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Paris at the time of Poulain de la Barre

de la Barre

François Poulain de la Barre (ca.1647–1723) was a French philosopher and teacher.

Born in Paris to an established bourgeois family, Poulain de la Barre received a traditional scholastic education and studied theology at the Sorbonne. In 1667, he was introduced to Descartes’s philosophy, which profoundly influenced his thought and his views on women. In spite of Poulain’s allegiance to the philosophy of Descartes, whose works were banned by the Catholic Church in 1663, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1679. In 1688, he abandoned the priesthood, converted to Calvinism, and moved to Geneva (the Edict of Nantes which granted religious freedom to Huguenots had been revoked in 1685). In 1690, he married Marie Ravier and devoted himself to teaching.

Poulain wrote three feminist treatises. His most famous work is De l’égalité des deux sexes: discours physique et moral où l’on voit l’importance de se défaire des préjugés [A Physical and Moral Discourse on the Equality of both Sexes, which shows that it is important to rid oneself of Prejudices] (1673). In this treatise, the author defends women’s intellectual capacities using Descartes’s method of doubt. In the following years, he also wrote De l’éducation des dames pour la conduite de l’esprit, dans les sciences et dans les moeurs: Entretiens [Conversations about the Education of Ladies, to guide the mind in the sciences and in morals] (1674), and De l’excellence des hommes, contre l’égalité des sexes [The Excellence of Men, against the Equality of the Sexes] (1675). As Desmond Clarke (2014) notes, the title of the third work is misleading since “it was in fact a reply to some of the standard arguments against gender equality.”

Although Poulain’s works, especially De l’égalité des deux sexes, were widely read in France by his contemporaries (such as Gabrielle Suchon, Madame de Pringy, Guyonnet de Vertron, Noël, the abbot Morvan de Bellegarde and Buffier), Clarke states that they generated relatively little interest until the 20th century. In England, on the other hand, Poulain’s ideas had a significant influence: De l’égalité des deux sexes was translated into English in 1677, and it was also plagiarized and loosely translated a number of times during the 18th and 19th century, thereby contributing to the debate on the status and worth of women.

Poulain de la Barre died in 1723, in Geneva.



Clarke, Desmond (2014), “François Poulain de la Barre,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Leduc, Guyonne (2010), Réécritures anglaises au XVIIIe siècle de l’Égalité des deux sexes (1673) de François Poulain de la Barre, Paris : L’Hamarttan.

Stuurman, Siep (1997), “Social Cartesianism: François Poulain de la Barre and the Origins of the Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 58, no. 4.