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A fundamental concept in the history of medicine is the body. A basic definition of medicine is “the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease.” That is, medicine deals with the body. But what exactly do we mean by the word “body?” Is it an objective, biological, clearly defined entity, or is it a cultural construction?

These are the questions I will try to look at critically in the first part of this essay, as I analyse how the “body” and the mind/body dualism have been constructed throughout history. In the second part, I will look at Poulain de la Barre’s De l’égalité de deux sexes. I will examine how this particular text attempts to debunk the notion that women are inferior to men, paying special attention to the implications of Poulain’s representation of the body as regards what we can call the “woman question”, i.e. the construction of femininity in an arguably patriarchal society.

First of all, the body is not a timeless, unchangeable entity. Roy Porter warns us that while there is no question that the body is a biological entity, we must also look at it “as it has been experienced and expressed within particular cultural systems, both private and public, which themselves have changed over time.” This point is made even more strongly by the anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, who are among the proponents of a critical deconstruction of notions about the body. In The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology, they put forward three different views of the body: “(1) as a phenomenally experienced individual body-self; (2) as a social body, a natural symbol for thinking about relationships among nature, society, and culture; and (3) as a body politic, an artefact of social and political control.” Like Porter, Scheper-Hughes and Lock contend that we should see the body “as simultaneously a physical and symbolic artefact, as both naturally and culturally produced, and as securely anchored in a particular historical moment.”

The field of gender studies is especially helpful in contributing to a better understanding of the ways in which the body is also a cultural production. Here the body is seen as a gendered construction. In Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy, and in her monograph The Mind Has No Sex?, Londa Schiebinger examines the first depictions of the female skeleton in European science in the context of the eighteenth- (and nineteenth-) century movement to define and redefine sex differences in every part of the human body.

In that period, it was thought that science could objectively resolve “the woman question.” The female body was thus constructed in a way that confirmed its inferiority. As Schiebinger effectively points out, “the fact of sexual difference was used in the eighteenth century to prescribe very different roles for men and women in the social hierarchy. In the course of the eighteenth century, some anatomists were even moved to believe that women held a lowly rank in the natural hierarchy; it became fashionable to find in women the qualities of children and “primitives.” By locating woman’s social worth in her physical nature, anatomists hoped to provide a sure and easy solution to the “woman” problem.”
Another way in which the body can be seen as a cultural construction is its representation in opposition to the mind. We must be aware of the fact that this separation of mind and body, that is, between real and unreal, between palpable and impalpable, is highly artificial (and, of course, in European culture the body has traditionally occupied a subordinate place to the mind). This dualism, characteristic of Western civilization, has roots that go as far back as Aristotle. It was the French philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes, however, who most clearly formulated the ideas that are the immediate precursors of contemporary biomedical conceptions of the human organism.
Thus, the body/mind dualism is clearly a European cultural construction.

The epistemologies of non-Western societies are quite different. Other cultures have different ways of perceiving mind and body. China, for example, has a tradition of representing the mind and body in monistic rather than dualistic terms: bodies are inseparable from psychologies. Scheper-Hughes and Lock describe two representations of holistic thought that are particularly common: “the first is a conception of harmonious wholes in which everything from the cosmos down to the individual organs of the human body are understood as a single unit. . . A second representation of holistic thinking is that of complementarity (not opposing) dualities, in which the relationship of parts of the whole is emphasized.” A well-known example of the latter view is the ancient Chinese yin/yang cosmology, according to which the cosmos oscillates between yin and yang and is in a state of dynamic equilibrium. In such a worldview, the well-being of individuals depends on a balance in the natural world, and the health of each organ depends on the health of its relationship to all other organs.

Let us now move on to explore the representation of the male and female body in its dualism with the mind offered by Poulain de la Barre in his De l’égalité de deux sexes (1673).
In the context of gender and the different representation of the male and female bodies, De l’égalité de deux sexes raises a host of interesting questions. To what extent does Poulain propose a radical egalitarian theory? How consistent and effective is the author’s application of Descartes’s method, if he accepts essentialist assumptions like the existence of a specifically female “temperament?” In this short essay, I have chosen to limit myself to one circumscribed issue: Poulain’s use of the science of anatomy to support his case. My thesis is that De l’égalité de deux sexes stands at a critical junction on the “woman question.” Its author could not have made the same arguments had he written a few decades earlier or later.

The section of the treatise with which we are most concerned is Part Two, where, as the heading indicates, “l’on fait voir pourquoi les témoignages qu’on peut apporter contre le sentiment de l’égalité des deux Sexes, tirez des Poëtes, des Orateurs, des Historiens, des Jurisconsultes, et des Philosophes, sont tous vains et inutiles.” After devoting Part One of his work to providing the reader with an overview of the history of women and of the fallacy of the beliefs held by the uneducated populace, Poulain proceeds to refute the ideas of the great thinkers. The author’s main argument can be summarized as follows. Employing the Cartesian method, Poulain attempts to debunk the notion that women are inferior to men. The unequal status of women is a function of human institutions and customs (nurture), not of their nature. He explains to his male, educated audience that, if allowed to pursue an education, women could do anything men do. They have the same capacities as men, and therefore could have access on a par with men to all offices or professions in society. They could be rulers of nations, of armies, and even ministers of the Church.

The way in which Poulain chooses to demonstrate that women are not inferior to men is that he appeals to the science of anatomy to argue that there is nothing inferior or disabling in the body and physiology of woman:

[Sur le temperamment.] Il y a des Medecins, qui se sont fort étendus, sur le Temperamment des Sexes aux désavantage [sic] des femmes, et ont fait des discours à perte de veuë, pour montrer que leur Sexe doit avoir un temperamment tout à fait different du nostre, et qui le rend inferieur en tout. Mais leurs raisons ne sont que des conjectures legeres, qui viennent dans l’esprit de ceux qui ne jugent des choses que par préjugé et sur de simples apparences.

As this excerpt demonstrates, Poulain categorically dismisses some old theories about the differences between the two sexes. Although he does not cite names in the above quotation, Poulain is clearly referring to the Aristotelian, Galenic, and scholastic traditions. In fact, both Galen and Aristotle are mocked at the very end of the treatise. In a Cartesian vein, Poulain states that such theories should be discarded because they are based on “prejudice and simple appearances.” To be valid, considerations on the body must be based on scientific evidence.

Now, on what basis does Poulain make such a statement? What is the intellectual milieu in which he is operating? As Ian Maclean explains in The Renaissance Notion of Woman, the science of modern anatomy emerged in the sixteenth century, with Andreas Vesalius regarded as its founder. Vesalius and his followers rejected the Aristotelian and Galenic theories, which attributed women’s inherent inferiority to the presence of humours. After 1600, instead, a large number of anatomists contended that women were perfect and complete beings, rather than imperfect and incomplete versions of men. They did, however, suggest that the perfect male body was superior to the perfect female body. Some of these arguments echo in Poulain’s writing, although he disputes the notion that the male body is superior to the female. As the following quotation demonstrates, he regards women are physically and physiologically complete beings. Just like men, they are equally perfect in their own sex. With the exception of the organs directly involved in reproduction, women and men are constitutionally the same:

[D’où vient la difference de sexes.] Dieu voulant produire les hommes dépendemment les uns des autres, par le concours de deux personnes, fabriqua pour cét usage deux corps qui estoient differens. Chacun estoit parfait en sa maniere, et ils devoient estre tous deux disposez comme ils sont à present: Et tout ce qui dépend de leur constitution particuliere doit estre consideré comme faisant partie de leur perfection. C’est donc sans raison que quelques-uns s’imaginent que les femmes ne sont pas si parfaites que les hommes…

But Poulain goes further. In classic Cartesian fashion, he posits a dichotomy between matter (the body) and mind. Anatomy shows us that the physical differences between the male and female bodies, are not present in the brain:

[Il s’aperçoit des choses de la mesme façon, dans les deux Sexes.] Cela est ancore plus clair à considerer seulement la teste, qui est l’unique organe des sciences, et où l’Esprit fait toutes ses fonctions, l’Anatomie la plus exacte ne nous fait remarquer aucune difference dans cette partie, entre les hommes et les femmes; le cerveau de celles-cy est entierement semblable au nostre; les impressions des sens s’y reçoivent, et s’y rassemblent de mesme façon et ne s’y conservent point autrement pour l’imagination et pour la memoire. Les femmes entendent comme nous, par les oreilles; elles voyent par les yeux, et elles goustent avec la langue; et il n’y a rien de particulier dans la disposition de ces organes, sinon que d’ordinaire elles les ont plus delicats; ce qui est un avantage.

Again using the tenets of Cartesianism, Poulain argues that a mind, whether male or female, is just as capable as any other mind apprehending the truth. If no anatomical difference between the brains of men and women can be discerned, then it follows that both sexes must have the same intellectual capacities, and therefore merit the same social status. Poulain states that, to use a well-known phrase, the mind has no sex:

[L’Esprit n’a point de Sexe.] Il est aisé de remarquer que la difference des sexes ne regarde que le Corps: n’y ayant proprement que cette partie qui serve à la production des hommes; et l’esprit ne faisant qu’y préter son consentement, et le faisant en tous de la mesme maniere, on peut conclure qu’il n’a point de sexe… C’est Dieu qui unit l’Esprit au Corps de la femme, comme à celuy de l’homme, et qui l’y unit par les mesmes Loix. Ce sont les sentimens, les passions, et les volontez, qui font et entretiennent cette union, et l’esprit n’agissant pas autrement dans un sexe, que dans l’autre, il y est également capable des mesmes choses.

It is this argument that places De l’égalité de deux sexes at a critical juncture of the debate on “the woman question.” Poulain is writing in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. A few decades later, his argument would not be possible. Why? Because in the eighteenth century the tendency to view science as an arbiter of social questions (which, as I have argued, we already see in Poulain’s treatise) gains full legitimacy. As Londa Schiebinger points out, there occurred a “movement to define and redefine sex differences in every part of the body.” And it is precisely the brain that became one of the principal loci of irreducible difference between men and women. The size and shape of the skull, together with that of the skeleton, were, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a focus of scientific enquiry. Why at that particular time? According to Schiebinger, the reason is that, although throughout the seventeenth century there was already a struggle between those advocating full social equality for women and those advocating the continued subordination of women, it was really only in the eighteenth century that “the growth of democratic tendencies brought about a reshuffling of the social order. In the eighteenth century it was not clear yet what women’s role in the new social order was to be.”

In conclusion, the fact that Poulain de la Barre makes the science of anatomy the basis for his argument (together, of course, with his Cartesian method) in De l’egalite de deux sexes is crucial for an understanding of the developments of the debate on the “woman’s question” not only in the seventeenth, but also in the eighteenth century. De l’egalite de deux sexes captures the querelle de femmes at a pivotal juncture: Poulain broke with the whole Aristotelian and scholastic tradition, and emphasized the anatomical sameness of men’s and women’s brains to point out their equality. But his focus on the anatomy of the brain was to take, in the following century, a twist he could not have predicted. Ironically, the brain became a major locus of the effort to establish, scientifically, a new physiological basis for female inequality. Rather than help the cause of women’s equality, as Poulain had wished, this new focus of scientific enquiry accomplished the opposite.


Maclean, I. (1980) The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Porter, R. History of the Body, in Burke, P. (ed.) (1991) New Perspectives on Historical Writing. London, Polity Press

Poulain de la Barre, F. (1984) De L’égalité des deux sexes. Paris, Fayard

Scheper-Hughes, N. & Lock, M. The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1 (1989)

Schiebinger, L. (1989) The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origin of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Schiebinger, L. Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy, in Laqueur, T. & Gallagher, C. (eds.) (1987) The Making of the Modern Body. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, M.A, Merriam-Webster Inc., 1985.

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