Marie Le Jars de Gournay (1565-1646) was a minor aristocrat from Sancerre in central France who became a leading scholar and writer of her time, and an important advocate of women’s liberty through her scholarly career against the dismissive attitude of powerful men of the time, and through her writing in favour of equality between men and women. She was a friend of Michel de Montaigne, one of the great historical advocates of liberty if in a rather enigmatic manner, and he even treated her as an adoptive daughter. After the death of Montaigne, she lived on the Montaigne estate as a guest of the family, while preparing the third edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a contribution to the history of thought and thinking about liberty in itself.
Gournay’s work in the transmission of Montaigne’s thought is though just one episode in a life of writing covering translations of the classics, literary compositions, and essays. Two essays in particular mark important moments in the case for liberty to apply equally between the two sexes: The Ladies’ Complaint and Equality of Men and Women. In these brief, but rich texts, Gournay argues that there can be no liberty, where goods are denied, so since women have been deprived of the goods of equal esteem, there is no liberty.
She points to the frequency and intensity of denial of equal esteem to women and contests it through the examples in which women have been esteemed, or we can see that women have performed great deeds on a level with great men. The argument is very much that of a Renaissance Humanist, that is someone educated in the languages, history, and literature of antiquity, as great expressions of human spirit and with the assumption that these are the greatest expressions of human spirit. Greatness of literary, intellectual, and statecraft in modern languages, modern thought, and modern states, is possible where continuing from the classical tradition. Since the emphasis is on pagan classical antiquity, the Humanists to some degree placed humanity above Christian theological tradition, though some Christians were also Humanists and secular Humanist achievements to some degree interacted with scholarship of the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible, along with the Greek and Latin used by church thinkers.
Gourany’s concerns are largely secular but she does deal with the place of women in the Bible. For the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) She points out that if the Queen of Sheba (often thought to refer to an ancient queen of Yemen, or possibly Sudan) visited King Solomon, because she knew of his great wisdom then she too must have had an interest in wisdom, and had some high level of scholarship, learning, and intellectual work herself.
With regard to the New Testament, she comments on St Paul’s injunction in his Epistles that women be silent in church and not take the role of priest. Gournay argues that Paul was not writing out of contempt for women, but fear that men would be distracted and tempted by women speaking out in church serves whereto as part of the congregation or as priests. The limitation on the role of women is not therefore based on beliefs about the supposed inferiority of women, but control of male desire.
On the role of women in the Bible, Gournay argues that in general we should not argue that it supports an inferior role for women, given that God created both men and women in the beginning, and given that men are commanded to leave their parents in order to find a wife. The connection between man and woman, and the idea that a man’s life is completed by association with a woman, is the main message of Christian scripture for Gournay.
Looking at the more secular aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, Gournay deals with philosophical and with historical concerns. On the philosophical side she notes the importance that Plato gives to the priestess Diotima (unknown outside Plato’s writings) in his dialogue The Symposium, which appears to recount conversations about love in a dinner and drinking party in Athens attended by some of the leading people of the time.
Plato shows Socrates presenting the views of Diotima as the correct ones on love, and Socrates, the teacher of Plato, always appears in Plato’s dialogues as a representative of truth. So Gournay points out, it must be conceded that Plato claims that his ideas, and those of Socrates, are in some degree dependent on the thought of women of their time. In that case, Aristotle made himself absurd when he claimed that women were defective and inferior, since he was the student of Plato and therefore was in some way formed by ideas that Plato said came from Diotima.
Plato’s student Aristotle may have claimed women were inferior by nature to men, but Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates regarded women and men as equal in virtue. Gournay also refers to the tradition according to which Aspasia, female companion of the Athenian democratic leader Pericles (admired by Plato and Aristotle though they did not share his democratic principles) was a scholar and thinker of the time. There is a lack of contemporary sources confirming this view, but this applies to much about the antique world, so Gournay’s suggestions about Aspasia are just as strongly founded as many claims about antiquity, and the investigation of tradition is itself an important part of any kind of intellectual history.
Moving onto Roman historiography, Gournay points out the role take by women in the tribes of Germany and Gaul, according to Tacitus. Women serve as judges of dispute and as battlefield participants inciting male warriors to fight fiercely. So she can point to a revered classic source, which suggests that women had roles in ancient France and Germany denied to them in those countries in early modern times. In general, as she points out, the antiques often referred to a tribe of female warriors, known as Amazons, which may have some historical origin in Scythian tribes from north of the Black Sea.
Gournay uses her formidable Humanist learning to demonstrate the ways in which equality between men and women had been recognised in the ancient past, on some occasions in some places at least. Showing that women have been recognised as equal to men in some contexts is evidence that the lower status of women in many societies is a result of socially embedded prejudices rather than any difference in abilities. As Gournay notes, rectifying denial of rights to women is part of the basis for real enduring liberty.