Marie de Gourney was a philosopher and writer who lived in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. During her lifetime, she was most known as an associate of Montaigne (philosopher, and father of modern scepticism), but also known for her philosophical and polemic writing on many topics, including education, court corruption, and the equality of the sexes. This last set of writing is probably the reason she is known today, as she was rescued from the obscurity she sank into after her death by feminists looking for earlier writers on feminism.
She was born in 1565, to a minor aristocratic family from near Sancerre. Her family were noted jurists, and writers, and she educated herself (presumably with their help) so that by the time she was an adult, she was fluent in latin, and had read widely, both in philosophy and french literature. She discovered Montaigne’s writing around this time, and became an enthusiastic devotee, meeting him in 1588 (when she was 23 and he was 55) and becoming his unofficial adopted daughter.
After Montaigne’s death, when de Gourney’s family were struggling financially, Montaigne’s widow asked her to edit a posthumous edition of his work, which was the start of a major strand of work for de Gourney throughout her life, editing and commenting on Montaigne’s work.
Montaigne wasn’t her only preoccupation, however. She made a precarious living in the courts and salons of Paris as a writer, writing her own essays, translating other works, and becoming an employee of the court when she started writing for Queen Margot. This was the time of the French Wars of Religion (the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred when de Gourney was 7, but the wars are generally agreed to have ended with the Edict of Nantes, when de Gurney was 33). De Gourney was staunchly catholic (as was her hero Montaigne) and wrote pamphlets defending the Jesuits.
She also wrote a novel, and essays on an extensive range of topics, such as literature, education, moral defects in society, the nature of slander, as well as two treatises defending the equality of men and women and the rights of women to receive a full education.
In her feminist treatises, she argued that men and women were equally capable; lack of educational opportunities and prejudices were the explanation for the differences in cultural achievement (in literature, philosophy etc).
“If the ladies arrive less frequently to the heights of excellence than do the gentlemen, it is because of this lack of good education. It is sometimes due to the negative attitude of the teacher and nothing more. Women should not permit this to weaken their belief that they can achieve anything.”
She also wrote several essays (in particular Complaint of Ladies) exploring the misogyny of French society, and the historical reasons for it. She quoted extensively from the Bible, argued with St Paul, and pointed out the many and varied female Biblical characters who played important roles in the history of Christianity. De Gourney’s essays also poured scorn on the misogyny of her contemporary French society, pointing out how impossible it is for a women to succeed if all those around her are mocking her abilities and achievements.
“When I read these writings by men, I suspect that they see more clearly the anatomy of their beards than they see the anatomy of their reasons. These tracts of contempt written by these doctors in moustaches are in fact quite handy to brush up the luster of their reputation in public opinion, since to gain esteem from the masses—this beast at several heads— nothing is easier than to mock so and so and [to compare them to] a poor crazy woman.”
That’s a lesson that’s worth bearing in mind today. The points made by de Gurney seem very similar to those I read on a regular basis at the Geek Feminism blog and similar sites. Here, for example, or here are good examples of exactly the kind of misogyny that de Gourney was arguing against 400 years ago.
Marie de Gourney made a living from her pen back when women were not seen as capable of anything of the sort. But despite the 400 years that separate us, many of her ideas sound very contemporary, not just on women and men, but also on many other philosophical issues. A notable woman indeed.
I am indebted to this article about Marie de Gourney by John J Conley, who is also responsible for the translations of the quotes above.
This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.