A notable and noteworthy exception is Gabrielle Suchon. Without any support of this kind, Suchon found a way to research, write, and publish works of rich philosophical argument that received significant attention in her day. Suchon’s subject was the political and moral status of women. In her work, she advances arguments for why women ought to be allowed to live freely, exercise their powers of reason, and, crucially, decide their own fates. Suchon wrote what she knew; her texts are a defense of her own life, freely chosen.
Suchon’s much more famous compatriot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is well known for the opening line to his 1762 The Social Contract: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” Almost 70 years earlier, Suchon wrote that women are born free, but are everywhere in chains. Women are bound by the chains of marriage, motherhood, and the convent. They are bound by the chains of ignorance, due to their exclusion from institutions of learning. Suchon spends a great deal of time on diagnosing the oppressions visited upon women, but she also offers a pathway for women’s liberation. Suchon’s solution to the subordination of women was radical in her day and remains so in ours. She thought women who wanted to be free needed to build societies of their own making and live apart from men. On this model, women need to get rid of not only the chains, but also the blacksmiths.
Suchon’s philosophical career was her second act. We can better understand the roots of her ideas of women’s liberation once we consider the details of the first part of her life. As a teenager, she was placed in a convent by her parents. There she stayed for 25 years. From archival records, we know that on at least two occasions Suchon tried unsuccessfully to rescind her vows. At the age of forty-one, under circumstances that remain unclear, she left the convent and entered secular life.
We know next to nothing about her life thereafter, save for her entry in the 1745 literary encyclopedia Bibliothèque des auteurs de Bourgogne by abbé Philibert Papillon. Suchon, Papillon notes, was born in 1631 in Semur, to an upstanding and well-established family of the area. (Suchon’s baptismal record indicates that she was actually born in 1632.) He tells us that she was a cloistered nun in Semur. He notes that she escaped the convent, but that he does not know how. He tells us that she lived with her mother, “and died in Dijon on the 5th of March 1703.”
Without further archival records, which may still be uncovered, it is not possible to come to any definitive conclusion about Suchon’s extraction from the convent. We do know, however, that Suchon, firmly in middle age in the early 1670s, was not in a social or political position to make an autonomous decision about the direction of her life. She needed permission to leave the convent. After spending the first 40 years of her life under other people’s control, Suchon devoted the next 30 years of her life to writing about the wrongs associated with denying women their freedom.
Suchon leaves no question in readers’ minds about the objectives of her writing. Her first book, Treatise on Ethics and Politics, published in 1693, makes its aim immediately obvious with its subtitle: A Little Treatise on the Weakness, Frivolity, and Inconstancy, That Is Wrongly Attributed to Women. Suchon aims to show that the prejudices against “persons of the sex,” that is, women, which take them to be naturally weak, frivolous, and inconstant are just that: prejudices. These prejudices are used to defend decisions to block women from accessing knowledge, from occupying positions of authority, and from exercising their freedom.
The central claim that Suchon uses to drive her argumentation is that all human beings have a natural capacity for freedom, knowledge, and authority. And, because women are human beings, they have this natural capacity. Suchon grounds the claim about the natural capacity of human beings in God’s divine plan for his creation of the world. God created everything with a purpose, writes Suchon. God created human beings, which are rational creatures. So, rational creatures have a purpose, and that purpose is to pursue rational ends. Pursuing rational ends, Suchon continues, involves satisfying the innate desire for truth and goodness. This means that, as human beings, women have an innate desire to search for the true and the good. And, because this search is part of God’s plan, to prevent women from effectuating their search is to thwart God’s plan. Searching for the true and the good requires education, in her view, and so denying women entry into spaces of learning is, in effect, to oppose God. Suchon invites us to infer that women who are weak, frivolous, and inconstant have had their desire to seek the true and the good derailed, demeaned, or otherwise dampened. All women are born free.
That Suchon’s argument for the natural capacities of women is ultimately grounded in the divine plan for creation leaves little room for objection. Someone resistant to the idea of women’s natural capacity would need to claim that women are not rational beings, which would suggest that men and women are different kinds of humans. This would be a difficult position to defend. Yet evidence abounds of the subordination of women on precisely these sorts of grounds.
The opening lines to her Treatise on Ethics and Politics read:
It is not without reason that Plato, the divine philosopher, thanked the gods for making him a man, not a woman. The hardships and humiliations that persons of the sex endure are so numerous that to be free of them would be to enjoy singular good fortune. This commonplace truth has convinced everyone. Since there would therefore seem to be no need to write about this truth, I feel obliged to indicate the basic reasons for this treatise. I maintain that it is not enough to know in a vague way the affronts that women encounter every day, but that we must examine them in detail and divide them into different parts and articles.
The constraint, ignorance, and dependence in which persons of the sex spend their lives encompass all the hardships that make them inferior to men; for being denied freedom, knowledge, and authority, they do not partake of the greatest advantages we can gain from politics and ethics.
Women are everywhere in chains. One way to liberate women from the chains of constraint, ignorance, and dependence would be to convince men of these harms and encourage them to change the way that they treat women. Suchon might have argued that men should allow women into their schools, allow women to serve in politics and occupy positions of power in the Church, give women more authority in their families, and so on. This is not the direction she takes. Instead, she is explicit that her audience is women. She writes:
My sole intention in this entire treatise has been to inspire generosity and magnanimity in persons of the sex so that they can protect themselves against servile constraint, stupid ignorance, and base and degrading dependence.
Suchon wants to shake women from their dogmatic slumbers. Appealing to the most awesome and formidable group of women in the early modern imagination, Suchon offers this exhortation:
May heaven ensure that just as in the time of Alexander the Great when the Amazons appeared in Asia and in Europe, free, learned, and magnanimous women will appear on France’s stage in the reign of Louis the Great, Louis the August, Louis XIV, the marvel of kings, and rise up from the ignorance in which their sex has so deeply fallen.
She attempts to lay the groundwork for such an uprising of free, learned, and magnanimous women by offering her chronicle of the contemporary abuses women suffer and her arguments detailing why those abuses are not only unjustified, but immoral and unnatural. This is a feminist manifesto.
To be free, for Suchon, is to think and act in a way that is guided by reason. She takes knowledge and education to be required for such reason-guided action. Learnedness is thus required for freedom. But the sites of learning and education—schools, universities, libraries—are closed to women. When Suchon speaks of magnanimity in women, she means something like what we would today call the absence of internalized sexism. A magnanimous person, in Suchon’s view, does not depend on the opinion, will, or treatment of others for their own contentment. Their contentment is derived from knowledge of their own power and perfection. For Suchon, education and magnanimity are mutually reinforcing; the more we exercise the mind, the greater our confidence in our own power. The greater our confidence, the more learning we will attempt. But even if women were given the opportunity to access a school or a library, learnedness, magnanimity, and reason-guided action cannot give rise to a generation of seventeenth-century French Amazons if they are living under constraint.
Suchon expends a great deal of ink to delineate the harms associated with the particular constraints of heterosexual marriage and motherhood, and the life of the veil.
In marriage, writes Suchon, women’s “suffering surpasses anything we can imagine.” A bad husband means a situation that is “a painful and rigorous kind of purgatory in its own right, if not sheer hell.” Suchon makes note of the dictum from St. Paul that married people do not have power over their own bodies. While the dictum indicates that each party in a marriage has power over the other’s body, Suchon points out that this rule was “in truth, made for the first sex,” men, and leads to “extreme abuse” against which women have no defense except to “suffer with patience.” A situation of this sort, an evil for which there is no remedy, is one “for which death is the only solution.” At this time in France, wives were not permitted to seek divorce, a fact that Suchon laments.
In addition to the absence of bodily autonomy, wives experience the pain that comes from the obligation to seek their husband’s permission before they do anything. While a kind husband can attenuate the pain of such constraint, Suchon is careful to note that even a kind and tender master remains a master. No matter the temperament of a husband, a wife’s situation is one of dependence. The burdens of motherhood and household management only serve to augment a wife’s suffering by placing enormous demands on her time.
Suchon’s critique of the convent is more tempered than that of marriage, perhaps because she had firsthand experience of the variety of women who take that path. The primary evil that she sees in that vocation is that women are often forced into it. Living the cloistered life without having a true inclination for it is to be condemned to a life of intolerable constraint. But all who end up in the convent, whether called to that life or not, live under a kind of domination. They cannot act independently, that is, without seeking approval.
The dependence that comes from needing to seek permission or approval for executing one’s wishes is, for Suchon, an impediment to self-mastery. Neither the wife nor the nun can independently determine their own movements and interests. In such situations, the dominated person cannot follow the direction of their own minds and wills. Rather, the will of someone else becomes the rule by which they act and to which they must submit. No situation of this sort is conducive to being free. All the personality flaws that Suchon’s contemporaries identify in women—vanity, coquetry, silliness, etc.—are solved, in her view, by education. Women need to read, converse, travel, and then read some more. This will broaden their views, engage their minds, and show them the power of their capacity to reason. But life under constraint, life in chains, the hallmark of women’s condition, cannot support this sort of self-improvement and self-mastery.
Suchon is careful to say that both marriage and the cloistered life are holy and divine institutions. But how ought we think of women who are positively inclined to these institutions? Do they willingly cede their freedom and thus act contrary to their rational natures? Does Suchon think that they are to be pitied? She does not tell us. But the path she outlines for women’s freedom strongly suggests that it is the one and only way for women’s liberation. She calls it the celibate, or neutral, life.
If the Treatise on Ethics and Politics is a feminist manifesto, On the Celibate Life, Freely Chosen, published in 1700, is a handbook for how to live the liberated life. The neutral life is a life without commitments. For Suchon, the “neutralist” individual remains neutral with regard to any decision that would require them to remain in the same state or condition and perform the same duties across the course of their lives. The only commitment the neutralist makes is to remain absolutely “indifferent” to any permanent state. We can see very clearly how taking vows of marriage or religion, especially without the possibility of rescinding them, is antithetical to the neutral life. While Suchon does not go so far as to say that the neutral life is a holy and divine institution, just like marriage and the religious life, she insists that God destines some women to the neutral life, and gives them the inclination to pursue it. The neutralist’s lack of commitments allows her to read, pray, help her community, converse with friends, and write books to help teach others. Not being under the dominion of another person means that the neutralist is self-governing; she can make and manage her own money as well as decide how to live her life.
Given what we know about Suchon’s flight from her religious vows and the life she lived thereafter, it is hard to avoid thinking that her description of the neutral life is the one to which she herself is called.
Suchon is well aware that not all those who are called to the neutral life can live it in the same way. Some may live together in communities, some may be widows who live alone or with family, some may be too young to leave their parents’ control, and others, due to necessity, may work for a living and not be able to retreat from society. Suchon considers all these women neutralists, so long as they are resolute in their commitment to a life of indifference even if their circumstances make it impossible to retreat from society. The ideal, Suchon writes, is for neutralists to form voluntary societies away from religious and secular societies in order to have the space to pursue their ends. There is a precedent for these kinds of voluntary societies, Suchon notes, and we can see historical examples of such communities in France and other places throughout Europe.
While Suchon does not name them, it is likely she had in mind the Béguines, a twelfth-century medieval western European women’s movement aimed at spiritual autonomy. This movement saw hundreds of thousands of women within mainstream Catholic orthodoxy in northern France, Germany, and the Low Countries leave society to form their own communities. They remained spiritual but took no formal vows. In Suchon’s terms, they remained indifferent to the commitment of professing vows. And, like Suchon’s neutralists, they prioritized their independence, managing their own material and financial affairs, and performing acts of charity and service. The Béguines offer an empowering historical example for the kind of life that Suchon envisions for the neutralist. We can imagine her thinking something like: We’ve done it before. Why can’t we do it again? Perhaps she sees the Béguines as operating according to an ideology that shares at least some elements in common with how the Amazons were imagined to run their societies. But while the story of the Béguines is inspiring, the threat that such an independent community of women posed to male-dominated social structures proved too great. Though initially tolerated by the Church, the Béguines were eventually charged with the “free spirit” heresy in 1311. The Church and the crown were equally concerned about a large group of women over whom they had no formal control. Their communities were ordered dissolved on the heels of the charge.
Rebecca M. Wilkin, a professor of French at Pacific Lutheran University, asks: “What could possibly pose a graver threat to the social order than an utterly unsubjected subject?” While she refers here to Suchon’s neutralist, the rhetorical question applies equally to the Béguines. Wilkin’s question reminds us of the immense obstacles that face Suchon and anyone who wishes to escape the set of paths prescribed to them. Those who benefit from the status quo, Suchon reminds us, will never agree to remedy the situation of someone whose subordination is essential to that status quo. To stay in business, blacksmiths need a market for the chains they forge. The Béguines were able to live apart for about 200 years before being forced to return to their prescribed paths. This must have given Suchon hope. But she would surely be dismayed to see that today, more than 300 years after she drafted a road map for women’s freedom, significant obstacles continue to make it difficult for women and other marginalized and vulnerable people to live the lives they choose for themselves.
When her first book appeared in print, Suchon was sixty-one years old. She published On the Celibate Life when she was sixty-eight. She thus showed it’s never too late to live the life to which you are called. Writing both these books over eight years in her sixties would be an impressive feat. But the Paris booksellers guild indicates that Suchon was even more prolific during this period; she received permission to publish another three-volume treatise in 1699, entitled Treatise on the Excellence of the Vocation of Nuns. Unfortunately, we currently have no evidence that it was ever in print. Further archival research, one hopes, will yield a manuscript.
Véronique Desnain, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, has proposed that the missing treatise suggests an arc for Suchon’s philosophical narrative. The Treatise on Ethics and Politics chronicles women’s natural capacities and the harms associated with not allowing those capacities to be exercised. This text demonstrates the innate freedom of women and the socially constructed chains that bind them. The Treatise on the Excellence of the Vocation of Nuns may have been a demonstration of the virtues of the cloistered life for those who were called to it. Such a treatise would shed much needed light on how Suchon understands the inclination to religious life and its obvious tensions with the conditions she identifies for freedom. And, finally, On the Celibate Life offers a defense of and a guide to the neutral life, a life that is not only a legitimate alternative to the secular or religious life, but also the only one, it seems, that leads to freedom. This text tells us how to break the chains and escape the systems that benefit from narrowly circumscribing the lives of women.
The history of feminism is political and cultural history. Changes in politics and culture tend to be slow-moving. Suchon’s vision of an uprising of free women in the era of the Sun King did not come to pass. But her ideas remain living through her books, which can and should populate the libraries of political and cultural history. Suchon’s work may yet seed an Amazon revival.