I. The Fair Sex: Conceptions and Paradigms of Woman

“The fair sex, is the epithet applied to women, and one that cannot be denied them, since they are the principal embellishment of the world.”  

   —“Female Sex,” Encyclopédie, vol. 15 (1765)

Biological difference distinguished the category of “woman” from that of ‘man.’ This simple definition of woman, had prevailed throughout Europe for centuries. What was new in the Enlightenment was the then scientific verification of moral and mental qualities. These included woman’s tendency to emotional excess and irrational behavior, her seeking after sensual pleasure, as well as her vanity, coquetry, curiosity, and jealousy.  Science and morality deemed as positive certain qualities that were also ‘natural’ for the fair sex: in particular, maternal tenderness, virginal modesty, obedience to male authority, and desire to please. Beauty rather than power was seen as the lot of women. And because “woman's” natural powers of reproduction were contrasted to “man's” powers of cultural production, she was seen to play nature to his culture.  

While scientific discourses operated to define woman, art and literature created points of identification for real women. Some works depicted ideals to which they should aspire. Some warned women of what they should not become. Negative examples included women who were promiscuous, disobedient, and sexually aggressive or jealous and avenging women. “Exceptional” women might be portrayed as acting outside of their sex, such as performing in careers that demanded mental or moral characteristics attached generally to the male body and mind. Whether treated as positive or negative, these examples were posited as universals, but they were deeply Euro-centric. In the rare instances when women of different ethnic or racial backgrounds were evoked as exemplars, they were generally figured as European women in exotic costumes and settings.   


Image: Guillaume Bodinier, French, 1795–1872. Seated Italian Woman in an Interior, 1832. Watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper.