Renaissance and Reformation Poulain de la Barre, Francois
Martina Reuter, Tuomas Parsio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0508


François Poulain (or Poullain) de la Barre (b. 1648–d. 1723) was born in Paris to wealthy Catholic parents. He earned his bachelor’s degree in theology at Sorbonne in 1666, but left university to explore a secular career as a writer. He returned to theology and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1679, after which he served as a curate in Picardy, an area with a large Protestant population. Poulain underwent two major conversions during his lifetime: from the Scholasticism of Sorbonne to Cartesian philosophy in the 1660s and from Catholicism to Protestantism in the 1680s. The latter conversion made him resettle in Geneva, where he had a family and a teaching career. Poulain is best known for his three treatises on women and equality, On the Equality of the Two Sexes (1673), On the Education of Ladies (1674), and On the Excellence of Men (1675), but it is fair to say that all his writings were guided by some practical aim. He wanted to bring about equality between the sexes, but also to advocate a new Cartesian approach to philosophy, to give advice on language use, and to defend rational theology in the tense times of religious persecution and upheaval created by rivalling denominations of Christianity. Poulain’s thought was deeply influenced by Descartes’ methods of doubt and scientific reasoning, by his criticism of prejudice and Scholastic science, and by his distinction between mind and body and his mechanistic concept of body. Still, like many Cartesians, Poulain was an undogmatic follower of Descartes, and he considerably extended the realm of Cartesian philosophy by applying Descartes’ methodological insights to social and political issues such as the subjugation of women. Poulain also revised Descartes’ philosophical method by advocating a turn from solitary meditation toward joint conversations. Scholarship on Poulain has focused on him as a Cartesian philosopher and early defender of the equality of the sexes. Many studies combine these topics and examine his writings as articulations of early modern Cartesian feminism. There is also a small but vital number of scholars publishing mostly in French on Poulain’s writings about language and theology. Though writing before the times of explicit demands for women’s political rights and well before the coinage of the term feminism, Poulain deserves the title of feminist in the sense that he developed a detailed analysis of many different aspects of the subjugation of women by male power.

General Overviews

There are few monographs on Poulain de la Barre and his thought. The doctoral dissertation Stock 1961 is a first attempt to collect the scattered evidence concerning his life and works. Alcover 1981 pursues Poulain studies with a volume containing archival analysis and materials on Poulain’s life and writings, as well as studies of the various branches of his thinking. Stuurman 2004 is to date the most detailed study of Poulain’s thought and its contexts. Pellegrin 2011, Clarke 1990, and Welch 2002 are thoroughly researched introductions to the major critical edition and the English translations of Poulain’s feminist works. Reuter 2019 is a comprehensive introduction to Poulain’s philosophy and Pellegrin 2019 gives an overview of Poulain’s role as part of 17th-century Cartesian feminism.

  • Alcover, Madeleine. Poullain de la Barre: Une aventure philosophique. Paris: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature/Biblio 17, 1981.

    A pioneering study that critically revises and significantly complements earlier interpretations of Poulain’s thought. Besides feminism and Cartesianism, it closely examines Poulain’s rationalist theological ideas and his contractualist political thought. The volume also provides an overview of the archival materials relevant for retracing Poulain’s family history as well as the reception, influence, and circulation of his writings in his times.

  • Clarke, Desmond M. “Introduction.” In The Equality of the Sexes. Translated and edited by Desmond M. Clarke, 1–53. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990.

    This introduction is one of the earliest detailed presentations of Poulain’s thought in English. It discusses his writings in relation to both Cartesian philosophy and the querelle des femmes tradition and shows that his Cartesianism and his feminism are strongly interdependent. Clarke importantly shows how Poulain follows Descartes’ hypothetical approach to empirical science in constructing his historical hypothesis concerning the subjugation of women.

  • Pellegrin, Marie-Frédérique. “Poulain de la Barre: Un féminisme philosophique.” In De l’égalité des deux sexes, De l’éducation des dames, De l’excellence des dames. Edited by Marie-Frédérique Pellegrin, 11–48. Paris: J. Vrin, 2011.

    A historically detailed and analytical overview of Poulain’s position on gender equality as presented in his three feminist treatises. It examines Poulain’s reliance on Descartes’ philosophy and his opposition to the misogynistic medical theories of his time. It analyzes Poulain’s radicalism and takes a critical look at the place Poulain is accorded in, e.g., Jonathan Israel’s studies on radical enlightenment.

  • Pellegrin, Marie-Frédérique. “Cartesianism and Feminism.” Translated by Tad Schmaltz. In The Oxford Handbook of Descartes and Cartesianism. Edited by Steven Nadler, Tad M. Schmaltz, and Delphine Antoine-Mahut, 564–579. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198796909.013.35

    The chapter is a general introduction to Poulain’s thought considered as part of Descartes’ influence on 17th-century discourses on women.

  • Reuter, Martina. “François Poulain de la Barre.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Sanford University, 2019.

    A comprehensive overview of Poulain’s philosophy, which pays particular attention to his Cartesianism and conception of the equality of the sexes. The article combines a presentation of Poulain’s arguments with a critical examination of their validity.

  • Stock, Marie-Louise. “Poullain de la Barre: A Seventeenth-Century Feminist.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1961.

    This rare copy dissertation laid the foundation for scholarship on Poulain’s life and thought. It is still the standard work of reference concerning his biography, and retains the merit of presenting and discussing the corpus of Poulain’s writings in its entirety.

  • Stuurman, Siep. François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    The major monograph in English on Poulain’s thought and its intellectual context. The book is particularly strong on Poulain’s political thought, conjectural history, and theology. It also gives an apt overview of the political events that affected his life and thought in France and Geneva.

  • Welch, Marcelle M. “Introduction: Poullain de la Barre’s Cartesian Feminism.” In Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises. Edited by Marcelle M. Welch, 3–33. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226676555.003.0001

    The introduction to the English translation of Poulain’s three feminist works gives a balanced picture of his life and works. It is particularly strong in its critical discussion of Poulain’s intellectual context and the reception in his works.

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