The “woman question” or querelle des femmes was a widespread European debate on the subject of the value and morality of womankind. It began in the mid-1400’s, with Christine de Pisan’s La cité des dames, and continued throughout the Renaissance and the 18th century.1 On one side of the querelle was the idea that women were lesser than and subordinate to men due to numerous inherent moral and spiritual defects, foremost among them a tendency toward sexual abandon; this determined that the greatest virtue of woman was chastity.2 Opposing this establishment was the idea that, though virtue was still a gendered, divided concept, women were as inherently good and valuable as men, with no particularly depraved tendencies.3 A unified concept of virtue is not usually discussed by fiction works during the querelle—these instead dealt with the question of whether or not women had value, and were nowhere near calling the values of men and women not only equal but identical.

Thus, during the early period of the querelle des femmes, women who wrote vindications of their gender would simply defend the idea of feminine virtue according to the highest standards of the time: they would portray paragons of incorruptible chastity (often assailed by gross instances of sexual depravity in the male sex), and treat these as examples for women to follow and as counterexamples to the assertion that women were uniformly immoral. But as the querelle progressed, the concept of female virtue did begin to expand, at least in texts sympathetic to women. Most male virtues—strength, courage etc—were then so strongly associated with men that characterizing them as female would probably have been unthinkable. Nevertheless, one male-associated virtue did eventually become associated with women as the querelle continued: that of intelligence. Many writers of the querelle saw that they as women truly shared in this male-associated virtue; indeed some of them felt that they possessed it to a greater degree than many men. At first, intelligence would simply accompany chaste virtue as an ancillary quality, but by the early 19th century, it had become a significant enough virtue that in fiction at least, it could sometimes independently function as a virtue: that is, even without being accompanied by the old virtue of chastity, it could render a heroine sympathetic and admirable.

Cleverness: Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron

The association of intelligence or cleverness with virtuous or admirable women had begun as early in the querelle as 1558 4, with Marguerite de Navarre’s collection of short stories now called the Heptameron. Many of the stories, such as Story 2, Day 1 (“The Mule-Driver’s Wife”) and Story 2, Day 3 (“Sister Marie and the Prior”) are simple examples of feminine virtue as chastity, but several stories present this virtue in combination with wit. At this point it is still quite early in the querelle, too early for any reshaping of the feminine ideal. Accordingly, Mme. de Navarre seems to view intelligence as more of an asset than a virtue, providing a woman with two advantages: the ability to defend her own chastity, and to avenge herself of wrongs done her. Story 5, Day 1 is an example of the first: a poor boatwoman “as virtuous as she was clever” outwits two lecherous friars, leaving them stranded on different small islands in the middle of the river. They entreat her not to thus put them to shame. “I should be doubly foolish if, after escaping out of your hands, I were to put myself into them again," she replies. “Wait now, sirs, till the angel of God comes to console you; for you shall have nought that could please you from me to-day.”5 Her cleverness, which the male narrator-character makes certain to point out as one of her good qualities, allows her to singlehandedly preserve her chastity. This conventional view of feminine virtue is made progressive by the heroine’s intelligence. Most virtuous female characters would have either had to rely on the protection of men, or have suffered the fate of the mule-driver’s wife: death rather than disgrace. The boatwoman’s intelligence gives her power.

The second advantage of intelligence has a much more shocking example: that of Story 8, Day 1. In this tale, the “upright and virtuous wife” of a man named Bornet learns that her husband and his friend are sharing a plot to sleep with her maid-servant. Rather than simply prevent this from happening, the wife substitutes herself for the servant, “not in the manner of a wife, but after the fashion of a frightened maid. This she did so well that her husband suspected nothing.”6 When the friend’s turn comes, he takes her ring as a keepsake, and the ring alerts the husband to the deception. The cuckoldry is considered just recompense for his wrongs, while the (adulterous!) wife is still considered virtuous enough to give her husband a lofty lecture on marital faithfulness. Here, the wife’s cleverness gives her astonishing power over her husband, and because she uses it to avenge his straying eye, it renders her own actions blameless. Surely, without the supplementary virtue of intelligence, this wife would not have any virtue left at all according to the standards of the time. Intelligence may not yet be enough of a virtue to create a virtuous woman in the world of the Heptameron, but like a virtue it already covers a multitude of sins.

The fact that these tales and those like them are intermixed with less pro-woman stories of vulgar or stupid women does not render them any less of a defense of women’s virtue and intelligence; rather, it is only a consequence of Mme. de Navarre’s intention to create a wholly realistic environment. In order to depict the diverse group of storytellers recounting their various views on “the ill-turns which have been done by Women to Men and by Men to Women,” she had to give both sides equal voice, as would only be natural in a two-sided exchange. The presence of the stories praising intelligence in women remains significant and a mark of progress.

But although these heroines’ intelligence is undoubtedly a benefit to them and an estimable attribute of their characters, it does not afford them the full dignity of a true virtue. It enables escape by deception and revenge by trickery; it serves as a plot device; it provides humor. It is wit or cleverness, rather than wisdom or genius; and unlike chastity, it is not sacred or worth dying for. Intelligence as a genuine virtue would have to wait for later works of the querelle des femmes.

Wisdom: Giulia Bigolina's Urania

Giulia Bigolina’s 1555 romance Urania has a different approach to intelligence as a virtue for women. Urania, the chaste and virtuous protagonist, is frequently referred to as having intelligence as one of her many virtues: “Aside from being properly learned in the vernacular and having the Muses for friends both in prose and poetry, she was adorned with such a noble soul that rather than seeing a single vice come out of such a beautiful soul she would have chosen to die a thousand deaths.”7 But Urania’s style of intellect is very different from that of the Heptameron heroines; she prefers cerebral argument and direct address to clever trickery. After her lover, Fabio, betrays her for a more beautiful woman, she writes him a letter saying, “Reasoning with you as a man of virtue and not of the vulgar herd…I say that you should be pleased incomparably more with the beauty of my soul than with the beauty of any woman less virtuous than me. The evidence for my saying this will be made manifest to you by a subtle argument.”8 Over the next few pages, she explains to him that the eyes are but one way that a lover takes pleasure in his beloved, and that the poems, letters, songs, and conversations that have passed between them should have revealed to him manifold additional beauties unique to Urania’s “beautiful soul”. These beauties can be pondered and enjoyed with accuracy even in the absence of the original, unlike the memory of image which tends to distort in absence and then disappoint in presence. Urania’s argument is full of logic, associated with men; but it retains a distinct feminine tone according to the ideas of its time because of its tender style and its constant appeals to her virtue (chastity) and faithfulness as supreme merits.

Urania’s feminine intelligence plays out in her actions as well. With her chaste love of Fabio always foremost in mind, she finds solutions to every problem placed in her path: when her sadness over his infidelity compels her to leave her home in Salerno and wander throughout Italy, she is not thwarted by the then improper nature of traveling as an unaccompanied woman; she puts on men’s clothing and sets out. When Fabio’s life depends on her kissing the “wild woman” after her return, she makes a careful plot that ensures her success. She is logical, resourceful and inventive in a serene and quiet way that solemnizes her cleverness into something much more like a virtue: wisdom.

Nonetheless, Urania’s wisdom is not an independent virtue: it is always motivated and accompanied by more conventional feminine virtues. Her logical acumen is without fail employed in the defense or advertisement of her chastity and beautifully virtuous soul (or, by extension, in the defense of the concept of feminine virtue itself, as in the argument with the young noblemen, pp. 107-119). Her practical ingenuity is always a part of her single-minded quest to regain Fabio’s love. Urania’s wisdom is indeed a virtue, but alone it cannot crown her with glory or make her an awe-inspiring exemplar of femininity. That can only be accomplished by her chastity. Although Urania presents feminine intelligence as a part of feminine virtue, it does not present it as a virtue in its own right; Urania’s status as a model of virtue derives more from her constancy, faithfulness and purity than from her resourceful wisdom.

Genius as Heroic Virtue: María de Zayas's Desengaños amorosos

1647 saw the publication of María de Zayas’s Desengaños amorosos (Disenchantments of Love). In this novel (like the Heptameron, a collection of stories framed by narrators), a group of noblewomen gather in the evenings for conversation and entertainment: Lisis, the hostess; her mother Laura; cousins Lisarda and doña Estefanía; best friends Nise, Filis, and Matilde; and neighbors, doña Luisa and doña Francisca.9 The women decide to exchange true stories or “disenchantments” of unhappy love. (Some men are also present, but they are not allowed to present tales). The first story is that of Zelima, Lisis’s Moorish slave whom she treats as a “loving sister”10. Zelima reveals that her true name is doña Isabel Fajardo, and that she is actually a Spanish Christian noblewoman in disguise as a slave. She came to that condition through the faithlessness and deceptions of her lover don Manuel, who had professed eternal love to her, then raped her and later may have convinced her to sleep with him willingly. In general, the only remedy to this kind of situation would be death or marriage; rape was then often seen as the fault of the victim (due to the pre-querelle view that women have unbridled sexual appetites). Zelima, both in love and in desperation to redeem the relationship through marriage, had followed him wherever he went, using the guise of a Moorish slave to provide herself with mobility. Not meeting with success but rather with numerous misfortunes, she found herself in Lisis’s service.11

Zelima is possessed of a genius for music, poetry, and improvisation; her poetry is included in the book at great length. She is aware of her own talent and is unashamed to declare this: “While I was gifted in everything, I was especially good at writing poetry. I became the wonder of the whole region and the envy of many who were not so accomplished in this exercise.”12 This genius is her most salient characteristic, perhaps after her beauty. It is her true virtue, fully capable of creating her a virtuous woman. It gives gravity and intensity to her personality, and so sanctifies her that she is as exalted and heroic as a saint. There is nothing of the “fallen woman” to her character at all. The story never expresses disapproval of her actions or implies that she has anything to atone for; only rage that don Manuel can have so wronged this near-goddess of beauty and art, so high above him in every way. Zelima finishes her story with a feeling of bitter disenchantment with all men, and presents her feelings to the other women so convincingly that the collection of stories ends with Lisis abandoning her plans for marriage and entering a convent with doña Estefanía and doña Isabel, where they can live independently of men and their wiles.13

Intelligence is fully sacralized in the Disenchantments of Love; it has all the dignity and weight of virtue. It also acts alone as an authentic virtue, glorifying Zelima enough to make the idea that she is not guilty or unchaste a plausible one. However, genius does not empower Zelima in the way that wisdom and cleverness empower Urania and the heroines of the Heptameron. Of course, virtues do not always empower, but Zelima’s intelligence causes her a curiously long list of misfortunes without bringing her any comforts. Chastity might at least provide a woman with a good reputation; Zelima does not even enjoy recognition for her skills and is a destitute slave for much of her tale. Zelima’s intelligence is not practical cleverness or serene wisdom (seen as commendable though not usual in women of the time), but true artistic genius, and the world she lives in is determined to see that as a masculine characteristic. In a woman, it is seen as bizarre and threatening.14 No matter what traditional road she might have taken in the world, there would have been nothing ahead but disenchantment—either the misery of an unhappy marriage, or the stifling of her gifts that would have resulted from starting a successful family, or the heartbreak of a faithless lover. Intelligence in the Disenchantments of Love is a virtue ahead of its time, one that the author and her characters recognize but which does not yet have a place in their world. Thus Zelima’s genius necessitates her withdrawal from that world, and like the charismatic personality that she is, she takes everyone she can along with her.

The Female Quixote: Charlotte Lennox's Argument for the Cultivation of Female Intelligence

Zelima’s genius defines her as an outlier—it is no more possible for every woman to be made virtuous by extraordinary intelligence than it is for every woman to be canonized as a saint. But she is nonetheless a pure example of “intelligence as feminine virtue” approaching the borders of plausibility. As this became less radical and more of a legitimate controversy, the question of women’s education—improving the intelligence of women— became more widely considered. This brings us to Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 novel The Female Quixote. Arabella, the heroine of the novel, is far from stupid, but is “wholly secluded from the World” and “has no other Conversation but that of a grave and melancholy Father, or her own Attendants.”15 In the library of the estate on which she is secluded, she finds a large collection of old historical and fantastic romances translated “very badly” from the original French, and having neither formal education of history nor experience of ordinary behavior in the world, takes the romances for “real Pictures of Life”. She reads these books obsessively from “her earliest Youth,” and begins to speak in a ridiculously elegant and literary diction, complete with references to all that she has read as though it is history and common knowledge to all. Her lack of interpersonal experience gives her no frame of reference for relating to people, so because of all the drama and turmoil she imports to everyday life, she assumes that every man who approaches her is about to make a rape attempt. In short, the effects of society and acceptable literature for women combine to make her completely ridiculous, through no fault of her own.

That last point is important to note. Arabella is not inherently ridiculous. The book is not an argument against women’s intelligence or ability to be dignified and rational. In fact, Arabella has a naturally quick, bright intellect (clear from her ability to master the complicated eloquence of her chosen style of speech). Without contact with native speakers, but only from lessons with her father, she becomes fluent in French and Italian. Despite having been isolated from the world all her life, she has great “Discernment”16 which allows her to perceive her cousin’s essentially good personality. Such accomplishments are astonishing, given her circumstances, and they point to the potential that was misdirected when she was isolated in a library of frivolous literature rather than given a proper education. “She would have made a great Proficiency in all useful Knowledge, had not her whole Time been taken up by another Study,”17 notes the author in the first chapter. As Arabella blunders through life as well as she can, her lack of experience and education very nearly becomes literally fatal. Arabella makes error after lamentable error, while the reader cringes at the undeniable evidence that if intelligence and education are desirable and virtuous in women, preventing them is a heinous, outrageous crime. The second-to-last chapter, which Lennox describes as “in the Author’s Opinion, the best Chapter in this History,” abandons illustrating this point with plot in favor of outright sermon. An unnamed “pious and learned Doctor” is called in to provide her with a sort of emergency education to put a stop to her ridiculous and dangerous errors. He presents Arabella with logical arguments against the historical veracity of her romances and argues that they are not only false but injurious; she, being naturally quite intelligent, attempts admirably well-considered rebuttals before acknowledging that her “Heart yields to the Force of Truth”.18 He recommends that she instead read morally didactic works such as those of Samuel Richardson.

Germaine de Stael: Towards Intelligence as a Defining Characteristic of the Virtuous Woman

Arabella’s intelligence and intuitive moral reasoning are presented as innate virtues stifled by her surroundings. In 1807, the Swiss author and pioneering literary theorist Germaine de Stael wrote Corinne, a novel in which intelligence in woman is allowed to flourish, and becomes the book’s premier distinguishing feature of feminine excellence. The principal character, Corinne, is similar to Zelima of the Disenchantments of Love in that she is a literary genius, but she could not be less like Zelima in that her gifts are recognized for what they are. As she is first introduced, she is being drawn in a chariot by four white horses, through crowds shouting “Long live Corinne! Long live genius! Long live beauty!”19 Chastity does not even enter this triumphant picture of woman embracing a previously masculine virtue and making it her own. Corinne is “someone whose mind is her only merit.”20 Corinne’s genius is separate from those old concepts of womanly virtue, but it too is a gendered virtue, a new paragon of a new feminine ideal. Perhaps in order to deliberately exclude old, Christian concepts of virtue from Corinne’s new perfection, de Stael keeps all comparative descriptions of Corinne to either the Classical era, or to secular modern ideas: “She gave the impression of a priestess of Apollo moving toward the Temple of the Sun, and at the same time of a perfectly ordinary woman in the daily relationships of life.”21 And again: “After Corinne was seated the Roman poets began to read the sonnets and odes they had written in her honor. All praised her to the skies, but their praises were not about her personally any more than about any other woman of superior genius. It was a pleasant combination of mythological allusions and images that could have been addressed throughout the ages, to every woman famous for her literary talent from Sappho’s time to ours.”22 These praises, linked to ordinary women, carefully maintain Corinne’s status as model and paragon, and prevent her genius from making her an inimitable outlier like Zelima. Corinne’s genius does not sanctify—there is no context of wrong that it must purify. It does not make her an inaccessible saint of the intellect—any woman may follow her example, any woman may strive to be a “woman of superior genius”.

That is the new ideal, but as the novel continues, it is not reached in daily life. Corinne herself is cast out and regarded as dead by her stepmother, who will not tolerate her devotion to the arts, and loses the love of her life to her younger sister Lucile, a woman who conforms completely to standards of chaste virtue: “Her name is as spotless as the first flowers of spring. We would have to make my name bloom again in England, where it has already crossed into the country of the dead.”23 Corinne’s defeat as the paragon of a new feminine virtue most likely is due to Germaine de Stael’s own similar experience. De Stael was a genius, a brilliant intellectual who thought of herself as such; but not only did her status as a woman cause her philosophical ideas to be discounted—her philosophical ideas also caused her status as a woman to be discounted.24 She invented the new virtue, and she tried to live by it, but in her life, it remained pure concept rather than reality: the world around her was still that world that forced the genius Zelima to live as a slave.

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman: From Gendered Virtue to Unified Virtue

From chastity defended by cleverness, to chastity augmented by wisdom, to pure but oppressed genius and misguided intellect, to a new and shining concept of feminine virtue of the mind—this is the path traced by these women’s prose works of the querelle des femmes. This is the very summit of the gender-divided concept of virtue, the highest and purest possible approach to morality one can take before reaching the idea in its pure, undivided form. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has a similar vision: “I wish to persuade women to acquire strength, both of mind and body,”25 she states. But unlike any female thinkers of the querelle to come before her, Wollstonecraft is actually beginning to argue for a definition of virtue based on pure philosophical ideas; a unified virtue equally valid when practiced by men and women.

In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women, and confidently assert that they have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavour to acquire masculine qualities. Still the regal homage which they receive is so intoxicating, that till the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain, by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality, if they wish to secure the placid satisfaction that unsophisticated affections impart.26

She called for an end to the mental frivolity and insularity of women that had caused the tragic ignorance parodied in The Female Quixote, an end to the shallow stereotypes for women that caused the intellect of Germaine de Stael to be rejected as masculine. She argued that it was only through education, through cultivation of the intelligence, that true and unified virtue could be brought to pass:

That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious, is, I think, not to be disputed; and, that the most salutary effects tending to improve mankind might be expected from a Revolution in female matters, appears, at least, with a face of probability, to rise out of the observation.27

The great fiction works of the querelle des femmes took the idea of virtue step by step along the path of intelligence, until Wollstonecraft at last saw a goal of pure and non-gendered virtue, virtue as it truly is and not as it has been used. It is through the particular elevation of the virtue of intelligence, that virtue that men and women have always shared, that a true undistorted idea of virtue can be understood and put into practice. An idea of virtue based not on chastity, not on physical strength, not on meek silence or vainglorious bluster—but a virtue based on quality of mind: on clear thinking, on inspiration, on originality, on reason and on nobler emotion; a virtue attainable by all and exclusive of none, a virtue that is human.

1 “Christine de Pisan was the first such feminist thinker, and the four-century-long debate that she sparked, known as the querelle des femmes, became the vehicle through which most early feminist thinking evolved.”—Kelly, Joan: “Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes, 1400-1789.” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 4-28 Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
2 “A social and ethical position holding that chastity was the most important virtue for women, and that rationality and chastity were incompatible, was a significant impediment to accepting women’s capacity for philosophical thought.” –Gibson, Joan: “The Logic of Chastity: Women, Sex, and the History of Philosophy in the Early Modern Period.” Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 4 (Fall 2006), p. 1.
3 “Most {pro-woman texts} argued that the sexes are equally capable of virtue but that male and female virtues are different.”—Benson, Pamela Joseph: The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works. Series III: Essential Works for the Study of Early Modern Women: Part 2, Volume 1: Texts from the Querelle, 1521—1615, p. xv. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.
4 And indeed earlier; Mme. de Navarre worked on the Heptameron until her death in 1549, and the unfinished work was circulated as a handwritten manuscript until it was first published in 1558.
5 De Navarre, Marguerite. Heptameron,vol. 1, trans. George Saintsbury. London: Society of English Bibliophilists, 1894. Accessed at Project Gutenberg, 01/11/2010. URL:
6 De Navarre, Marguerite. Heptameron, vol. 2, trans. George Saintsbury. London: Society of English Bibliophilists, 1894. Accessed at Project Gutenberg, 01/11/2010. URL:
7 Bigolina, Giulia: Urania, a romance. Trans. Valerie Finucci. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 85.
8 Ibid., p. 90.
9 De Zayas, María: The Disenchantments of Love: A Translation of the Desengaños Amorosos by H. Patsy Boyer. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997, p. 32.
10 Ibid., p. 37.
11 Ibid., pp. 43-81.
12 Ibid., p. 44.
13 Ibid., p. 404.
14 De Zayas recognized this about her own literary gift, and gave a protest in the voice of a character in the first “Frame Story,” as the transcriber of the evening’s tales: “The men were feeling quite unhappy because they’d been denied the privilege of telling a story and so expressing their thoughts…Just because I’m intelligent doesn’t mean that I, by being smart, take away from the intelligence God gave them, as if my writing this were a challenge rather than simple entertainment.” -Ibid., p. 39.
15 Lennox, Charlotte: The Female Quixote. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 7.
16 Ibid., p. 30.
17 Ibid., p. 7.
18 Ibid., p. 381.
19 De Stael, Germaine. An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Stael. Translated, selected and introduced by Vivian Folkenflik. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 251.
20 Ibid., p. 250.
21 Ibid., p. 252.
22 Ibid., p. 253.
23 Ibid., p. 290.
24 “Germaine de Stael…was an outsider in many respects. Because she was a woman, she was often treated as an alien by the writers and thinkers she learned from, criticized, and led…She was attacked, however, as unfeminine.” Ibid., p. 2 (from the introduction by Vivian Folkenflik).
25 The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Vol. 4, ed. April Alliston & David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003, p. 663.
26 Ibid., p. 664.
27 Ibid., p. 667.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.