Of Domesticated Women, Wild Men and other Animals. Human-Animal and Gender Relations in Natural-philosophical-moral Debates in Late Enlightenment France (1745–1805)

Aline Vogt

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Claudia Opitz


Current debates on the protection of animals, animal rights, and veganism discuss the question, if and how human-animal-relationships should be changed on an ethical basis. Such discussions often take up arguments from the feminist movement. The mechanism which constructs the male versus the female in order to establish patriarchal power is compared to the construction of the human versus the non-human, which is used to legitimize human domination of animals. How can such comparisons open up new perspectives on the way we treat animals? On the other hand, do making such comparisons tend to reproduce stereotypes about femininity as the "natural" gender and therefore question the "humanness" of women?  

This project intends to contribute to these questions by looking at the discourse on animals and gender in Late Enlightenment France. The new philosophical currents of Materialism and Sensualism led to a new concept of the body, which highlighted its naturalness and creatureliness. On the one hand, this development led to the negotiation of gender differences within the newly established natural sciences. On the other hand, because of this discourse on nature, humans were increasingly faced with their physical similarity to animals. In tracking the final difference between human and animal, such as reason or language, philosophers actually debated the essence of what it meant to be human itself.

This project looks at philosophical, naturalist and moral writings, to discover in what way these criteria of being human were marked as gendered. In other words, it will discuss the question of how the differences between humans and animals were used to construct differences between men and women or between men and "unmanly" men. This topic became politically explosive by the end of the 18th century because of the French Revolution. With the declaration of the rights of man, (in French "déclaration des droits de l'homme",) the definition of who was actually included as "human" became more urgent than ever.  

Past research on gender and animals discuss questions of animal history only marginally. They have not necessarily focused on animals having a history in their own right. Incorporating new insights from the recently established Human-Animal Studies into the research on French Enlightenment could therefore open up new perspectives. For this reason, the project will not only adopt an approach of deconstruction, but it will also address gender specific practices between humans and animals, such as the relationships with livestock animals. This will help to understand how the philosophical discourse has had an impact on the lives of humans and animals and the other way around.