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1In 2007 the SIEFAR (Société Internationale pour l’étude des femmes de l’Ancien Régime), with the support of several institutions, [1] launched a multiannual, multidisciplinary research programme to revisit what historiographers call “la querelle des femmes” (dispute on women) – “the ladies’ cause” as it was legally termed in the fourteenth century. “From rant to well-structured essay by way of reasoned arguments, satirical tracts, figurative and theatrical representations, this polemic has surely pitted millions of men and women against each other throughout the world around the related questions of the equality (or inequality) of the sexes and the differences (or similarities) between them” (Viennot 2012, p. 9) [2]. And yet not only has this vast transnational controversy, which spannedseveral centuries, “whose impact may be found in thousands of books, and in which many of the most renowned authors participated” (ibid.), seldom been studied but it remains generally unknown outside historian circles, or at least has not had much resonance to my knowledge.

2It is therefore as part of a wide-ranging and ambitious enterprise of “unveiling” that this collective work, edited by Armel Dubois-Nayt, Marie-Elisabeth Henneau and Rotraud von Kulessa, was designed. This volume presents eleven papers from an international conference held in Paris and Columbia University in 2011. The first three conferences, held in 2008, 2009 and 2010, together with the three corresponding books, [3]published in 2012 and 2013, focused on three distinct periods: 1750-1810, 1600-1750, and 1400-1600. Volume 4 reviewed here is comparative, and discusses processes of cultural transfer within Europe from the Renaissance through the French Revolution. Taking off from the hypothesis that France may be considered the cradle of the dispute, this fourth, though not necessarily last, volume focuses on debates in neighbouring countries to apprehend diffusion phenomena. To that end, it like the volumes preceding it is made up of articles and key sources, here published in both the original language and French to make the material attractive and accessible to non-specialists. Another original feature is the three-angle perspective on the “dispute” in Europe. The first takes the form of historiographical assessments of the issue in four countries (Spain, Germany, Italy, Great Britain), supplemented by an article on the major directions of research on the question in Europe (Margarete Zimmermann). The second concerns how the debate circulated; it examines the impact of renowned works such as Boccacio’s De mulieribus claris (Catherine Deutsch) and the issues involved in translation and adaptation (Claire Gheeraert-Grafeuille). The third is portraits of exceptional women engaged in the battle for sexual equality, such as the English Christian mystic Margery Kempe, who travelled across Europe in the fifteenth century (Juliette Dor); this approach reveals hidden aspects of the dispute; here, mystic discourse.

3This new vision, achieved through the work’s many analytic perspectives and the polyphony of voices, teaches that what was once presented as a philosophical and literary tradition, “a rhetorical game” (p. 12), in fact attests to age-old demands for and resistances around sexual equality. These were precisely what fostered or thwarted socio-political change and gave rise to the various versions of twentieth-century feminism (Pellegrin 2017), [4] meanwhile working to shape our current understanding of equality and inequality.

4We readily perceive the relevance of (re)reading the issue in the current context in France, where gender and sexuality issues have been matter for heated debate in the media and political arenas for several years now, confrontations that have called into question school teaching of equality between girls and boys and led to the abolition in June 2014 of a French public education experimental programme in the “ABCs of equality”. The recurring issue of how to understand and overcome gender-based inequalities suggests the relevance of this four-volume historical investigation, which tests not only our arguments but also how knowledge is constructed on the rocky road toward equality. Above and beyond the work of the participating historians, the entire set of scientific clarifications and the written and iconographic documents and bibliographies available on the SIEFAR site constitute a precious resource for feminist and gender study researchers.


  • [1]
    The Institut Émilie de Châtelet for the development and diffusion of research on women, sex and gender, Île-de-France region; the Institut Universitaire de France; and the Université Jean Monnet de Saint-Étienne.
  • [2]
    “Revisiter la querelle de femmes: mais de quoi parle-t-on?” [Revisiting the debate on women: what exactly do we mean?] in Eliane Viennot, ed., Revisiter la “querelle des femmes”: discours sur l’égalité-inégalité des sexes, de 1750 aux lendemains de la Révolution, 2012, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, l’École du genre.
  • [3]
    See presentations of books and conferences on the SIEFAR website
  • [4]
    “Féminisme de l’Ancien Régime”, 2017, in Christine Bard, (ed.), with Sylvie Chaperon, Dictionnaires des Féministes: France, xviiie-xxie siècle, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1754 p.
Sylvie Cromer
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