What I Am Reading: The Eighteenth Century Woman

I am currently reading The Eighteenth Century Woman by Olivier Bernier. It is a book that focuses on specific women who lived and made a difference in the world in the Eighteenth Century in Europe (at least, so far they are all in Europe and that seems to be the focus of his work).

The book is fascinating and the profiles so far are interesting and largely of women I did not know much (or anything) about. They often mention other women who were clearly influential in various ways as well, but whom (for whatever reason) are not fully profiled in the book. So while there are a very limited number of women discussed in depth, there are a great many more mentioned who are important as well. I like the biography style of the book and the women chosen are fascinating and varied.

I’m less convinced that being a woman in Eighteenth Century Europe was as wonderful as Bernier claims it was. He dismisses the inherent limitations of being female at a time when it meant not owning anything of your own or even being considered a legally competent person because a few women were able to transcend those limitations and carve out powerful positions for themselves. I don’t dispute that it was a time of changes and that there were a surprising number of women who got around the social limitations of being a woman, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of women weren’t hampered by their inability to make their own lives and decisions and money. His assertion that even poor women were able to choose who to share their beds and lives with also feels like it is missing some major truths. Poor women may not have had politics dictating who they slept with or married, but that doesn’t mean that they actually got to choose freely either.

The book is intriguing and the politics and social changes going on at the time are fascinating. There’s a definite focus on French women so far, but I don’t know if that will persist throughout the book or not. I’m intrigued to see what other women are profiled. I’m definitely enjoying the book, despite my thoughts on the “freedoms” Bernier claims all women at the time had.

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