Montaigne Was a Feminist

In his essay “On Some Versus of Virgil” Montaigne seems to be ahead of his times when it comes to the rights of women. While he remains a product of his times, he writes that the difference between men and women, especially in regards to love and lust, is mostly a product of society. He turns to some old, dead men to back up his assertions.

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great. Plato invited both without discrimination to the fellowship of all studies, exercises, functions warlike and peaceful occupations, in his commonwealth. And the philosopher Antisthenes eliminated any distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other. It is the old saying: The pot calls the kettle black.”

Montaigne is thinking about love and sex in this essay and how people, mostly men, should manage their lives in regards to both. He is writing from the perspective of an old man, but does not advocate that people do not fall in love or avoid amorous affairs. He does counsel caution, however.

“Philosophy does not strive against natural pleases, provided that measure goes with them; she preaches moderation in them, not flight. The power of her resistance is employed against alien and bastard pleasures. She says that the appetites of the body are not to be augmented by the mind, and warns us ingeniously no to try to arouse our hunger by satiety, not to stuff instead of filling the bells, to avoid all enjoyment that brings us want and all meat and drink that makes us thirsty and hungry; as, in the service of love, she orders us to take an object that simply satisfies the body’s need, that doe snot stir the soul, which should not make this its business, but simply follow and assist the body.”

If that advice were followed, probably half the sites on the Internet would disappear, but I digress.

Montaigne gives additional evidence that men and women are alike in this area, but at the same time very different in their capacities.

“[Women] can allege, as we can, the inclination to variety and novelty which is common to us both; and allege, secondly, as we cannot, that they buy a cat in a bag (Joanna, queen of Naples, had Andreasso, her first husband, strangled at the bars of her window with a gold and silk cord woven by her own hand, when in matrimonial duties she found that neither his parts nor his efforts corresponded well enough with the expectations she had formed of them on seeing his build, his beauty, his youth, and agility, whereby she had bee caught and deceived); that action involved more effort than submission; and that consequently they are always able to satisfy out needs, whereas it may be otherwise when it is up to us to satisfy theirs.”

Montaigne does counsel modesty and and discretion to people, at the very least. Again, his guide is that things should be handled with measure. Despite his willingness to admit that both sexes are the same, he does acknowledge multiple differences. This one may be my favorite.

Here Montaigne is talking about how people teach their children things and how morality and good behavior gets taught. This passage refers to a lesson his daughter is being given.

“She was reading a French book in my presence. The word fouteau occurred, the name of a familiar tree [beech]. The woman she has to train her stopped her short somewhat roughly and made her skip over that perilous passage. I let her go ahead in order not to disturb their rules, for I do not involve myself at all in directing her: the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding; we must leave it to them. But if I am not mistaken, the company of twenty lackeys could not have imprinted in her imagination in six months the understand and use and all the consequences of the sound of those wicked syllables as did this good old woman by her reprimand and interdict…”

This reminds me of two stories I have heard in my own life. One was from a friend who was at a party where a young child asked her parents if someone needed to be married to have a baby. The mother apparently froze, trying to figure out how to handle this question. The father said, “No, but it is usually better if babies have both a mommy and daddy around.” The child said okay and went back to play. It was a simple answer that didn’t over comp0licate things or open up a discussion that the little girl wasn’t really interested in and would not have answered her question. And the parents got to give a truthful answer and share their values on the whole thing, so all worked out well.

The second thing this reminds me of is the idea that “the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding.” More than once in my life, I have seen interactions between women that make no sense to me. Social media makes it all the more puzzling because you can see the “government” proceeding and it looks all the more mysterious. Montaigne at least lets me know that that I am not alone in my occasional befuddlement. And really, isn’t that the point of a great book?


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