Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Labor as an Answer to Women Vices: La Religieuse and the essay Sur les femmes by Denis Diderot

Bréban Laurie, PHARE, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

The paper deals with Diderot’s position regarding women’s morality such as expressed in his essay Sur les femmes (1772) as well as in his novel La Religieuse(1796). In the former, Diderot identifies a number of passions or instincts peculiar to women which, for most of them, correspond to vices: seduction, hysteria, jealousy, Machiavellianism ... These passions or instincts are the same than the ones which affect female characters in Diderot’s novel, La Religieuse. In La Religieuse, the author addresses the issue of forced monastic retreats. Whereas the novel undeniably contains a criticism of religious houses, it seems that they are not considered by Diderot as the cause of women’s vices since these vices also reach female characters outside the convent – for instance, Suzanne’s mother and sisters. It is then necessary to explore other explanations of the origin of the specificities that the author grants to women. If we consider commentators’ assessment, Diderot’s position on women may appear as contradictory. For instance, according to Fontenay (1981) , the author would waver between claims of similitude and claims of specificity of the two sexes, between subversive words on the identity of the two sexes and prejudices on women’s natural inferiority, which would render his position quite ambiguous. Indeed, in his essay Sur les femmes, he maintains that women have inferior mental and moral abilities due to physiological reasons, which seems to be the cause of their instincts. But at the same time, he laments about the phallocratic oppression to which they are prey. The paper aims at showing that, actually, what Diderot calls “men despotism” shouldn’t be regarded through contemporary feminist lenses: it is rather a type of relation which maintains women in a state of idleness whose main defect is that it prompts them to cultivate their vices. On the contrary, their emancipation through labor would put them in position to command their vicious instincts.


Keywords: Denis Diderot, Women, Labor, Religious house