Émilie du Châtelet was a woman centuries ahead of her time.
The recent Republican and Democratic Conventions helped define a number of key issues and concerns. First off, it has become apparent that Clint Eastwood, while a fine actor and director, should stick to a script rather than attempting to ad lib. Secondly, Bill Clinton can spin a tale with the best of them. How effective this is all depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is. A third consideration was made clear by the fact that the National Football League proved more popular than a presidential convention. On this occasion it was the Giants vs. the Cowboys. Oh yeah, there was one other thing that became quite apparent at these conventions– that being the realization that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama kicked some big time political butt. Both women were classy, eloquent and great advocates for their husbands and party. This is something just about everyone agrees upon. It hasn’t always been this way for women however. All too often they have not been given a chance to shine.
I was recently asked to speak to a number of sophomores at East Greenwich High School. The topic up for discussion was philosophy with special emphasis on the Enlightenment. Not wanting to appear unprepared for my presentations, I did a great deal of homework on folks like Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, etc., etc.. One philosopher I have always enjoyed was Voltaire. He was a talented iconoclast (rascal) who promoted rational thought through his writings, plays and witticisms. Voltaire also had a long-term affair with a remarkable woman who proved to be his intellectual equal. While millions are now aware of the talents of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, few have even heard of Émilie du Châtelet.
The Enlightenment might have been a great time for science and rational thought. It might also have been a great time to be a male scientist or philosopher. With this being stated, the women of Europe during this period were not afforded the same opportunities as men. Not by a long shot. Émilie du Châtelet had a father who made sure she had an education. The fact that she was educated was indeed unique for this period. But, being educated and using it are two different things. Unfortunately for Émilie she was still subject to many of the societal constraints imposed upon women living in France (and other European countries) during the 1700s. Her arranged marriage to Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet–Lomont allowed her to cavort around with the French aristocracy, but it was devoid of passion. The Marquis gave tacit approval for his bride to “carry-on” as long as it wasn’t too obvious. He too seemed more than happy to “do his thing” often going on military adventures. She was also hindered by the fact that her new position of Marquise stifled most opportunities to express herself in other areas. You see, Émilie du Châtelet happened to be a genius in the fields of math and science – something women were not encouraged to be in those days.
The now Marquise du Chastellet was versed in Newtonian physics as well as the calculus of Leibniz. In addition, she was an adherent to Leibniz’s philosophy where it was asserted that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This of course would become a point of contention for Voltaire somewhere down the road (following a devastating earthquake in Lisbon where thousands lost their lives). The fact that Émilie was denied entrance into the Gradot’s Coffee House – a place where male scholars sat around and discussed science was par for the course. To gain admittance she one day dressed like a man and slipped in. Most of the men knew who she was but out of admiration let her stick around anyway.
Émilie’s first independent work had little to do with science or pure philosophy. She translated the Fable of the Bees. As part of the preface for the work, Émilie advocated that women be educated in the same fashion as men. She asserted, “I confess that if I were King, I would conduct the following experiment. I would correct this abuse that has cut short a full half of the human race. I would get woman to participate in all the privileges of humanity, especially those of the mind.” If only she were King.
As was stated previously, Voltaire was a rascal. His opinions, often times acerbic, led him to the Bastille and into exile. Loved and loathed all at once, Voltaire was a controversial genius. According to some historians, upon returning from his latest forced departure, Voltaire and Émilie met. Eventually, he became a permanent guest in the Chastellet home. Thus began a fascinating collaboration between two great thinkers.
While Voltaire was twelve years her senior, as is often the case, genius ignores such differences. Not only did they hit it off on an intellectual level, their romance was the talk of France. This combination of passion and brains ignited fires that fueled each other’s work. History has been kind to Voltaire. He has been called the Enlightenment’s “patriarch” and students around the world continue to read his satirical masterpiece Candide. Émilie on the other hand, has yet to receive the same accolades. David Bodanis goes to great lengths extolling the talents of Émilie in two excellent books titled E=MC2 and Passionate Minds. In fact, Bodanis goes as far as to claim that her efforts in studying kinetic energy laid an important piece of the framework for Einstein’s work years down the road.
Cirey became the intellectual center of Europe. There Émilie was able to produce some of her greatest work. A keen insight into physics allowed her to translate Newton’s work into French. An inquisitive mind also led her to explore the basic principles of infrared radiation and kinetic energy. Both Émilie and Voltaire were iconoclasts which often got them into trouble. This led them to look over their shoulders, fearing reprisals. In fact, they were often on the run. Their research and opinions were far ahead of the times.
Sometimes partnerships like this one between Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet fizzle out. After 15 years of passion, intellectual collaboration, intrigue, bickering and a move or two, their day-to-day relationship came to an end. While both went in different directions, they remained fond of each other. Eventually Émilie would pass away due to complications following childbirth. Voltaire was devastated. In fact, upon hearing of her death he’d write, “I have lost the greatest part of myself.” Many historians believe that Émilie continued to influence Voltaire years after her death. In fact, some say that a number of the satirical philosophies expressed in Candide came from their discussions and arguments together.
So why did I write about Émilie du Châtelet? In the Western World much has changed over the last 300 years. Women are regarded with much greater respect than in Émilie’s time. However, with few exceptions it’s only been recently that women have been able to achieve Corporate CEO status, equal pay and political opportunity. Even today, it’s still argued about how much control women have over their bodies, as well as their role in the military. You might have “come a long way Baby,” but there are still some antiquated views out there about what women are capable of.
During my 30 years as the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program, I have had the opportunity to work with many talented and dedicated women. Barbara Tufts, former president of the Town Council and the long term director of the Cooperative Preschool (now the Barbara M. Tufts Co-op Preschool), would be one of the more salient examples of this. Her ability to get things done was extraordinary. Blessed with a keen wit, along with a powerful personality, Barbara was not only a tremendous advocate for children and the needy–she was also a highly effective politician.
There have been many other women along the way who have served as educators, business leaders and community advocates. All have made significant contributions to the town. As someone who works with young people each and every day, I know that there will be plenty more coming up in the years ahead.
In the future, not every female leader will be a great one. However, it should be noted that not every male leader achieves greatness as well. All that is desired is equal opportunity.
Émilie du Châtelet had her flaws. She had affairs with men other than Voltaire (again, something her husband knew and accepted). She also might have followed the philosophy of Leibniz with too much zeal. But to overly emphasize these shortcomings is to miss far greater points. Émilie’s brilliance, at a time when women of her status were meant to be ornaments, was amazing. Her courage and ability to bring out even greater work by Voltaire was also worthy of recognition. Here’s hoping that she gets more recognition. Here’s also to women continuing to excel.
Till next time.