In 1789, Keralio wrote Brissot the following letter:
Mademoiselle de Keralio is very satisfied by what [Monsieur Brissot de Warville] said today about the influence of women. It is very much part of Melle de Keralio’s principles that women should not make a great spectacle of themselves. […] A love of publicity is bad for modesty, from the loss of that comes a distaste for domestic work, and from idleness, principles are forgotten and from lack of morals arise all of public disorders.
What did Brissot write to Keralio to make her thank him for his ‘little lesson’ and assure him at length that she did not think women should do politics? Vicky Mistacco suggests that we can guess somewhat what he said from his published response to women’s presence in the Assembly where he describes the women who walked to Versailles as 'revolting' and their entering the Assembly to deliver the King as a religious transgression.
Brissot’s sexism was particularly insidious because he was a great supporter of individual women, an admirer of their work. He was close to Keralio, but also to Manon Roland, and had been very interested in Olympe de Gouges’ s work, promoting her play on slavery, and invited her to join his Society for the Friends of the Blacks. When such an ally also argues, politely, with restraint, that women should not do politics openly, then it is difficult not to listen.
We are often led to wonder why a person who is politically sound, and who is apparently unthreatened by strong and talented women, can turn out to hold sexist views. In most cases, we have no way of knowing. But Brissot, in the Memoirs he wrote in the prison de l’Abbaye (in the cell Manon Roland had just vacated, and where she’d begun her own Memoirs) gives us an insightful account of his own sexism. He describes his attitude to politically engaged women in 1782, when he was visiting Geneva. Because it is such a rare moment of clarity coming from someone who was sexist, I reproduce it entirely:
[…] politics seemed a heavy and boring science, unsuitable for a pretty woman. To please and to entertain was the great art that women were to learn their entire life. And if the philosophy I professed forced them to take up other studies, it was of the virtues that could render a wife or a mother’s company useful and pleasant for her spouse and children. In a word, a woman given to politics seemed to me a monster, or at least, a new kind of ‘precieuse ridicule’.”
So Brissot tells us that his views were absurd – he might have said they were also harmful, dangerous, even. And he attributes them to a weaker commitment to the truth than was needed, but also to his fashionable love for Rousseau – either way, he was carried by the whirlwind of prejudice.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.