condorcet: Even before publicly addressing the woman question, he
argued vociferously for the humanity and rights of enslaved Africans,
and proposed the abolition of slavery in France’s overseas colonies.
His 1781 work Réflexions sur l’esclavage des
[Reflections on Black Slavery] helped incite the
abolitionist movement in France, which came together in early 1788 in
the newly created Société des Amis des Noirs [Society of
the Friends of Blacks], of which Condorcet became president in January
1789: a counter-lobby to the influential pro-planter Club
Condorcet published actively throughout the 1780s and later drafted
numerous legislative bills for the National Assembly on the question
of colonial reform and the slave trade. In addition, he advocated for
freedom of commerce, the rights of religious minorities, and criminal
law reform. He considered neither sodomy nor suicide as crimes because
they “do not violate the rights of any other man”, unlike
rape, which “violates the property which everyone has in her
person” (“Notes on Voltaire [1789]”, in Condorcet
O’Connor and Arago 1968 [orig. 1847–9], vol. IV, 561, 563, 577,
cited in McLean and Hewitt 1994, 56). He believed in the right of a
woman to plan her pregnancies. His views on female education were
especially progressive for his time, as he proposed that girls be
educated alongside boys within universal, co-educational institutions;
and he would have provided for women’s admission to all professions
for which they showed talent.

Feminist, abolitionist, and, in his final years, a democratic
republican, Condorcet acted in public life to expand the claims of
justice, morality, and human rights. Friend, protégé and
ally of Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, disciple of Voltaire, collaborator of
the Encyclopédie, perpetual secretary of the Academy
of Sciences, member of the French Academy and numerous European
academies, renowned mathematician and author of biographies of
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and Voltaire and many other prominent
intellectuals of his time, he also participated actively in the world
of political affairs—first under Turgot’s short ministry
(1774–1776), and then again during the French Revolution. Before
the Revolution, he published essays on the application of the theory
of probability to popular voting, on the American Revolution and the
Constitutional Convention; and he actively polemicized on behalf of
Turgot’s attempted reforms of economic and political life. He was
perhaps the only one of the contributors to Diderot and d’Alembert’s
celebrated Encyclopédie to live long enough to
participate in the French Revolution, helping to draft the 1789
Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen
[Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen]. Tragically, he
was also one of the Revolution’s most prominent casualties:
Participant in the preparations for the Convocations of the Estates
General, elected representative to the Legislative Assembly in 1791
and later to the National Convention, he wrote a report on public
and drafted a constitution for France embodying his ideal voting
procedures, which was never adopted. The year 1793 was a fateful one
for Condorcet. He came under an order of proscription by the
Convention in 1793 following his publicly voiced objections to the
scrapping of his draft constitution in favor of a hastily prepared
version supported by the increasingly dominant Jacobin faction of the
Convention, his protests over press censorship and the arrests of the
Girondins, and his scathing comparisons of the Jacobins of 1793 to the
royalists of 1791. After eight months in hiding, during which time he
wrote his unfinished Esquisse [Sketch] (which included the
section published first in 1804 as Fragment on the New Atlantis,
or Combined Efforts of the Human Species for the Advancement of
), he fled Paris but was arrested on March 27, 1794, and
imprisoned in Bourgla-Reine, where he was found dead in his prison
cell on March 29—the cause of his death remains unknown. In the
florid phrasing of one of his nineteenth-century admirers:

Of the illustrious thinkers and writers who for two generations had
been actively scattering the seed of revolution in France, only
Condorcet survived to behold the first bitter in-gathering of the
harvest. Those who had sown the wind were no more; he only was left to
see the reaping of the whirlwind, and to be swiftly and cruelly swept
away by it. Voltaire and Diderot, Rousseau and Helvétius, had
vanished, but Condorcet both assisted at the Encyclopaedia and sat in
the Convention; the one eminent man of those who had tended the tree,
who also came in due season to partake of its fruit; at once a
precursor, and a sharer in the fulfillment. (Morley 1871, 37)

Condorcet was born on 17 September 1743 in the town of
Ribemont-sur-Aisne, in Picardy, to the previously widowed
Marie-Magdeleine Gaudry and her spouse, the Chevalier Antoine de
Condorcet, a cavalry captain who was killed on maneuvers only weeks
after his son’s birth. The Condorcets were an old noble family from
the Dauphiné. His ancestor Henri de Caritat was among the first
to adopt the reformed faith in 1561 prior to its official toleration
in 1598 under the terms of the Edict of Nantes. However, during Louis
XIV’s campaign against the Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict
in 1685, members of the family who did not emigrate were forcibly
reconverted to the Roman church. By the time of his birth, like other
male heirs of this family, Condorcet would have been expected to serve
the military or the church. Following his father’s untimely death,
Condorcet was brought up in isolation by his deeply pious mother, who
dedicated him for his protection to the virgin, clothing him in white
dresses until the unconventionally late age of eight. At the
instigation of his paternal uncle, the orthodox-leaning bishop of
Lisieux, Condorcet began his formal education at age nine with a
Jesuit instructor; and at age eleven he was enrolled for four years in
the Jesuit school at Reims, where he had his first academic success,
winning second prize at age thirteen.

Despite his own successes at school, in later years he decried the
role played by competition within the collèges of old
régime France; and he joined other enlightened critics of the
old order in vehemently opposing the religious control of education.
In the first of his 1791 writings on public instruction in the
Bibliothèque de l’homme public [The Public Man’s
Library], he emphasized a cooperative model of education, stating:

Human life is not a struggle in which rivals contend for prizes. It is
a voyage that brothers make together: where each employs his forces
for the good of all and is rewarded by the sweetness of mutual
benevolence, by the pleasure that comes with the sentiment of having
earned the gratitude or the esteem of others .… By contrast,
the crowns bestowed in our collèges—which induce
the schoolboy to believe himself already a great man—only arouse
a childish vanity from which a wise system of instruction would seek
to preserve us if, by misfortune, its origin lay in our nature and not
in our blundering institutions. The habit of striving for first place
is either ridiculous or unfortunate for the individual in whom it has
been inculcated. It is a real calamity for those whom fate condemns to
live with him. The need to deserve esteem, on the other hand, leads to
that inner peace which alone makes happiness possible and virtue easy.
(Condorcet, “On the Nature and Purpose of Public
Instruction” (1791) in Baker 1976,

The mix of dogma and corporal punishment that he experienced in his
Jesuit schooling equally appalled Condorcet. In an unpublished
manuscript he remarked,

They teach children that they cannot do good acts without grace, and
that there are two sorts of sins: the venial, for which you are burnt
for a few centuries, and the mortal, for which you are burnt
eternally…. Humiliation and opprobrium are the natural state of
Christians. (unpublished ms. c. 1778, quoted by Badinter 1988, 19;
translated and cited by McLean and Hewitt 1994, 3)

He advocated for a secular state; considering that since religious
views are a matter of one’s conscience of which one is the sole
legitimate judge, “it is evident that the expense of maintaining
such worship should be voluntarily borne by those who believe in
it” (Condorcet, La Vie de Voltaire (1789), translated
and cited in Rowe 1984, 19). As early as 1774, undoubtedly under the
sway of his initial meeting with the illustrious Voltaire in 1770, he
addressed the problem of religious intolerance in an anonymous work
that was frequently attributed to Voltaire himself. Despite his
admiration for his young acolyte, Voltaire (perhaps mischievously)
complained, “This is a declaration of a hideous war … I
want neither the glory of having penned it nor the punishment that
will follow” (cited in Baker 1976, x). Condorcet, however,
persisted in his defense of a more secular society. Following 1789, he
publicly promoted the principle of toleration and opposed the
intrusion of religion into the new nation’s public
As he stated,

…religious opinions cannot form part of the common instruction
since they must be the choice of an independent conscience. No
authority has the right to prefer one over another. (Condorcet,
“Public Instruction” [1791], in Baker 1976, 127)

Between 1758 and 1760, Condorcet continued his studies in ethics,
metaphysics, logic and mathematics at the prestigious Collège
de Navarre, part of the University of Paris, where the Newtonian
abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet held France’s first chair of
experimental physics. Under the tutelage of the abbé Georges
Girault de Kéroudou, regent in philosophy at Navarre,
Condorcet’s talent for mathematics and philosophy blossomed. After a
two-year stay in Ribemont following Navarre, during which time he
overcame family objections to his pursuit of a scientific career,
Condorcet took up lodgings in Paris for a time with his former
teacher, Girault de Kéroudou, undertaking further study in
problems of the integral calculus. His first formal paper to the Royal
Academy of Science was rejected, although the mathematicians
Aléxis-Claude Clairaut and Aléxis Fontaine recognized
his mathematical talent. With better results, he read a second paper
on the same topic before the Academy in 1764. With the endorsement of
Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and Étienne Bézout, he published
Essai sur le calcul integral [Essay on Integral Calculus],
which merited a section in the annual Histoire de
l’Académie des sciences
for 1765, of which he was not yet
a member. The astronomer Joseph-Jerôme de Lalande, member of the
Berlin and French Academies, ranked the then twenty-one year old
Condorcet as one of the ten leading mathematicians in Europe; and his
further applications of integral calculus impressed such renowned
mathematicians as Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Leonhard Paul Euler, and
Daniel Bernoulli. Through d’Alembert, Condorcet was granted an
introduction to Voltaire, who would henceforth become another great
influence on the young man; and he began attending the salon of Julie
(Jeanne Julie Éléonore) de Lespinasse, a gathering place
for the leading philosophes of the day. There he met and
befriended the French economist and statesman Anne-Robert-Jacques
Turgot (1727–1781)—a proponent of physiocratic economic
theories and enlightened administration—who, like Voltaire and
d’Alembert would play an important role in the young mathematician’s
evolution into an increasingly prominent public intellectual. At
Lespinasse’s salon, he also met and began a close friendship with
another woman of letters and hostess of a literary salon, Amelie
Suard, sister of the publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke and wife of
the academician Jean-Baptiste Suard. Both Lespinasse and Suard not
only encouraged the young man’s intellectual appetites but also appear
to have counseled him on matters of the heart and his social manners,
which they regarded as rather unpolished (see Badinter 1988). In this
company, he earned a reputation for being a quick-tempered but also
painfully shy, socially ill at ease, and introverted young man. It was
Lespinasse who called him “a volcano covered in snow”,
while Turgot saw him as “the rabid sheep”, calm but always
on a short fuse (Williams 2004, 13).

On the professional front, Condorcet’s success in the science of
mathematical calculus came early, resulting in his appointment to the
Royal Academy of Sciences in 1769. In 1777 he became the permanent
secretary of the Academy of Sciences. In 1782, he was appointed to the
French Academy, in recognition of his contribution to the world of
letters. As a result, as Keith Michael Baker reveals,

for almost twenty years Condorcet was the principal spokesman of
organized science not only in France but (given the power and prestige
of the Paris Academy of Science … [and his post of perpetual
secretary]) throughout Europe. Above all, he emerges as the social
theorist of science as it developed under the Old Regime to shape some
of the fundamental postulates of Enlightenment thought. (Baker 1975,

In the 1770s Condorcet first showed himself to be a talented and
passionate polemicist, aiming to turn public administration to the
public good, while shrewdly appreciating how much power and position
weighed in achieving the latter. As he wrote in an early letter to
Turgot, who was then a royal official at Limoges, “To do good,
one must have as much power as goodwill” (cited in Baker 1976,
x). Upon Turgot’s ascension to head of the financial administration of
the monarchy as Controller-General [in effect, Minister of Finance],
Condorcet freely offered his services in the war of opinion. He
defended Turgot’s introduction of free trade in grain, the abolition
of guilds and corporations, and the suppression of the
corvée: the forced labor system or taxation in kind
associated with seignurial rights and royal privilege. He pressed for
reform of the country’s system of weights and measures and
participated in hydrodynamic experiments to determine the engineering
principles of canal construction. Like Turgot’s other short-lived
reforms, Condorcet also embraced the latter’s unsuccessful proposal to
reform the system of political representation in France by introducing
a hierarchy of assemblies from the local to the national
The minister’s abrupt fall from power in May 1776 left him in deep
despair: “this event has changed the whole of nature for
me”, he wrote to Voltaire from Ribemont. “ I no longer
take the same pleasure in this beautiful countryside where he would
have brought forth happiness… How far we are fallen, my dear
and illustrious master, and from such height” (cited in Baker
1976, xii).

Condorcet would continue to honor Turgot’s efforts at reform as he
developed his own ideas about how best to achieve political justice
through the ballot and constitutional revision, as in his essential
work Essai sur la constitution et ses functions des
assemblées provinciales
[Essay on the Constitution and the
Functions of Provincial Assemblies] (1788). In La Vie de
[Life of Turgot] (1786), he celebrated his belated
friend’s contributions to public administration and free trade.
Moreover, like his mentor, Condorcet rejected naked self-interest as
the only motivator of human behavior, insisting on the role to be
played by love and sympathy. In a correspondence concerning Turgot’s
repudiation of the unmodified utilitarianism of Claude Adrien
Helvétius’ De l’Esprit [On Mind] (1759), Condorcet
advanced his own thoughts on sympathy and ethics:

I have just received your profession of faith: here is mine. When I
left college, I fell to reflecting on the moral ideas of justice and
virtue. I felt that I saw that the interest we have in being just and
virtuous arose from the pain one sensitive being must needs feel on
becoming aware of the pain suffered by another. Since then, [and out
of a fear that other interests would make me evil (méchant)] I
have tried to preserve this sentiment in all its natural energy. I
gave up hunting, which I had enjoyed, and would not even kill an
insect unless it was very harmful. (Cited in McLean and Hewitt 1994,

During the 1780s and into the early Revolution, Condorcet would devote
himself increasingly to “le bien public” [the public
good]. For example, he addressed the subject of healthcare, with the
hope of ending a system long associated with indigence and Christian
charity. In his 1786 Memoire sur les hôpitaux [Memoir
on Hospitals], he suggested closing down the thousand-year old
municipal hospital of the city of Paris, the
Hôtel-Dieu, and replacing it with a secular,
locally-based, municipal health-delivery system composed of small
neighborhood hospices. He was also not averse to changing his earlier
formulated positions. In 1793, for example, he reversed his argument
put forward in 1788 against progressive taxation, in favor of the same
(see Greenbaum 1984 and Perkins 1984).

Most significant, however, were the evolution of his political views,
from support of a reformed, constitutional monarchy to defense of a
democratic republic, from defense of a property-based franchise to
universal suffrage. He was elected to the Electoral Assembly to
represent the nobility from the bailiwick around his country place at
Mantes. Although he did not serve in the first National Assembly
following the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, he was elected by
his residential district to the General Assembly of the first Paris
Commune. In October 1791, he was elected to the National Legislative
Assembly, where he served and then chaired the Committee on Public
Instruction. In this same year, he looked optimistically toward the
future. Writing under the pseudonym “Un Vieux Bramine” [An
Old Brahmin] in La Bouche fer, Bulletin du Cercle
[The Iron Mouth, the Bulletin of the (club) The Social
Circle], he addressed himself to other friends of liberty,

I believe humankind is infinitely perfectible, and that it should thus
devote itself to achieving peace, liberty and equality, whose term is
impossible to fix. I also believe that this progress must be the work
of reason, fortified by meditation, supported by experience. According
to these principles, my philosophy has to be cold and patient …
I would not say, “everything is good” but rather that
“everything will be good”, and, for that, I will offend
both sides. [my translation] (cited in Robinet 1968 [orig. 1893],

His evolving republican views were confirmed after the King’s flight
and capture at Varennes in June 1791, and following the attack on July
17, 1791 on peaceful demonstrators on the Champ-de-Mars (petitioning
for a removal of king Louis XVI) by the troops commanded by General
Lafayette (an earlier ally of Condorcet), an event which Condorcet
took personally as his wife and infant daughter were among the crowd
on that day. In the fall of 1792, he gained election to the National
Convention of the newly constituted first French Republic, for which
he served by election as one of the nine members of the Committee on a
Constitution, of which he was then made chairman. In Condorcet’s

a republican constitution based upon equality was the only one in
accordance with nature, reason and justice: the only one that can
protect the liberty of citizens and the dignity of the human race.
(Rosenblum 1984, 188; for the text of the Projet de
[Project of the Constitution], see Condorcet
O’Connor and Arago, vol. 12, 335–415)

Yet Condorcet’s constitutional plan, which came to be known as
“La Girondine” in accordance with the majority of Girondin
deputies who served on this committee (although Condorcet was not
one), was never acted upon by the Convention. The Jacobin
Constitution, accepted by the Convention of June 24, 1793, was never
implemented. However, Condorcet’s impassioned attack on the latter and
defense of his own views in “Aux citoyens français, sur
la nouvelle constitution” [To French Citizens, on the New
Constitution] led to the order for his arrest on June 8.

In 1786 at age forty-two, Condorcet married the twenty-two year old
Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), with whom he forged a loving
relationship, similar political convictions, and a solid intellectual
partnership. Like her husband, de Grouchy was committed to bringing
about major judicial and political reforms in France; and her own
experiences at a convent left her with a similarly fierce dislike of
the Church and a commitment to secular values. The two met through
their common interest in the defense of three peasant victims of
judicial error and legal abuse, the roués de Chaumont,
whose cause had been taken up by de Grouchy’s uncle, the magistrate
Charles Dupaty, president of the parliament of Bordeaux (see Perrod
1984). In addition to collaborating frequently in Condorcet’s
writings, his wife translated the works of Adam Smith and Thomas
Paine, and she hosted a leading salon at l’Hotel des Monnaies,
Condorcet’s residence following his appointment in 1775 as
Inspector-General of the Mint. The salon was attended by many foreign
visitors—including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin’s
grandson, Thomas Paine, Charles Stanhope, 3rd earl of
Stanhope, and the Marquis de Beccaria (author of the treatise On
Crimes and Punishments
(1764), which opposed torture and the
death penalty)—along with the writer Pierre-Auguste Caron de
Beaumarchais, the playwright and pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges (author
of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female
), and the writer and hostess Madame de Staël. During
the early years of the Revolution the Condorcet salon was an important
venue for followers of the Girondin, and it hosted meetings of the
previously mentioned Cercle Social, one of the revolutionary
clubs most supportive of women’s participation and women’s rights.
After 1789, Condorcet also frequented other salons associated with the
Girondins such as those of Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud and
Mme (Marie-Jeanne) Roland (Williams 2004, 13).

Mme de Condorcet was an accomplished translator and author, in her own
right; and she shared her husband’s liberal and republican views,
especially on matters of criminal justice, political reform, and
minority and women’s rights. For her attendance at the lycée
where Condorcet taught mathematics and others gave lessons in history
and the sciences, Mme de Condorcet became known as the
She learned English expressly in order to read in the original and
translate the seventh edition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral
, appearing in 1792 in London, despairing like many of
her contemporaries of the inadequacy of the existing French
In 1791, along with Thomas Paine, the Condorcets founded la
Société républicaine
[the Republican
Society], sometimes credited as the first republican society in
France; and Mme de Condorcet translated Paine’s writings for the
journal of the Society, La Républicain ou défenseur
du gouvernement représentatif
[The Republican or defender
of representative government]. Separated from one another during his
period of flight, with his wife’s encouragement the philosopher
undertook the writing of his last works, while she too was composing
the text known as Lettres à Cabanis sur la sympathie
[Letters to Cabanis on Sympathy], in which she sets forth her own
ideas on achieving “a society of happiness”. As she wrote
in her Eighth Letter,

where is the one who, instead of always looking beyond nature for a
new way of enjoying or abusing its blessings, finds each day a new
pleasure in changing all the bonds of duty and servitude around him
into relations of charity, good faith and kindness … (Grouchy
1994, 183; for scholarly appreciations of Grouchy’s translation of
Adam Smith, her independent contribution to moral philosophy, and her
intellectual impact on Condorcet, see Dawson 2004; Brown 2008; Grouchy

In one of his last writings, Condorcet addressed a testament to his
infant daughter (b. 1790), which shows the enormous respect he held
for his wife’s intellect and moral character. “When the moment
of justice has come”, he writes, “she will find help in my
writings. The advice I have written for her, and her mother’s letters
on friendship, will provide a moral education. Other writings by her
mother give very useful viewpoints on the same subject”
(“Condorcet’s Testament (March 1794)”, in McLean and
Hewitt 1994, 290). In his advice to his daughter not to stifle her
feelings for all other beings, he also echoes his wife’s views on
sensibility. He is firm on the need not to let resentment overwhelm
the soul’s natural disposition to sympathize with others; and, in a
striking passage, he cautions the girl that even acts of cruelty
toward animals can lead to a brutalization of her originally good
nature: “This gentle sensitivity”, he states,

which can be a source of happiness, originates in the natural feelings
which makes us share the sorrow of all sentient beings. Preserve it in
all its purity and all its strength. Do not limit it to the suffering
of men, but extend your humanity even to animals. Do not make any
which belong to you unhappy; do not neglect their welfare; do not be
insensitive to their naïve and sincere gratitude; cause them no
unnecessary pain. Anything of the sort would be a true injustice and
an insult to nature, who would punish you by the hardness of heart
which habitual cruelty must produce. Lack of foresight in animals is
the only excuse for the barbarous law which condemns them to serve as
food for one another. Let us remain faithful to nature, and go no
further than this excuse permits. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 287)

At the same time, he counsels his daughter not to exaggerate her
sensitivity, for that too can be a trap:

I shall not give you the useless advice to avoid passion and to beware
of being too sensitive, but I will tell you to be sincere with
yourself and not to exaggerate your sensitivity, whether for your
vanity, to delude your imagination, or to excite that of another.
(McLean and Hewitt 1994, 287)

He cautions her to “ensure that the feelings of equality and
justice become second nature to you” and asks her guardians to
bring her up

to love freedom and equality, and to have republican values and
virtues. Ensure that she harbours no feelings of personal
vengefulness, and that she is taught to protect herself from the
perils of a sensitive and impulsive nature. Let this be asked of her
in my name; and let her be told that I was never prey to such things.
(McLean and Hewitt 1994, 290).

Perhaps most remarkable about the couple is how they managed to
maintain their optimism at the most perilous moment of their lives
together. In 1793, despite their forced separation and the dangers
they faced, she worked on her Letters, he on his
Esquisse, both works that express unwavering faith in human
progress and goodness. As A. Pons (preface, A. de G. Condorcet 1994,
10) remarks,

It is the moment when he was hunted and obliged to hide himself that
Condorcet wrote his hymn to progress, which is his Esquisse.
It is the moment when she lived with anxiety about her husband, her
daughter and herself, and when she was surrounded by the hate of the
Jacobin revolutionaries and the members of her class who reproached
her for her treason, that Sophie vaunted the sweet effects of
sympathy! [my translation])

In 1795, after her husband’s death, Mme de Condorcet published the
Esquisse, and in 1799, his Éloges des
[Eulogies for the Academicians]; and she revived her
salon at Auteuil at the former home of another salonnière,
(Anne-Catherine de Ligniville) Madame Helvétius
(1722–1800). Under the Consulate and the Empire, Mme de
Condorcet hosted yet another salon, which was a meeting place for
dissenting republicans. She worked assiduously to defend Condorcet’s
reputation and to publish his complete works, a version of which
appeared from 1801 to 1804, with the assistance of her brother-in-law,
the French physician and prominent Idéologue Pierre Cabanis,
along with the revolutionary politician and writer Joseph Garat, and
the bibliographer and librarian Antoine Alexandre A.-A. Barbier. The
project was continued after her death, resulting in a second collected
edition in 1847–1849, undertaken by her daughter Eliza (Louise
Alexandrine de Condorcet, b.1790) and son-in-law, the exiled Irish
revolutionary Arthur O’Connor, with the assistance of François
Arago, Condoret’s successor as Secretary of the Academy of Sciences
(Institute de France). (The first volume of the second edition of the
Oeuvres completes included a sympathetic biography of the
philosopher by Arago. A. Condorcet O’Connor and F. Arago 1968 [orig.
1847–9]. For other classic French works on Condorcet, see: Vial
1970 [orig. 1902]; Cahen 1904; Alengry 1971 [orig. 1904]; Koyré
1948; and the influential intellectual biography by E. and R.
Badinter, 1988).

Condorcet’s partnership with this exceptional woman doubtless
confirmed him in his generous views about women’s abilities,
strengthened his commitment to women’s independence and liberty; and,
most assuredly, spurred him on to address concretely the need to
rectify the injustices to which all women were subjected in an age of
purportedly greater enlightenment.

Condorcet’s most extensive arguments on women’s rights appear in two
essays. The first was authored in 1787, prior to the Revolution; the
second, published in 1790 in the Journal of the Society of
, was composed in the context of a debate over the
appropriate constitutional arrangements for the new French nation. In
addition, commitment to women’s rights informs his Testament
to his daughter, and is not forgotten in the section of the
Esquisse known as the Fragment sur l’Atlantide
[Fragment on the New Atlantis], where he restates his objection to
using allegations about physical or intellectual inferiority to
justify political exclusion (see Fricheau, 1989). In his 1791
Memoirs on Public Instruction, he demands that public
education be open to women and men, and that women not be excluded
from any curriculum, including science (see Condorcet 1791 web
resource; Kintzler 1984; and Didier 1989 on the strong links between
Condorcet’s views on education and on women’s equality and
rights). Whereas the eighteenth century has been famously
characterized as “the age of woman”—owing, in large
measure, to its depiction during the nineteenth century by the
the most part, neither the philosophes nor their most
intellectually distinguished female contemporaries (in France, Madame
de Lambert, Madame du Châtelet, Madame de Graffigny, Madame
Riccoboni, Madame de Lambert, Julie de Lespinasse, and Madame de
Genlis; in Italy, the University of Bologna professor of mathematics,
Françoise Agnesi and professor of anatomy Laura Bassi)
addressed the question of women’s rights with the same clarity,
directness or force as Condorcet. Moreover, enlightened claims about
natural human equality were tempered by entrenched assumptions about
complementary male and female sex-specific attributes, which provided
ammunition for the delayed expansion of women’ civil and political
rights in modern times. As Steinbrügge (1995, 4) proposes, the
eighteenth-century “is the age that saw the emergence of an
image of female nature that allowed precisely these exclusions to be
considered ‘natural’”. Thus, the defenders of
women’s rights during the “Age of Enlightenment” were
faced with the problem that the denial of women’s equality was couched
in secular not religious considerations and buttressed by
pseudo-scientific claims.

Yet Condorcet never abandoned science in his support for women’s
rights; nor did he see scientific claims as a barrier to greater
equality (Ansart [2009] further proposes a connection between his
feminism and his pioneering effort to apply mathematics to social
investigation). Moreover, he anchored his defense in a counter-strain
within enlightened thought that dates back to the early 1670s when the
ex-theologian and disciple of Descartes Poulain de la Barre challenged
male supremacy and advocated gender and racial equality (see Poulain
de la Barre 2002; Stuurman 2004). As against the philosophical
anthropology that held sway with so many philosophes, Poulain
and other contributors to what is known as the “querelle des
” offered a rationalist alternative to standard
misogynistic positions, which pointed not to the body but the
It is to this rationalist tradition that Condorcet is indebted.
However, Condorcet’s consideration of women’s rights is especially
noteworthy given the paucity of discussion of women’s rights within
enlightened circles as well as the absence of any organized campaign
for women’s rights in France (or elsewhere) in the years immediately
leading up to 1789. As the philosopher was well aware, there also
existed what he referred to as the comfortable habits of mind by which
women were regarded as second-class citizens. Moreover, Condorcet not
only expanded upon Poulain’s earlier contribution but his 1787 and
1790 arguments boldly anticipated and reinforced the position taken by
those relatively few who dared to demand rights for women during the
Revolution and with increasing numbers, and ultimately more
successfully, made the same demands in the following centuries (On
enlightened male thinkers who discussed women’s condition, see Brookes
1980; Landes 1988; Pappas 1991; Nall 2008 and 2010.

4.1 Women’s Rights within Republican Constitutions

The Second Letter of Lettres d’un bourgeois de Newhaven à
un citoyen de Virginie
[Letters from a Freeman of New Haven to a
Citizen of Virginia on the Futility of Dividing the Legislative Power
among Several Bodies] (1787) defends the justice of a single
legislative body, against the American preference for a bicameral
legislature (McLean and Hewitt 1994,
Here Condorcet addresses the scope and limits of a “peaceful,
free and lasting constitution”, in light of the principle of
natural rights, which he proceeds to define:

These rights are called natural because they derive from the
nature of man; because it is a clear and necessary consequence of the
very fact that a sentient being capable of reason and moral ideas
exists that he must enjoy these rights and could not justly be
deprived of them. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 297)

From natural rights, inherent in each person as a morally conscious
being, Condorcet derives civil rights, including “the right to
vote on matters of common interest, either in person or through freely
elected representatives”, as well as the true meaning of a
republican form of government, in which the interests of its citizens
correspond with the general interest. Therefore, he argues, a

state in which some of the inhabitants, or at least some of the
landowners, are deprived of these rights ceases to be free … It
is no longer a true republic [and] having said this, it is also true
to say that no true republic has ever existed.

However, having defined the conditions of republican constitution,
Condorcet goes further to discuss sexual discrimination, observing
that if government is to be consistent with the principles of reason
and justice, then there are no grounds for denying equal rights for

If we agree that men have rights simply by virtue of being capable of
reason and moral ideas, then women should have precisely the same
rights. Yet never in any so-called free constitution have women had
the right of citizenship. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 297)

Furthermore, he states, if

the right of citizenship requires that a person can act according to
his own free will [then, in his opinion] any civil law which
establishes sufficient inequality between men and women for the latter
to be supposed incapable of free will would simply increase the
injustice. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 297–98)

On the basis of natural rights, Condorcet moves immediately to tackle
the question of political representation, as it concerns all women as
well as the particular circumstances of married women. Alluding to the
English principle of no taxation without representation, as
popularized in France in Jean-Louis Delolme’s 1771 Constitution
[Constitution of England], Condorcet insists that
“all women have the right to refuse to pay taxes levied by
parliaments”; adding that he has found no “substantial
arguments against these points, at least as far as widows and
unmarried women are concerned” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 297).
However, while unmarried women and widows might be admitted to
political rights, the much thornier problem of married women’s rights
remains to be tackled. Condorcet confronts the question head-on,
knowing that even English law, to which he has just appealed, is
strongly prejudiced against married women. Under English common law,
an unmarried adult was considered to have the legal status of a
feme sole (in law book French), while a married woman had the
status of a feme covert. Colloquially speaking, husband and
wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person
was the husband. Women were restricted from owning property, signing
legal documents, entering into contracts, obtaining an education, or
keeping her own salary, without her husband’s permission. In
pre-revolutionary France, as the historian Dominique Godineau (1998,
xix) points out, women were likewise conceptualized according to their
roles as mothers and spouses, thereby “placed outside of the
public and hence outside of the city”. The same was true of
their position in the Encyclopédie, she observes,
where Diderot considers that the (masculine) word
citoyen— that is, one who possesses political
rights—is only attributable “to women, young children, or
to servants as one would [refer] to the members of a family of a
citizen in the strict sense of the word; they aren’t really
citizens”. Thus, in pre-revolutionary France political
individuals represented families (including family servants, where
applicable), not merely themselves. In short, if rights inhered in
independent persons, then according to tradition and legal reasoning,
a woman was not strictly speaking a legal personality. A woman’s legal
rights were merged with those of her husband (and prior to marriage,
with her father). A married woman counted for nothing before the law;
and therefore could not count as a citizen whose natural rights had to
be respected by the state.

With respect to the issue of who is authorized to represent the
family, and the practice whereby only men are granted this
prerogative, Condorcet makes a simple observation: If marriage is
“a society of two people”, it admits of only one condition
under which a necessary inequality be allowed, that is, “the
need for someone to have a casting vote on the rare occasions when the
different opinions cannot be allowed to act simultaneously, while at
the same time the need to act quickly means that we cannot wait for
the parties to come to an agreement” (McLean and Hewitt 1994,
298). However, even in these circumstances, Condorcet insists that
there need be no permanent inequality introduced between the spouses.
He would instead divide and rotate the prerogative, giving
“either men or women the casting vote for matters in which one
or the other is more likely to express a will which conforms to
reason”. He also reminds his readers that greater equality
between spouses is “not as new as we might imagine”, for
Roman women were granted by Emperor Julian the right to initiate
divorce proceedings against their spouses. On this point, Condorcet
cannot resist a witticism: “Perhaps the least gallant of the
Caesars was the most just toward women”, he proposes (McLean and
Hewitt 1994, 298).

The principle of justice requires that “we stop debarring women
from the right of citizenship”. What then of women’s eligibility
for public functions? In this section of the Second Letter, Condorcet
considers the grounds for excluding women as voters and as public
functionaries, and prepares the argument that will reappear in his
1790 essay. He refers first to the principle of utility: “Legal
exclusions should therefore be made only when reason clearly proves
their utility” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 298). A “good
election method” would allow, he maintains, for the elimination
of persons tried and found guilty of certain crimes, as well as two
categories of dependent persons, those in domestic service and those
below the mandated age of civil majority. Except in one important
respect, his criteria for the exclusion of these categories of person
are consistent with eighteenth-century republican assumptions, which
ultimately guided the drafters of the 1791 Constitution, who divided
the population into active and passive citizenship. Only the
former—approximately 15% of the French population and 61% of men
(approximately 4, 298,360)—possessed the full rights of
citizenship. They had to be males 25 years or older, who had occupied
the same residence for at least one year, and had paid the equivalent
of 3 days of salary. By the terms of France’s first post-1789
Constitution, all women were assigned the status of passive citizens;
and French women did not achieve full citizenship until 1944. In
contrast, even before the French Revolution Condorcet had opposed the
passage of laws expressly excluding women, even from posts in the
military or magistracy. Instead of legal prohibitions he looks to
civil law and education to support women’s participation. He
underscores the role to be played by education in countering the
limitations attributed to woman’s physical and intellectual
limitations, maintaining:

the female constitution means that they would make unsuitable soldiers
and, for some of their lives, debars them from posts which require
hard work on a daily basis. Pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding
would prevent them from fulfilling these functions. But I believe all
other differences between men and women are simply the result of
education. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 299)

Education not nature is deemed to be the cause of women’s inferiority
and her presumed unsuitability for given social roles and tasks. Only
in certain limited circumstances, or at certain periods of time, are
physical limitations a factor. Condorcet believes that women are not
intellectually inferior to men; rather, they are victims of an
inferior education. “Even if we agree that women might still not
have the same mental or physical power as men, this would mean simply
that the best women were equal to the second-best men, better than the
third best, and so on” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 299).
Complementing Voltaire for what he takes to be the
philosophe’s generally enlightened views toward women,
Condorcet nonetheless disputes the latter’s reservations about women’s
genius and inventiveness. For one thing, he insists, “if posts
could be filled only by men capable of invention, many would remain
vacant, even in academies. On the contrary, for a great many posts, it
is not even in the interests of the public that the time of a man of
genius be sacrificed”. Appealing further to the genius of two
women of letters, Mme de Sévigné and Mme de la Fayette,
he only concedes that women might not equal men in the very highest
domains of science and philosophy—an odd admission since
Condorcet might well have raised in this regard the example of
Voltaire’s own lover, the brilliant Newtonian Mme de Chatelet.

There are two other references to women in the Second Letter. In a
discussion of what could be termed military and foreign affairs,
Condorcet compares the unjust treatment of women to the position of
subject populations within republics: in such circumstances,
“they cannot speak of freedom as a right” (McLean and
Hewitt 1994, 312). In another passage, Condorcet sums up and defends
himself against the charge of triviality concerning the arguments he
has made on behalf of women’s rights: “This examination may seem
very long”, he writes, “but we are discussing the rights
of half of the human race which have been neglected by all
legislators. Besides, it cannot harm men’s freedom to show how to
overcome the only possible objection against republics, and to mark
out a real difference between them and States which are not
free”. But tellingly, men are not the only audience Condorcet
fears may deride his arguments: he worries about women’s reactions,
since they have been led astray by none other than Jean-Jacques
Rousseau’s enticements to remain in the domestic sphere (McLean and
Hewitt 1994, 299).

Even a philosopher finds it hard not to get a little carried away when
discussing women. However, I fear that I shall fall foul of them if
ever they read this article. I have discussed their right to equality
and not their influence, and so might be suspected of secretly wishing
to decrease this influence. And since Rousseau gained their support by
saying that they were made simply to look after us and were fit only
to torment us, I should not expect their support. But truth is a good
thing, even if I lay myself open to ridicule by speaking it. (McLean
and Hewitt 1994, 299)

4.2 A Bold Defense of Women’s Rights

In contrast to his 1787 work, in which women’s rights are part of a
larger consideration of the elements of a just constitution,
Condorcet’s 1790 essay Sur l’admission des femmes au droits de la
[On the Admission of Women to the Rights of
Citizenship] stands as one of the most concise and potent defenses of
women’s rights in the entire history of feminist thought. It also
needs to be set within the context of the monumental events that began
in 1789 and led up to the adoption by the newly elected national
assembly of the Constitution of 1791. By the terms of the 1791
Constitution of the new constitutional monarchy, as already briefly
observed, the population was divided between active and passive
citizens on the basis on the basis of wealth, thereby excluding the
large majority of male citizens from full political participation.
Complicated suffrage provisions restricted popular influence further.
However, the new laws also categorized all women (without exception)
as passive citizens, a departure from old régime legal practice
whereby women could sometimes vote and act as regents. In addition to
barring women from the voting process or from serving as magistrates
or elected representatives, only men were granted the privilege of
serving in the newly formed militias, an increasingly important
function of republican citizenship during these same years. Gender
divisions would, if anything, become even more pronounced after 1792
when the monarchy was abolished and France became a republic, the
divisions between active and passive male citizenship were removed,
and universal male suffrage established but nothing was done to alter
women’s secondary political status before the law. Yet from the outset
of the Revolution in 1789, in practice women were far from being
wholly “passive”. Many militated for rights and
participated actively in the clubs and societies of the revolutionary
public sphere.

Condorcet was not alone in recognizing the manifest contradiction
between the principles of natural rights and reason, on the one hand,
and the exclusion of women from full political rights, on the other.
Nor was he the only one to link the question of female citizenship to
the demand for rights by other groups like Jews, Protestants, and
mulattos, whose political and civil rights had been curtailed under
the old régime, or even to the radical demand for slave
emancipation. Some politically active women protested for improvements
in women’s condition, and even demanded woman’s right to bear arms.
The Confédération des amis de la
[Confederation of the Friends of Truth] was
the first club to admit women as regular members and the first to
establish a separate women’s section. The club campaigned in support
of divorce, and engaged in a heated debate over member Etta Palm
d’Aelder’s speech calling on men to devote their full attention to the
problem of women’s rights, insisting “we are your companions not
your slaves” (Etta Palm d’Aelders, Appel aux
françoises sur la régénération des moeurs
et la nécessité de l’influence des femmes dans un
gourvernement libre
[Appeal to the French concerning the
Regeneration of Morals and the Necessity for Women’s Influence in a
Free Government], cited in Kates 1985, 123–4). Among the other
issues taken up by Palm and her confederates in the women’s section
were elimination of primogeniture, protection against wife beating, a
comprehensive divorce bill, and political equality for women. Palm
conceived of a Parisian and nationwide system of affiliated clubs to
care for and educate children and clinics for indigent women. As early
as October 1789, the playwright Olympe de Gouges proposed a reform
program to the National Assembly that encompassed legal sexual
equality, admission for women to all occupations, and the suppression
of the dowry system through a state-provided alternative. In her 1791
Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne
[Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen], Gouges
rejoices in the natural equality of all human beings and decries the
hypocrisy of denying people on the basis of race and sex the inherent
rights to which they are owed. Although always a minority position,
still other voices were raised inside and outside France on behalf of
full equality, perhaps most famously Mary Wollstonecraft in her
equally eloquent 1792 treatise The Vindication of the Rights of

Condorcet opens his 1790 essay with a powerful indictment of his
“most enlightened” compatriots, above all those
philosophers and legislators who speak and legislate on behalf of the
principle of human rights, yet deny those rights to one-half of the
human race:

Habit can so familiarize men with violations of their natural rights
that those who have lost them neither think of protesting nor believe
they are unjustly treated. Some of these violations even escaped the
notice of the philosophers and legislators who enthusiastically
established the rights common to all members of the human race, and
made these the sole basis of political institutions. Surely they were
all violating the principle of equal rights by debarring women from
citizenship rights, and thereby calmly depriving half of the human
race of the right to participate in the formation of the laws. Could
there be any stronger evidence of the power of habit over enlightened
men, than the picture of them invoking the principle of equal rights
for three or four hundred men who had been deprived of equal rights by
an absurd prejudice, and yet forgetting it with regard to 12 million
women. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 335)

Condorcet argues that without the inclusion of women, the nation would
have no recourse to a “free constitution”. Recognizing the
shift that has occurred in France in grounding rights in individual
property, he calls attention to the fact that “the elective
assemblies of our bailiwicks gave to feudal rights that which they
refused to natural rights. It is to women that several of our noble
deputies owe the fact that they sit amongst the national
representatives”. Indeed he advises that rather than depriving
female feudal property owners of their former rights, would it not be
better to extend to all female property owners and heads of households
the same rights that men have now achieved? “Why, if we consider
it absurd to exercise citizenship rights by proxy, should we deprive
women of this right, instead of giving them the freedom to exercise it
in person?” The irony, he recalls, is that before 1776 “a
woman could rule France [as a regent?] and yet, before 1776 (when
Turgot’s abolition of the guilds were introduced), she could not
become a dressmaker in Paris [without her husband’s assistance]”
(McLean and Hewitt 1994, 339). Truly throwing down the gauntlet, he
insists that unless it can be proven that “the natural rights of
women are not exactly the same as those of men”, then the new
nation is guilty of constituting itself on an “act of
tyranny” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 337, 335).

Following this pointed accusation, he proceeds to argue for women’s
rights in the manner already put forward in his 1787 discussion,
although here he explicitly joins women’s rights to the rights of
religious and racial minorities—no doubt hoping that men of
reason will join his cause, even if slave owners and Catholic
extremists are likely to oppose it:

The rights of men stem exclusively from the fact that they are
sentient beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of reasoning
upon them. Since women have the same qualities, they necessarily also
have the same rights. Either no member of the human race has any true
rights, or else they all have the same ones; and anyone who votes
against the rights of another, whatever his religion, colour or sex,
automatically forfeits his own. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 335)

Once again, however, Condorcet is forced to consider strongly held
views about the social implications of women’s bodies. He argues that
neither women’s duties nor their bodies ought to disqualify them from
participating in the public sphere. He begins with the trivial and
moves to more serious objections, first comparing the inconveniences
of motherhood to such “monthly indispositions” as gout and
the common cold. On a more serious note, he observes, “people
argue that, differences in education apart, men are still naturally
more intelligent than women, but this is far from being proven, and
would have to be before women could justly be deprived of a natural
right” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 335). Again he reprises his
former arguments regarding women’s genius and the inappropriate link
between genius and the legitimate exercise of rights: Even if the
charge of women’s lack of demonstrated genius were true, which he
doubts, “we would hardly attempt to limit citizenship rights
only to men of genius” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 335). Granting
the existence of a small fraction of men possessing true genius, he
states, “this small class apart, both sexes have an equal share
of inferior and superior minds”, thus there is no more reason to
exclude women from the exercise of rights than there would be to
exclude the vast majority of men. He mobilizes the examples of Queen
Elizabeth of England, Marie Theresa of Austria, and the two Catherines
of Russia as ample proof that “women lack neither strength of
mind nor the courage of their convictions”. And in a playful
paragraph he deliciously debunks the great evils done by a host of
supposedly great men, asking whether such women as Catherine Macaulay,
Marie le Jars de Gournay, Marie-Anne de la Tremoille, princess of
Ursins, Mme du Châtelet, or Mme de Lambert would have undermined
freedom of conscience or the rights of citizens, attacked a free
constitution, or passed such “absurd and barbarous laws …
[as those] against protestants, thieving servants, smugglers and
negroes?” In sum, he observes, “Men have no real reason to
be so proud when they cast their eyes over the list of those who have
governed them” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 336).

Condorcet rejects the claim that “women have never based their conduct
on what is called reason,” insisting that “they may never have behaved
according to the reason of men; but they do behave according to their
own reason” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 336). While allowing for the
possibility that women may have their own reason, a different reason
from that of men, still Condorcet meets his compatriot’s strong
objections that women reason differently or perhaps do not reason at
all by advocating raised educational standards, improved laws, and the
equalization of the social circumstances endured by the sexes. Only
with these reforms, he insists, will women come to escape the pull of
vanity and self-interest, to which they are doomed in the present, and
come to respond to the demands of justice and positive law. As for
whatever residual differences between the sexes might still remain,
Condorcet finds in them a comprehensible logic:

The fact that they [women] base their conduct on different principles
and set themselves different aims does not mean that they are
irrational. It is as reasonable for a woman to concern herself with
her facial charms as it was for Demosthenes to cultivate his voice and
gestures. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 336–7)

Whether it is a question of admirable or contemptible qualities,
Condorcet does not blame women’s nature but rather points to their
upbringing, to which he attributes their ignorance and superstition.
Because women are blocked from exercising real power, they resort to
using illicit influence. If it is true that women are less egoistic
and hardhearted, more gentle and sensitive than men, he credits this
to their socialization as well as to their overly protected lives:

They have no experience of business, or of any matter which is decided
by positive laws or rigorous principles of justice; the areas which
concern them and where they are active are precisely those which are
governed by feelings and natural decency. It is quite unfair to
justify continuing to refuse women the enjoyment of their natural
rights on grounds which are plausible only precisely because they do
not enjoy those rights. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 337)

In an insightful observation concerning the patriarchal arrangements
of his day, Condorcet asserts: If it is true that women are unduly
influenced by their husbands, on whom they are dependent, this cannot
be grounds for their exclusion “because we could destroy this
tyrannical civil law … [and] One injustice must never become a
reason to commit another” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 337).

Condorcet looks to education and publicity to eliminate the secret
sway that royal mistresses and some other old régime women had
exercised. He argues that whatever influence women have, it is far
more of “a threat if it acts in secret than if it acts in a
public debate” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 337). By becoming
public, the undue influence of one person over another would
necessarily lose its sway. At the same time, he counsels that the same
arguments used to deprive women of their rights could easily be used
against laborers—“anyone who was obliged to work
constantly and could therefore neither become enlightened nor exercise
his reason. Before long, citizenship would be open only to men who had
completed a course of public law …” Adopting what was
fast-becoming the most damning slogan of republicans during the
Revolution, he charges that “all aristocracies were
formed or justified by this kind of pretext [my emphasis]”
(McLean and Hewitt 1994, 337). Certainly, he was not alone in leveling
the charge of aristocracy in relation to gender equality. For example,
as early as 1789, a radical tract appeared, entitled Requête
des Dames à l’Assemblée Nationale
[The Ladies’
Request to the National Assembly], which protested the
“masculine aristocracy” being established by the Assembly,
and proposed it be decreed that “all the privileges of the male
sex are entirely and irrevocably abolished throughout France; [and
that] the feminine sex will always enjoy the same liberty, advantages,
rights, and honors as does the masculine sex” (A. Soboul, 1982;
cited and translated in K. Offen 2000, 54–55). Similarly, Olympe
de Gouges exclaimed:

Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the
question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me,
what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? …. Man alone
has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre,
blind, bloated with science and degenerated—in a century of
enlightenment and wisdom—into the crassest ignorance, he wants
to command as a despot a sex which is in full possession of its
intellectual faculties; he pretends to enjoy the Revolution and to
claim his rights to equality in order to say nothing more about it.
(Gouges 1791).

Finally, then, Condorcet arrives at the most intransigent of
objections to women’s freedom, those based on utility. What if by
gaining rights women would be tempted to abandon their domestic
affairs? What if female citizens would move beyond a relatively
passive exercise of rights to assume the reigns of government?
Condorcet insists that appeals to utility have been abused, serving
often as mere pretexts of tyrants for denying “a true
right” and resulting in such crimes as the enslavement of
Africans, the imprisonment of innocents at the Bastille, the
censorship of the press, and the exploitation of workers in trade and
industry. However, he also finds it necessary to go beyond merely
answering utilitarian objections to women’s equality by assuaging
men’s fears. As a result, and even if for only tactical reasons, he
ends up making a decisive concession to his opponents. So, he
reassures men,

there is no need to fear that, just because women would be members of
the National Assembly, they would immediately abandon their children,
their homes and their needlework. In fact, this would only make them
better able to raise their children and to make men of them. It is
natural for a woman to nurse her children and for her to look after
them when they are young. Forced by this to stay at home and weaker
than men, it is also natural that she lead a more secluded, more
domestic life. Women therefore fall into the same category as men who
need to work for several hours a day. This may be a reason not to
elect them, but it cannot form the basis of a legal exclusion.
Chivalry may lose out by this change, but domestic life would gain
from this equality, as from all others. (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 338)

4.3 Appraising Condorcet’s Stance

There is no question that Condorcet advanced some of the age’s most
compelling claims on behalf of women, which were in turn part of his
deep-seated commitment to individual liberty and social equality. In
closing his brief for female citizenship, he challenges his critics to
“show me a natural difference between men and women on which the
exclusion could legitimately be based” (McLean and Hewitt 1994,
339). Yet even this advocate of reason and sexual equality introduces
an asymmetry between the sexes, and he locates that disproportion
directly on the reproductive and maternal body of woman. Despite his
objection to the argument of natural difference, Condorcet allows that
sexual differences would still continue to have social effects within
a more rationally organized society. However, he indicates his
awareness of the persuasive attacks by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other
like-minded reformers on the very widely practiced custom of
wet-nursing the infants and toddlers of the better classes, as well as
the same reformers’ complaints against the vanity and egotism of women
who employed wet-nurses (see Landes 1988, chapter 3). Therefore, it is
very likely that Condorcet’s reassurances are meant not just for men
but also for women. At this point in time public opinion was clearly
turning against any woman who would willingly choose to neglect her
domestic duties or altogether disavow them, especially should she do
so for either social or strictly selfish reasons. Although Rousseau
and others did insist on fathers taking a greater involvement and
responsibility towards their families, none of this was meant to
relieve a woman of her primary domestic role or its attendant burdens.
If anything, reformers insisted on both parents simply doing more in
family life while preserving the sexual division of labor.

In his defense, however, it is clear that until the tragic end of his
life, Condorcet never relinquished the notion that a woman not only
can but also must prepare vocationally for her own independence. In
his Testament he advises his infant daughter to “get
into the habit of working so that you are self-sufficient and need no
external help … though you may become poor, you will never
become dependent on others”. And such work should not be routine
or menial: “choose a type of work which does not occupy the
hands alone, but engages the mind without straining; something which
compensates your efforts by the pleasure it gives you” (McLean
and Hewitt 1994, 284). Coming from the titled aristocracy, for whom
the idea of a woman’s paid employment might have seemed inappropriate,
if not bizarre, this is remarkable advice. But Condorcet insists that
his daughter be prepared for all circumstances. In the sad prospect of
the compounding loss of her mother as well as her father, he asks her
guardians to prepare his daughter for a great deal more than
“the usual ladylike accomplishments”, advising: “I
should like my daughter to learn to draw, to paint and to engrave well
enough to be able to earn a living without too much difficulty or
repugnance. I should like her to learn to read and to speak
English” (McLean and Hewitt 1994, 290). Likewise, in the tenth
stage of the progress for the human mind in his Esquisse, he
boldly affirms that

among the causes of the progress of the human mind of the human mind
that are of the utmost importance to the general happiness, we must
number the complete annihilation of the prejudices that have brought
about an inequality of rights between the sexes, an inequality fatal
even to the party in whose favour it works. (Condorcet 1955 [orig.
1795], 193)

In sum, just as tyranny in the political order disfigures the tyrants
as much as their victims, Condorcet believes that men will be
infinitely better off once they accept the full equality of women.

Indeed, a great deal of the ambivalence that one detects in
Condorcet’s 1790 essay belongs to the times, not merely in the sense
of the day’s prejudices—which, as we have seen, he strongly
combated—but rather also with respect to the extent to which the
opportunity for achieving women’s rights was eclipsed by an
increasingly negative, even openly hostile climate toward women who
were perceived to be overly “public” and insufficiently
modest and “domestic”. In the face of women’s heightened
political involvement during the popular revolution, those few
representatives still favoring political equality for women appear to
have retracted their former support. Despite his pronounced early and
visible commitment to women’s voting rights, Condorcet’s public
silence on the issue when presenting his introductory report on the
draft constitution to the Convention in 1793 still remains perplexing.
The constitutional debate occurred after the removal of the
distinction between passive and active voters, so that the denial of
women’s rights was made more explicitly than ever a matter of sexual
difference rather than one of property or class position. In addition,
from the declaration of the Republic in September 1792 until women’s
political participation was proscribed by the deputies of the
Convention in the fall of 1793, popular women’s activism in the
streets and in the galleries of the Convention was accelerating, but
so too was a campaign against women in the revolutionary press. (On
this period, see especially Levy, et al. 1979 and Godineau 1998).

Although Condorcet remained silent, others among his friends and
political allies spoke up. The Welsh-born naturalized French citizen
David Williams—friend of the Girondins, participant in Sophie de
Condorcet’s salon, author of Lettres sur la liberté
[Letters on Political Liberty], and participant in the
preparatory work for the Constitution—wrote his Observations
sur la dernière constitution
(Observations on the Last
Constitution] (published 1793 in Paris). Williams supported education
for women, their right to testify in cases involving members of their
own sex, and political rights for single women, spinsters as well as
widows. Moreover, an appeal for women’s voting rights by deputy Pierre
Guyomar entitled le Partisan de l’égalité des droits
et de l’inégalité en fait
[The Partisan of the
Equality of Rights and Inequality in Fact] was discussed by the
constitutional draft commission. Guyomar seemingly draws upon
Condorcet, comparing prejudice in sexual matters to those of race, and
calls for its outright abolition. And like Condorcet (and the authors
of the 1789 “Ladies’ Request”), he points to the
nation’s outright hypocrisy, where the Declaration of Rights serves to
perpetuate an aristocracy of men and smuggle in old régime
principles. However, the weight of official opinion did not support
the inclusion of women into full citizenship. The Commission concluded
in April 1793 that women lacked sufficient education to participate in
the nation’s political life (see Roudinesco 1991,
By the fall of 1793, women would also be barred from participating in
clubs and societies. Women in France would not achieve the ballot
until 1944, and many of the advancements in civil law passed in the
1790s were withdrawn by Napoleon, and not again fully secured until
the last half of the twentieth century.

In a sense, French women’s lives were shaped almost entirely for far
too long by the very institution against which Condorcet protested.
Ironically, this devoted father and husband was perhaps the only
philosophe who never kept a mistress, yet he was arguably

the one most critical of the family, as this institution was known in
the eighteenth century. The indissoluble character that the Church had
conferred upon marriage appeared to him as a veritable seedbed of such
evils as adultery, prostitution, and bastardy. (Rowe, in Rosenfield
1984, 25)

He advocated for birth control, woman’s right to plan her pregnancy
sensibly, and for a man’s obligation to his child’s welfare after
birth. He envisioned a better future for illegitimate children and
supported opportunities for unmarried pregnant women to have their
children without social penalties (Condorcet 1968, VI: 256–9,
VIII: 465–466; Williams 2004, 168–169; Schapiro 1963,
192–193). He proposed occupational training rather than
incarceration for prostitutes, opposed police harassment of
prostitutes and homosexuals, and denounced barbaric laws and practices
against homosexuals, such as France’s burning of homosexuals alive and
the English resort to mob violence (Condorcet 1968, VIII:
469–70, IV: 561; Schapiro 1963, 192–195; Williams 2004,
170). In the Esquisse he advocated for making marriage a
civil not a religious contract, as was formally accomplished by his
fellow republicans in France during the 1790s. He upbraided the
despotic role of parents in arranging their children’s marriage. He
favored divorce, and considered the manner in which child custody and
education should be protected in its event. In the place of what he
considered the private despotism of family life in old régime
France, and with the hope for women’s expanded independence, Condorcet
envisioned the coming into being of more loving and egalitarian
unions, much like the one he fashioned with his wife:

Everything which can contribute to rendering individuals more
independent also increases the happiness they can reciprocally bestow
upon each other; their happiness will be greater when the individual
action is more voluntary. (Bibliothèque nationale ms. N.a. fr
4586, fol. 18, cited and translated in Manuel 1962, 99)

Had he lived longer, he would have seen many disappointments, watching
as so many of the early Revolution’s legislated reforms in marital and
personal life, as well as the whole panoply of human rights for which
he fought, were retracted, modified or suspended, and while political
participation was crushed under the Directory and more emphatically
under Napoleon’s rule. After his death, Condorcet was not entirely
forgotten, and his contribution was honored throughout the nineteenth
century in France, Britain, and elsewhere by those men and women who
fought to bring down the refortified barriers to women’s rights that
were paradoxically imposed by democrats and republicans who otherwise
saw themselves as liberal opponents of preceding regimes.