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Consider Le Dufs presentation in Le Sexe du savoir of the relation between

patriarchal perceptions of female morality and womens access to knowledge

In Le Sexe du savoir, Michle Le Duff traces the link between gender and knowledge
throughout the ages, engaging with many sources which, among other things, discuss the
rights of women to education. In order to examine how feminine morality is shown within
the work to affect how women could seek that education, it is important to clarify the
meaning of the term morality. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is
necessary to differentiate between the normative definition, which describes the concept of
morality, and the descriptive definition, which describes conceptions of morality within
specific social contexts. The latter will be required for this essay, since it will discuss
different countries and periods of history, leading to certain considerable differences in
opinions of femininity and moral capacity. As such, the view will be taken throughout of
morality as the most influential outlook on the concepts of right and wrong within a given
social group, especially with regard to the concept of duty. Additionally, in keeping with
the societies examined by Le Duff, in particular those of France and England, this essay
will concern itself with morals based upon Christian tradition during the early modern
period of history and into the Renaissance, though not without occasional reference to
more contemporary examples where they help to better highlight points. Predominantly
focusing on formal or semi-formal education (which is to say any learning of an academic
nature, rather than that which is purely functional or folkloric), the overarching theme of this


essay: that of the link between knowledge and power, will be examined in detail. followed
by the way in which society is structured on the belief that knowledge should be the sole
preserve of men. It will then be vital to look at how the patriarchal society deals with
instances which challenge the view of feminine morals which it sustains, by looking at the
most glaring example used in Le Sexe du savoir: Queen Elizabeth I. Finally it will attempt
to draw a conclusion as to whether or not Le Duff presents patriarchal perceptions of
feminine morality as a response to Christian moral beliefs regarding the ordained dynamic
between genders, or if they are instead used wilfully by the patriarchy to prevent women
from gaining access to knowledge which might allow them to fight against their lowly
status, to the detriment of male dominance.

Since a large amount of Le Duffs work has centred on Sir Francis Bacon, it is apt that
an aphorism commonly attributed to him (though most likely erroneously) should so
perfectly sum up one of the principle arguments Le Sexe du savoir makes regarding the
link between female morality and knowledge. Scientia potestas est, while not necessarily
penned in this form by Bacon, was certainly used in the seventeenth century, and
demonstrates that, with knowledge and reason, one is able to use logic to best advantage
oneself in any given situation, while those without this relevant knowledge are forced to
accept circumstances as they are. During the early modern period especially, Christian
morals were, at least in the societies with which Le Duff deals for the vast majority of Le
Sexe du savoir, social morals. As such, it was seen as morally right that women be


subjugated to men, because God ordained it in order to punish Eve for eating from the
Tree of Knowledge: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee
(Gen. 3:16.) As such, it was the moral duty of both men and women to ensure that these
gender roles were maintained, and that men were always in a position of power over
women, since it was explicitly stated in the Bible that it was Gods will. It is clear, then, that
denial of knowledge to women was, and is still, used as a way of preventing them from
obtaining any power which they might be able to use to increase their social status to the
disadvantage of mens. This is not to say that women were not educated at all, but that
what they did learn was carefully tailored to maintain social order, since it would be
immoral to do anything else. As Marguerite La Caze points out, Le Duff criticizes the
idea of a little learning for women, on the grounds that it is used to keep women in order1
by instilling in them the knowledge that they are responsible for Eves sin. Le Duff
provides an anecdote in which she spoke with a colleague about Gabrielle Suchons
formidable ide darracher la pense des femmes lopprobre du pch originel,2 which
leaves implicit the notion that women at the time were made to feel the constant burden of
this act, and as such, presumably, taught that it was their duty to strive to obey their fathers
and husbands in order to atone.

1 La Caze, Marguerite, Michle Le Duff and the Work of Philosophy, Australian Journal of
French Studies, 40.3, (2003), 244-256 (p. 255.)

2 Le Duff, Michle, Le Sexe du savoir (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), p. 122. Subsequent references
to this work will follow in quotations.


However, Le Duff also shows that this idea of morality has instilled in men the belief
that it is their right to govern over women, and to gain an education, meaning the concept
of moral superiority over women has become a myth which is perpetuated by a patriarchal
society in order to maintain a social order which favours men. She explains how Suchon
speaks about the way in which men sapproprient entirement la vie intellectuel (Le
Duff, p. 80) in order to ensure that women cannot access knowledge which would allow
them to become independent, thereby continuing their oppression.
Furthermore, according to the arguments of various thinkers during the early modern
period, women are biologically incapable of ruling, and should be kept from power because
they do not have the moral strength to separate empathy from reason. Le Duff speaks of
Baruch Spinoza, who said at the end of his life that a lack of cultures in which women ruled
over men is unequivocal proof that women are incapable of leading, and as such are
naturally intended to be governed by men. While his comments deny the existence of any
female ruler, Hegel expands and clarifies his position by stating that, since women lack the
capacity to rule due to lack of moral fibre, it is a danger to the country to allow them to do
so. As such, it is vital that they should not be formally educated, as it would be at best a
waste of time which would provide them with information they could never use, and at
worst an act which would give them the idea that they are capable of governing,
destabilising the social model. In examining Le Duffs treatment of the figure of Elizabeth
I later on in this essay, it will be shown that there may be exceptions to this rule, however


that this does not necessarily destabilise the argument that society perpetuates the notion
of feminine morality as weaker than that of men.

If, then, knowledge is indeed power, and God has given men an indefatigable power
over women, it follows naturally that knowledge should be exclusively for men as well. As
Elizabeth Fallaize says in her essay on dialogue in Le Sexe du savoir, the works central
concept is to show how knowledge and sex are linked in the collective imaginary3 and to
argue against it as a rational system. Le Duff clearly shows throughout that the
supposedly incontrovertible fact that knowledge (specifically reason) is a concept
preserved solely for men has adapted with changes in society in order to effectively keep
women from learning, by making it seem practically impossible that a woman should be
able to produce logical thoughts on her own. In the first chapter of Dshrences, for
example, the reader sees how the concept of intuition developed to mean a form of
sensing which, according to Hegel, was not a form of knowledge at all, but a jumble of
attractive thoughts, and thus to be associated with women who were, he said, like plants in
their lack of reasoned thought, implying that there is no intellect behind anything a woman
might think, and that any appearance of logic is by mere happy accident. She then shows
how, according to the interpretation of a passage in Goethes Faust by psychoanalyst
Helene Deutsch, a woman who sought to educate herself was condemning herself to a

3 Fallaize, Elizabeth, The Pleasure of Dialogue in Le Sexe du savoir, Australian Journal of French
Studies, 40.3, (2003), 309-315 (p. 309).


lifetime of unhappiness by attempting to become a man. Similarly, she gives the example
of Joseph de Maistre, who claims that there a woman who attempts to put herself on the
same level as a man through the pursuit of knowledge is no better than an animal. Clearly,
then, by seeking knowledge, a woman is (since this is still the case today, though to a
lesser extent than in previous centuries) seen as incapable of properly carrying out the
tasks assigned to her by society, namely motherhood and homemaking. She is, therefore,
failing to fulfil the duties expected of her, and acting immorally, as her actions are directly in
opposition to Gods laws, and thus harmful to the overall structure of a Christian society.
This has undeniably contributed to the creation of a climate of fear which has discouraged
women from showing a desire for knowledge. Especially up until the time when Deutsch
was writing, in the first part of the twentieth century, none but the most well-off of women
could reasonably expect to live alone, so marriage was the only way she could hope to
gain a degree of freedom and independence. As such, most women would have shied
away from engaging in any activity which would make them seem undesirable to potential
husbands, and instead sought to cultivate the image of perfect womanhood, as that was
what society taught them would attract the best men. This shows how women have been
taught throughout history to internalise patriarchal ideas that they must uphold their moral
duty to be meek daughters and loving wives in order to live a happy life, rather than
engage in actions which might lead to them questioning why they must live their lives
under the thumb of one man or another.


Furthermore, Le Duff refers on more than one occasion to the relationship between
knowledgeable women and mysticism. This was a view which was prevalent especially
during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when religion played a much greater role
in society than it does today, and indeed was the cornerstone of most Western societies,
like England and France. Through use of Douglas MacLeans statement in The
Renaissance Notion of Woman that there have been few female scientists, but many
female mystics, along with examples of her own, Le Duff shows that learned women
have often been associated with either holy or infernal characteristics. In the former camp,
Le Duff places Sor Juana Ins de la Cruz, who entered into holy orders, in her words, in
order to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study.4 As has
already been mentioned in this essay, the seventeenth-century offered little chance for
women to gain independence outside of marriage, because that was what was deemed
their duty to society. However, in Catholic Europe, and Spanish-governed Mexico in this
case, becoming a nun offered an escape to girls, as they were seen to be marrying God.
By promising to live a life of chastity, however, they were also seen as moving away from
true womanhood, to become some form of sexless other. As such, they were no longer
subject to the same rules which governed their non-cloistered peers, and were often able
to study as it was a way of growing closer to God. This provides evidence that perceptions

4 Merrim, Stephanie, "Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz: Mexican Poet And Scholar", Encyclopedia
Britannica, 2016 <> [accessed 23
April 2016].


of womens morals were manufactured to prevent women from causing social unrest,
since, if women were truly as weak as they are made to seem by patriarchal rhetoric, they
would still be unable to comprehend the logic, or produce any argument of their own,
making their studies fruitless. Instead, it supports the idea that women were perfectly
capable of the exact same level of thinking as men, since it was permitted or even
encouraged only in a situation where the woman had taken vows to remove herself entirely
from society, thereby reducing the chances that she could pose a threat to the established,
male-dominated, aura.
Women who chose to remain in the community and practise what they knew were also
subject to a form of de-sexing by society in order to separate them from other women and
allow their deviation from what was considered to be the correct way of life for their sex.
Le Duff points out how older women were allowed to display their knowledge because
they were past the age at which they could have children, and as such were no longer
useful women. Otherwise, she shows, women were ascribed witchlike qualities. Later, in
reference to Pierre Thuilliers comments about the new age of sorcery, she states that this
is not an example of women being kept from accessing knowledge and power, since
autant dhommes que de femmes furent condamns pour sorcellerie (p. 235) and
witchcraft suggests power. However, it would be nave to suggest that this would not have
worked at the time to impart fear into other women and therefore stop them from seeking
to demonstrate any learning which would socially be accorded to a man. This would be
effective on two levels: first of all, the vast majority of people in the societies with which Le


Duff is concerned were brought up to believe fully in Christian teachings; they would,
therefore, not wish to become like witches, since these were women who did not follow
Gods law. Instead, their power came by summoning demonic aid,5 and as such meant
that no practicer of these knowledgeable arts could hope to enter into Heaven. Additionally,
there was the much more immediate fear that, should one be accused of witchcraft, one
would almost certainly be executed, leading women to keep firmly to the roles deemed to
be morally correct by society.
Even when not being condemned as Devil-worshippers, Le Duff shows how the
language which has historically been used to speak about powerful, knowledgeable
women is constantly coded to portray them as undesirable, unmarriageable and generally
failing to uphold the norms expected of them by society. Caterina Sforza, for example, was
given the epithets of virago and prima-donna after she took over the role of mayor of her
town when her husband died. The former nickname, according to the Oxford English
Dictionary, originally developed as a term for a woman who displayed heroic qualities,
which is to say that she displayed qualities associated with masculinity. This definition
shows again the notion that a woman who sought knowledge was trying to emulate men
who were naturally her social and biological superiors. The other definition provided by the
same source is that of a woman who is cruel and violent, predominantly towards men. As
Jacob Burckhardt points out, the word has come to have positive connotations of female

5 Cole, Michael, "The Demonic Arts and the Origin of the Medium", The Art Bulletin, 84:4 (2002),
621-640 p. 622.



strength, but this was not the case during the early modern period. By associating such a
negative term with a woman who took full advantage of her access to knowledge, it will
have helped to discourage women from seeking the same path, for fear of being labelled in
a similar way. This is clearly shown to be another example of the way patriarchal values
have created a notion of female morality which precludes their access to knowledge in
order to prevent them from seeking power, however this time it is women who are the
enforcers of this value. It was almost impossible for any women who does not wish to
entirely risk social ostracisation to display any knowledge of academic interest, and almost
certainly the need to appear to subscribe entirely to patriarchal ideas of a womans place in
society would have encouraged some women to actively present themselves as disdainful
of any woman who did follow this unorthodox path, which obviously could function only to
compound the issue.

With the social milieu that has been demonstrated throughout this essay thus far, it
would seem as though the presence of strong female rulers would completely disprove the
entirety of patriarchal rhetoric regarding female morality, especially in the case of those like
Queen Elizabeth I who, as head of both a powerful country and of the newly-formed
Church of England, certainly had both the education and moral capabilities to govern over
a flourishing state. However, it is important to remember that at this time, the Divine Right
of Kings positioned Elizabeth as some form of demigod, an act which simultaneously
permitted her to maintain power over men (since it was clearly Gods will that she should



be queen) and made the idea of being ruled over by a woman more palatable for men,
because her holy status would have acted as a means of separating the monarch from her
sex, or at least from all others of her sex. David Norbrook shows how education even
helped to further this separation from other, lesser women in his essay in the Australian
Journal of French Studies. This can therefore be taken as evidence that patriarchal views
on the moral capacities of women were so rigid and pervasive during the early modern
period that, in order to satisfy the contradiction that a womans reign posed, she must be
made into an exception. This, perhaps more than any other instance in Le Sexe du savoir,
seems intended to lead the reader to the conclusion that feminine morality as a limiting
concept is a fabrication in order to retain the developed social order in which men have all
the political, intellectual and administrative power in almost all aspects of life. As
throughout Le Duffs work, her postmodernist approach to philosophy means she does
not explicitly state these points, but the audience is left free to infer them, or not, when they
engage with the text.
Also in favour of the argument that these supposed truths about female morality are
created in order to prevent women from gaining an education which might allow them to
see the injustice of their lot in society and to fight against it is the nature of Elizabeths
education (and almost certainly that of the vast majority of female rulers at this time.) The
tutoring received by the princess is well documented, which makes it possible to see that,
although her first tutors were women, she went to share the education of Edward I, who
was taught almost exclusively by distinguished men. Through this, she was most likely



taught the patriarchal values that women were, by Gods law, supposed to subjugate
themselves to men. So, even in her extensive education, her learning was censored to
ensure that she internalised patriarchal values, a theory which is strengthened in the
famous quotation from her speech to the troops at Tilbury, where she said I know I have
the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king,6
suggesting she wished to display that she was not incompetent in the matter of governing,
as would be any other woman. Moreover, this theory is proven, as Le Sexe du savoir
shows, in Elizabeths response to the separation of university education and the Catholic
church, wherein she states that, although there will no longer be a tradition of monasticism
within the institution, it should still be forbidden for any woman to live or study there,
because it was not their place and they could only cause a disturbance.

In conclusion, Le Duffs postmodernist approach of avoiding explicit statements in

order to draw the reader into the discussion means that it is not possible to draw a decisive
answer from Le Sexe du savoir as to whether the author believes that patriarchal
perceptions of female morality during the early modern period were navely drawn from
biblical commandments, and are perpetuated entirely without ill will from those at the top of
society (that is to say, men), or if they were developed in symbiosis with the rise of a maledominated society, in order to protect the privileged position of men by stopping women

6 Elizabeths Tilbury speech, July 1588, The British Library, 2016

<> [accessed 28 April 2016].



from accessing knowledge which might allow them to understand the extent to which they
are oppressed, and the arbitrary nature of their oppression. However, even when she is
making a point regarding the supposed biological and religious facts which cause these
ideas of moral weakness to arise, she addresses them from a modern, irreligious
viewpoint, leaving the reader to infer that these rules were upheld, and to an extent
continue to be upheld, purely in order to allow men to keep their power by ensuring all
women are either ignorant of it or so far removed from the social group which consists of
the majority of women (be that removal physical, as has been seen in the case of nuns and
the execution of witches, or by virtue of a poor reputation among other women) that they
have no influence over the thinking of the masses. It seems most likely that the truest
interpretation of Le Duffs portrayal of the relationship between views on feminist moral
capabilities and how women during the early modern period were able to access formal,
academic knowledge lies in a compromise between these two values. That is to say that it
is indeed true that biblical statements on power and womens exclusion from it were the
source of individual mens feelings of entitlement, and therefore their belief that there was
no point in giving women any sort of education past what would allow them to serve the
household, however from the point of view of maintaining the structure of the very concept
of patriarchy, the idea that women are biologically incapable of reason and therefore do not
have moral strength is one which was created purely as a means of keeping women in
their place and keeping society calm. It is also important to remember that, regardless of
whether or not one is a Christian, the words of the Bible were written down by men, and as



such are also subject to the same tendency to favour patriarchal values rather than
egalitarian ones. So, careful analysis of Le Sexe du savoir can lead one to the conclusion
that patriarchal perceptions of female morality are entirely fabricated in order to refuse
women access to knowledge, however this does not mean that men themselves
necessarily realise that this is an arbitrary system which advantages them greatly
(however, by pointing out the unfounded claims made by learned men such as Hegel and
Spinoza, Le Duff does make it patently clear that some men are wilfully complicit), nor
that men are the only members of society who perpetuate the ideas. In short, this is a
system of oppression from which no individual member of society can hope to escape,
unless every other citizen also comes to the same conclusion and rises up against it in a
cohesive manner.

4,110 words




1. Cole, Michael, "The Demonic Arts and the Origin of the Medium", The Art Bulletin,
84:4 (2002), 621-640
2. Fallaize, Elizabeth, The Pleasure of Dialogue in Le Sexe du savoir, Australian
Journal of French Studies, 40.3, (2003), 309-315
3. Gert, Bernard and Joshua Gert, The Definition Of Morality, Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy, 2002 <>
4. La Caze, Marguerite, Michle Le Duff and the Work of Philosophy, Australian
Journal of French Studies, 40.3, (2003), 244-256
5. Le Duff, Michle, Le Sexe du savoir (Paris: Flammarion, 1998)
6. Merrim, Stephanie, "Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz: Mexican Poet And Scholar",
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016 <>
7. Norbrook, David, Autonomy and the Republic of Letters: Michle Le Duff, Anna
Maria van Schurman and the History of Women Intellectuals, Australian Journal of
French Studies, 40:3, (2003), 275-287
8. Elizabeths Tilbury speech, July 1588, The British Library, 2016
1. The Holy Bible: King James Version, Containing the Old Testament and the New

(London: Ramboro, 1994)