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Of Beauties, Beasts, and Rousseau: Tracing the Birth of the Domestic Mother in Enlightenment France

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Title: Of Beauties, Beasts, and Rousseau: Tracing the Birth of the Domestic Mother in Enlightenment France
Author: Turner, Annie
Advisor: Graham, Lisa Jane; Sedley, David
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of History
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2009
Abstract: In the opening decades of the eighteenth century, French women exercised considerable autonomy through the salon culture of the Enlightenment. By the end of the Enlightenment, however, their prescribed role was restricted to wives and mothers who tended to the cares of their households. This thesis explores the nature of this transition from one notion of femininity to another and identifies the causes through analyses of literary and philosophical texts written by men and women. During the Enlightenment, two female authors published versions of the same tale, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). The 1740 original by Gabrielle-Susanne de Villeneuve is long, complicated, and imaginative; the sixteen-page 1756 revision by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont simplified the earlier tale. In particular, Leprince de Beaumont’s text made significant changes to Villeneuve’s portrayals of femininity and offered a clear didactic message to readers. In this thesis, I compare the two versions of La Belle et la Bête in order to trace and explain the Enlightenment shift from autonomous to domestic and maternal models of femininity. I situate the fairytales in a broader literary and philosophical context concerning debates about gender roles and women’s education. The thesis analyzes the impact of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1758 Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles and his 1762 Emile ou de l’éducation in combination with late eighteenth- century educational treatises and articles from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Historians have traditionally cited Rousseau’s two texts as proof that Rousseau instigated the trend towards domesticity as a result of his anti-feminist anxieties. In my thesis, I place Rousseau’s works in their historical context in order to extricate them from the debates of postmodernist and feminist critics. When viewed through the lens of his contemporaries, Rousseau’s arguments appear more ambiguous than is often thought. I argue that Rousseau advocated domestic femininity not only because he was anxious about gender hierarchies but also because he thought that doing so would foster virtue in society. Exploring the changes that Leprince de Beaumont made to the original version of La Belle et la Bête and using Rousseau to think about why her tale overshadowed the more daring one by Villeneuve sheds light on a key shift in the history of attitudes toward men, women, and family. This shift continues to influence our own assumptions as demonstrated by Disney’s choice of Beaumont’s didactic version as the basis of the script for its popular film, Beauty and the Beast.
Subject: Women -- France -- History -- 18th century
Subject: France -- History -- 18th century -- Women
Subject: Sex role -- France -- History -- 18th century
Subject: Leprince de Beaumont, Madame (Jeanne-Marie), 1711-1780. Belle et la bête
Subject: Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1712-1778
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Turner, Annie. "Of Beauties, Beasts, and Rousseau: Tracing the Birth of the Domestic Mother in Enlightenment France". 2009. Available electronically from

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