Dr. Angela Hunter is an associate professor in the English department at UA Little Rock. With a doctorate in comparative literature and deep interests in 18th century studies and translation, feminist theory and feminist philosophy, it's no surprise she's at the center of a project to bring forgotten female voices to light.
Hunter received a $133,333 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities to translate and publish a collection of the unpublished works of Louise Dupin, an 18th century French philosopher whose role in French philosophy had been overlooked. Here, she give us insight on the project and the importance of sharing Dupin's work all these years later.
Who is Louise Dupin?
AH: She is a really fascinating historical figure. One of the things she is known for historically is the Château de Chenonceau that she and her husband owned for a big chunk of her life. She lived basically the whole 18th century, so she lived into her 90s. She saw all the changes that happened. As a widow, she lived there for all of her elderly years and maintained it, and so this is one of the famous castles in the Loire Valley. She was known as the keeper of the castle before it was sold. She was also known as someone who held a salon in Paris, a kind of social/intellectual gathering that would have happened weekly and philosophers and scientists, artists, writers would have come, as would high-society people of the time. She was relatively well-known for that.
There is this image of her as this beautiful, captivating woman who held a successful salon and maintained this castle through the 18th century. What is left out of that story is her major philosophical works. She was never talked about as a philosopher. This is one of the things that got me interested in her originally. Often in the early modern time periods, women who are writing philosophy are usually doing it in other formats. They might be writing letters to more recognized male philosophers who might get published or they’d even be putting them in novels. When women are writing straight-up philosophy, you would have heard of them, there would be a record of some kind. It might be a minor record, it might be hard to find, but with Louise Dupin it was almost impossible for people to know about her because she did not publish her work in her lifetime, and then it was passed down in her family and people did everything to undercut it. They would describe it as "the interesting musings of a beautiful woman" as opposed to very well-researched over at least 10 years. She had several secretaries over time who helped her do research and they took dictation. It’s a really glaring hole about her.
Sometimes women’s contributions to scholarship in past times have been neglected. She’s definitely one who was overshadowed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became a very well-known writer, novelist, philosopher of the time period. He was her secretary for a brief period of years before he became known and wrote much philosophy. People attribute all kinds of cultural happenings to him, and people write about his political philosophy in all kinds of venues, and yet we don’t hear about Dupin’s work at all.
She didn’t just write this feminist treatise, which we refer to as "The Work on Women," but that would have likely been a rough title, he worked on that with her quite a bit. We were really interested in her as a woman and who she is in the historical record, but also as a philosopher.
[My colleague Dr. Rebecca Wilkin] and I are both interested in slightly different things about the research, which helps with approaching this because we can focus on our interests, but also learn more about each other's approach. I am more interested in her writings on marriage and also the body, and Rebecca is a little more interested in the political side. The whole thing is political really because marriage is a very political thing, especially in her time.
Why do you feel like this is an important piece of work for people to encounter in our modern times?
AH: That depends on the audience. If people are already interested in philosophy and political philosophy and feminist philosophy, Dupin argues things that others do not. She has some unique aspects to her. Something I think we should bring to the fore that it adds to our understanding of these debates of the time that are still issues. For example, one of the things she proposes is a "variable" marriage contract. You would sign on for a number of years, and at the end of that, the partners would either need to reaffirm their decision to be married or they would bail. She also discussed ideas of how women could hold onto assets they brought into the marriage in various ways. She had ideas that we have today about how women are equal to men before the law and she does raise questions that are germane to people’s beliefs about the best ways to arrange a civil society. Not just marriage, that is just one example.
We often have an understanding of history that has big names that altered the course of things and minor thinkers and women are left out of that. What changes in our narrative when you say that "Jean-Jacques Rousseau was influenced by Louise Dupin," rather than "Louise Dupin doesn’t really exist as a thinker and here are all the people who are influenced by Rousseau." We’ve left out one of the relays in the handing forward and rethinking that is happening at any given time period.
If you’re interested in history, you’d be interested in her life and her work. She led an interesting life. She lived through the all of the 18th century, including the French revolution and the Terror.. But also, because of her status, it’s an interesting look at her class position as a wealthy woman in Paris at the time.
Scholars may be interested in the fact that she argues that men and women were completely equal in the state of nature, and that’s not necessarily an unusual position at the time, although it was mainly like most people arguing that people were equal in nature mainly only talked about men. She argues that everyone was truly equal in the state of nature, she says that slowly over the course of government and societal formations, women tend to lose rights. She thinks people of the 16th, 17th and 18th century in charge of laws purposefully misinterpreted laws of past societies to buttress sexist (she wouldn’t have used this term but it was the equivalent) laws. It’s an unusual argument because women are typically seen as attaining more rights over time and becoming more free and equal across time. She uses a ton of evidence, especially on laws and interpretations of laws. She essentially says that as we centralized the power around the king, in some ways that happened in the household, too.
If anyone is looking for something new about her picture of how things came about, she also writes about a lot of other things. She writes about the body and everyday conversation and language that is sexist and she gives a lot of examples of that, and how historians have been unkind to women. In the political, legal sphere, that’s what she wants to showcase.
A sample of Dupin’s writing from Article 45: "On the Spirit of Conversation in Society"
“Conversation turns often enough to the comparison between men and women. When this happens, men always have the advantage on their side, testifying by their words, tone, and accompanying head gestures that one should view this proposition as a closed case. After this modest conclusion, those who pride themselves most on politeness fall back on gallantry, saying that women are the queens of the world, that they determine everything in it, and that men toil only for women and to pay them homage with their works, glory, and talent.
When any one of the most obvious injustices between them is put into question, like the inequality of the division of property or the specific disadvantages of certain countries and customs, it’s somewhat amusing to see the most reasonable men calmly envisioning these injustices — whereas on other subjects involving perceived injustice, they argue, protest, get worked up. On this point, however, they coolly acknowledge the injustice and change the subject as soon as possible.”
How has the grant from the National Endowment for Humanities helped your research?
AH: I am doing this with a colleague, Dr. Rebecca Wilkin of Pacific Lutheran University, and we had both been separately working on Dupin and had been doing some early research with her work. Then we connected with each other and the more we talked, the more we realized it would be good to have an edition and we should team up and do it together.
This edition is not a complete work of "Work on Women," although Dupin never did complete it, so there isn’t a complete version. We figured out which pieces we wanted to include and why, how long we thought it would be, the introduction and things like that. We had proposed it to the press we wanted to publish it, so it is going to be with Oxford University Press. They have a series called "New Histories of Philosophy" that it will be included in. We worked on the proposal for the book first. We had applied for the grant several years ago one time and did not get it. Then, in the meantime, we got the book contract in hand and we took the comments we got from the initial grant proposal and used it to amp up the things they had questions about. So, we reapplied and we got it for the fall 2020 cycle.
The grant provided for financial issues and helped us hire a research associate, who is one of Rebecca’s former students. When she was in undergrad, she worked with Rebecca a little bit on transcriptions and taking our hand written materials and turning them into a digital document. We were able to hire her to help us do some things. She travelled to an archive this summer that we had both been to before, but we needed to revisit it. Our research associate is studying in Luxembourg, so it’s a lot cheaper for her to get to Paris than either of us. It was really helpful. The grant has provided plenty of resources that have helped things go more quickly with our work, but being able to hire Sonya Ruud as our researcher as well.
How long have you been working on this project?
AH: We had hatched the idea before, but 2017 is when we started working on the book proposal and working on things related to the project.
What's next in the publication process of your book?
AH: We have translated everything that we are going to include. There are a few spots that are up to discuss, like how we are going to choose which word appropriately fits in certain areas. What we are working on right now is the notes. This book is going to be for scholars who are well-versed in a lot of material, but also for use in a classroom and for a general audience. So it needs a lot of notes. She is writing about ancient Greece and Rome and philosophy and law. There are just a ton of references to that. She writes a whole section where she is writing about the histories of different nations like Turkey and Persia and other areas. She makes a lot of references that are hard to track down. But she doesn’t always leave obvious references, so we sometimes have to figure out where things came from and find that source, and often they are in Latin, so we have to ask translators to help with that; all so we can write a note that might be three sentences long. Some of the chapters will have 15 notes and some will have upwards of 40 or 50, it just depends on what she is getting into and how much we have to explain to our reader.
There are four major sections: one is on physical aspects of the body and differences between men and women that have been attributed to natural causes, but are cultural or even if they’re natural, they’re not all that important. There is a history section which includes church history and if women were able to serve as priests and tries to trace the loss of power in the church hierarchy. There is a political and legal section. Then there is a section that we are calling an education and observations section. We are writing introductions to each of those sections and then we are writing the main introduction as well. That’s what we’re currently working on and then we will have to do the unglamourous work of making the bibliography for the back of the book, the table of contents, formatting, all of those last steps.
That’s on the horizon, but we’re not there. We could turn it in as early as December 2021.
Why are you passionate about this project?
AH: I love this project so much. It is also really exhausting. It is great having a partner. I have done humanities research solo before and it’s just you making your own arguments and advancing them and then they get published and people respond. It’s really great having a partner and having a research associate and having a team.
Some of Rebecca’s students got a summer fellowship that her university offers and we assigned them a few notes. One’s interested in history and one wants to go to law school, so we give them each kind of notes to do in each section that related to what they were interested in. It’s fun seeing them get excited and also realize that you can spend an entire day working on two notes, only one of which will actually wind up being written that day because you came up empty handed trying to find a source or the quote within a source that she suggests should be there.
That’s the fun of it, too, is training others in this kind of archival work, which is new to me, this was my first archival project. I had learned about Dupin in 2009, and this has been a labor of love since then.
For more information on Dr. Hunter’s work, visit the UA Little Rock website.