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GENDER AND EARLY MODERN WOMEN PHILOSOPHERS

Why is gender an important topic in studies of early modern philosophy?

Social and family life, generally, and ideas about the sexes were so different in the seventeenth century compared to our own that they should not be overlooked as an

Why were the great seventeenth century philosophers and scientists bachelors?

They were either relatively poor (Descartes, Spinoza, Locke), or prohibited from marrying because they were priests (Fathers Marin Mersenne [1588-1648] and Pierre Gassendi [1592-1655]), or it was a tradition for men of learning not to have their own families. For example, Oxford dons were not allowed to marry at that time and the seven fellows of Gresham College (founded in 1558) were all bachelors. Another reason might have been the prevailing beliefs about the nature of women. Women were not allowed to be scholars, and wives and family life was not only considered a distraction for men of learning, but sexual relations were believed to be intellectually weakening for scholars.

important background to the beginnings of modern philosophy. Interestingly, all the well-known seventeenth century philosophers—Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, and Locke—were bachelors their entire lives, as were the great majority of their colleagues in philosophy and the sciences.

Why was the single status of early modern men of science and philosophy important?

Inevitably, bachelorhood would have had the negative effect of not having long-term intimate relationships or much experience with children and family life in adulthood. A bachelor's style of life would have then supported a view of the world from the perspective of a lone individual, and an assumption that the philosophical mind would always have the same gender as oneself.

Would marriage have changed the emotional lives of seventeenth century philosophers?

The answer is not clear. In the seventeenth century, primogeniture, or leaving the entire inheritance of a father to his oldest son, was the norm. About one-quarter of younger sons in the middle classes did not marry because they could not afford to set up households or find brides with substantial dowries. Child mortality was between 30 and 50 percent of all live births, and after 20 years of marriage it was highly unlikely that both spouses would still be alive.

These statistics rendered family relationships more dependent on roles than on individual emotional attachments based on distinct personalities. (During the early modern period, people did not marry for what we consider to be romantic reasons.)

None of this is to say that there were not strong lifelong friendships between men and women. Philosophers such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Gottfried Leibniz had long-term female correspondents, but it is doubtful that they knew what we would call "love."

What were the general ideas about women that were held by people in the seventeenth century?

The old Aristotelian idea that females were imperfect males was still assumed to be true in seventeenth-century Europe. The modern science of biology, which established two distinct sexes, was still in the future. Although eighteenth and nineteenth century sexual distinctions based on biology supported the idea that the capabilities of women were inherently limited and inferior to those of men, they at least focused on the distinctness of male and female identities.

The Aristotelian view has been called the "one sex theory." Many serious and well-regarded theorists of the human body solemnly insisted that the female reproductive system was no more than an inverted form of the male one. Like Aristotle, they believed that women were naturally colder and damper than men, besides being in every respect weaker. Moreover, women were considered to be the sex-desiring, aggressive gender, whereas men were often viewed as helpless and vulnerable in sexual matters.

Medical opinion concurred that blood, semen, and spinal fluid were all the same basic vital substance or fluid, albeit in different forms. Sexual intercourse was not only often viewed as a weakening form of physical dissipation, but male ejaculation was believed to draw brain tissue down the spine and out the penis—a very strong reason for a male philosopher to remain celibate. Moreover, women were viewed as the source of venereal disease, unwanted children, and burdensome financial obligations. So great was their negative sexual power held to be that they were at the same time also presumed responsible for male impotence.

 
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