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Gender and norms in Enlightenment Europe

Genres et normes dans l’Europe des Lumières

Revue « Dix-huitième siècle »

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Published on Wednesday, October 06, 2021


Ouvrir les recherches dix-huitiémistes et la revue Dix-huitième siècle aux études de genre est un des objectifs du présent numéro mais non l’unique. Ces études de genre ont elles-mêmes connu une évolution constante qui les a notamment conduites à penser, outre la domination, les déclinaisons spécifiques et surtout pratiques de la domination et de sa logique hiérarchique : comment les hommes et les femmes s’en arrangent-ils, la contournent-ils, en jouent-ils ou au contraire s’en affranchissent-ils ?


The journal Dix-huitième siècle, no. 55, to be published in 2023


  • Stéphanie Genand
  • Stefania Ferrando,
  • Florence Lotterie,
  • Anne Verjus
  • Jean-Christophe Abramovici


Gender studies today are a recognised though much-debated field of academic research. They have helped to generate international dialogue and foster a pluridisciplinary approach to the study of the humanities and social sciences. With a solid grounding in feminist thought, the spearhead was provided by history, sociology and anthropology, but philosophy, literature, political science, geography, to name but a few disciplines, also formed part of the paradigm, which, a little over 40 years ago, triggered a veritable scientific revolution.  

This revolution was part of a long history in which the 18th century was, for several reasons,  a crucial period: first, it marked a paradigm shift, initiated notably by the world of medicine (Roussel 1775, Moreau 1803, who radicalised the tradition of Traités des maladies des femmes), which naturalises and therefore essentialises the differences between the sexes, by assigning all humans to one of two gender categories (Laqueur, 1992). This differentialism, which was written down in France’s 1804 Civil Code, was accompanied by a dual tendency to assign and institutionalise that represents at least partly the hallmark problems of the way in which gender was considered during the Enlightenment: if philosophy was thought to be the critical exercise of reason, women, by virtue of their biology and their psyche, or a particular mixture of the two, find themselves excluded from the logos, before revolutionary law-makers, influenced by Rousseau’s writings, defined universalism on a sliding scale of liberty which left out several minority groups – women, children, servants, free people of colour, slaves. This led to a fundamental transformation of normative registers that structured our access to knowledge and politics (Fraisse, 1995). Paradoxically, forms of exclusion and ‘non-inclusion’ form part of a universalist language that automatically attributed the same degree of liberty and dignity to every human being (Verjus, 2002).

The long 18th century – considered as spanning from the publication of De l’égalité des deux sexes by Poullain de la Barre (1673) to the establishment of the Civil Code – provides fertile terrain for attempting an archaeological critique of the differences between the sexes. This can be seen both in their philosophical foundation and aethetic representation, in literature or the history of art (with so many 18th century works placing sex at their heart, the period can be considered as “the century of sex” (Harvey, 2010), or as that of “the talkative sex” (Foucault, 1976)) and the way in which those differences gained political weight, first under the Revolution and then the Consulate. The Enlightenment thus raises three crucial questions for the study of gender:

  • what are its philosophical foundations, the arguments and reasoning used to explain the difference between men and women?
  • what are its aesthetic fables, words, discourses and images used to illustrate or demonstrate this difference?
  • what are its political normativities, the laws, texts and values that transform this difference between the sexes into an unequal distribution of authority?

But opening up 18th century research and Dix-huitième siècle to gender studies is not the only goal of this edition of the journal. Gender studies have themselves been in constant evolution. This has led them to consider, not only domination, but also the ways in which domination is exercised and the hierarchical logic that underpins it: how do men and women navigate, circumvent and exploit domination or even free themselves from it? New concepts have recently served to enrich the field of gender studies: agency (Butler 2002 and 2010), or the capacity to act independently of predetermined roles, but also, since 2000, intersectionality, which analyses the overlapping connections between different kinds of inequality that might weigh on an individual’s life, be it related to the person’s sex, race or social class. These tools can be usefully applied to 18th century research. While they have been used to consider the history of women and the conditions in which the sexes were politicised during the Revolution (Guilhaumou 2012, Verjus 2002 and 2010, Plumauzille 2016), the aim of the current project is to test their relevance in the context of the long 18th century, particularly when applied to the evolving culture of the Ancien Régime: how do such tools enable us to analyse questions of inequality, difference and domination, not by restricting ourselves to sexuality, but by considering sexuality in the wider sense, as a space that was in the process of acquiring its own ‘modern’ definition where it is possible  to ‘intensify’ the process (both real and imaginary) of normalising social identities and power relations? In this way, current thinking  in gender studies sheds a wider light on the forms of domination that singularise as much as problematise the Enlightenment: that of sex, but also race and one’s position in the social hierarchy, which are simultaneously products and producers of a normativity whose capacity to constrain and question must be considered.  

It is within this framework that we have opted to give priority to approaches that consider the relationship between ‘genders’ and ‘norms’ in Enlightenment Europe. By ‘norms’ we do not mean a framework that is fixed and intangible, but rather a system that evolves and redefines itself to reflect institutional constraints (the law, the market…), collective or individual wishes, or changes that may or not be desired. These norms should be considered as much in the way they influence the construction and evaluation (including in the imaginary and emotional realms) of ‘differences’ in social and racial stratification, as in those between sexualities and the body (which are themselves ‘constructed’). It is notably this intersectional perspective that takes us from gender in the singular (gender as an analytical tool) to genders in the plural (genders as a means to identification). We thus have numerous ways to manipulate and play with norms. Our aim is to map these possibilities to create a tableau of gender relations in the 18th century that is both evolving and European. Such a map will highlight the dynamics and practices at play as new ideas were taking shape and power was being exercised.

Contributions that adopt an approach based on interdisciplinary, international research are more likely to attract our attention.   


All propositions (a title and a summary of around 15 lines) must be sent to dixhuitiemesiecle55@gmail.com

by 15 November 2021.

Once selected, the finished articles must not exceed 30,000 characters including spaces and be received no later than 30 May 2022 at the same address.


  • Monday, November 15, 2021


  • genre, féminisme, cause des femmes, masculinité, sexualité


  • Anne Verjus
    courriel : anne [dot] verjus [at] ens-lyon [dot] fr

Information source

  • Anne Verjus
    courriel : anne [dot] verjus [at] ens-lyon [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Gender and norms in Enlightenment Europe », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, October 06, 2021, https://calenda.org/917284

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