Illustration of woman's silhouette over portrait of François Poulain on light blue background
Illustration by Oliver Munday; image by History and Art Collection / Alamy

I Found the Feminism I Was Looking For in the Lost Writings of a 17th-Century Priest

François Poulain was ahead of his time—and ours.

This article was published online on July 28, 2021.

What if I told you that the first modern feminist was a man, lived in the 17th century, and was a priest? I’m guessing you’d be especially skeptical about the priest part, so I’ll add that when this father of feminism wrote his vindications of women’s rights, he wasn’t a priest yet. He became one later, probably because he was broke.

His name was François Poulain de la Barre (actually, he added “de la Barre” later in life, and “Poulain” was sometimes spelled “Poullain”), and he grew up in Paris. His parents decided early on that he would become a priest, preferably with a doctoral degree so that he could rise through the ranks in the Church. He began his schooling at 9 and at 16 entered the Sorbonne, where he was force-fed a dry, Scholastic, all-Latin curriculum straight out of antiquity and the Middle Ages, with a special emphasis on the classics and Saint Thomas Aquinas. We know that Poulain excelled in his studies, and we also know that at 19, armed with his bachelor’s, he left school rather than acquire his doctorate, at which point his parents may have cut him off. For the first half of the next decade, he seems to have been an intellectual-about-town. He immersed himself in the free-for-all of the “Radical Enlightenment,” a more intensely anti-authoritarian strain of the early Enlightenment.

We don’t know much about the young Poulain’s daily activities, but we do know that, even before he left school, he was frequenting a freethinkers’ debate society that sometimes took on topics such as “whether women’s passions are stronger than men’s” and “whether the study of the arts and sciences is useful to women.” He may have gone to salons where the elites of the day gathered to expound upon new ideas and discuss novels, and perhaps even read their own work aloud. Aristocratic or well-to-do women hosted these affairs—some evidence suggests that he may have been a distant cousin of one eminent salonnière—and because Poulain probably hadn’t met many women in school, their presence would have offered its own kind of education. He was a man in search of a new worldview, and when he finally came up with one, it was audacious.

While still in his mid-20s, Poulain wrote three books in quick succession (1673–75). They constitute the first rigorously reasoned attack on the patriarchy. Before that, proto-feminist women (there were more of them than you’d think) tended to defend their sex by citing the accomplishments of queens and heroines of history and myth. Poulain instead used logic to demonstrate the absolute equality of women and men, and to make the case for their right to equal treatment under the law, equal access to education, and equal professional opportunities. (He saw no reason women couldn’t occupy high clerical positions, putting him a good 350 years ahead of a still-resistant Catholic Church.) Poulain rejected a marital contract that granted men dominion over women; he declared that marriage should be between equals, like friendship, and that husbands forced wives into a submissive role for no better reason than that they were “out-and-out bullies.”

On the long list of revolutionary reassessments of conventional wisdom that make the Radical Enlightenment feel eerily contemporary, scholars have left out gender equality. Until now. Poulain is forcing them to put it in. He saw sexism as systemic, though he wouldn’t have used either term. And he took a position only now beginning to claim a place in the vanguard of feminism: He deemed the work of motherhood necessary, and as worthy of respect and—he implies, though doesn’t say so directly—of pay as any other form of labor. Indeed, withholding education and opportunity from anyone—female, peasant, Turk—squandered human resources: “How many people remain in the mire when they might have distinguished themselves if they had been given encouragement?” Everyone who contributes to society is useful, and all useful contributions are equally valuable.

His titles were long, in the manner of the day—the subtitle of On the Equality of the Two Sexes is A Physical and Moral Discourse Which Shows the Importance of Getting Rid of One’s Prejudices—and sarcastic, in the case of his third work, On the Excellence of Men: Against the Equality of Sexes. But the books were short and to the point. They were “the most radically egalitarian texts published in Europe before the French Revolution,” in the words of Siep Stuurman, the author of François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality (2004). “Poulain is the first thinker in modern Europe to build his entire social philosophy on a universalist concept of equality.” And his vision of equality began with women.

I stumbled upon Poulain at the Barnard library in 2016. I was reading up on feminists of the past because I felt stifled by the feminism of the present, particularly the kind just then embodied by Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign leaned hard on the notion that she would shatter the glass ceiling—never mind that most American women were just trying to get by. I wasn’t struggling to get by, but I wasn’t soaring either. Motherhood had slowed down my journalism career, because I had a bad case of what D. W. Winnicott called “maternal preoccupation,” which felt like—and was—love infused with professional insecurity. Enabled by savings and a supportive husband, I had taken refuge in the world of mothers’ groups, playdates, and sippy cups. As my children grew older, I ran a speakers’ series at their school and became an expert in New York City’s labyrinthine public-high-school admissions process. I let writing deadlines float into the ether. At social gatherings, I offered up vague descriptions of a book project that was under contract, but not progressing.

The only feminist writers who made me feel better about myself were those who, rather than being obsessed with professional ascent, set out to challenge prevailing attitudes toward care. A good society, they said, should not dump the care formerly provided by family members on others or just not address the problem at all. A good society should make a point of prizing that family care—even paying for it, so that outsourcing needn’t be a necessity, but can be a choice.

My hero became the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who for decades had been writing with gentle sorrow about the “depersonalization of our bonds with others,” about parents missing out on their children’s childhoods, about grown children who can’t afford the time or opportunity costs of tending to the helpless parents who once did the same for them.

Feminism had suffered an “abduction” by capitalism, Hochschild explained. Women got to work long and hard as they staggered under family responsibilities without paid leave or universal child care. From the library, I learned that a slew of largely forgotten feminists had feared this very outcome. Yes, women’s entry into the workforce would grant much-needed independence, but it would not inevitably improve their lives. A group of Black mothers who were influential members of the National Welfare Rights Organization made this point forcefully. “There are some ten million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you’re a woman, you’ve got the best chance of getting one,” wrote Johnnie Tillmon, then the NWRO’s leader, in 1972. But why, she asked, should a 45-year-old woman like her “work all day in a laundry ironing shirts at 90-some cents an hour?” Raising kids at home—with the help of the motherhood subsidy that was welfare—was less oppressive than some of the alternatives. Members of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a Marxist feminist organization active in the ’70s and still around today, argued that traditional housewifery amounted to theft of service, but they, too, worried that feminism was falling for “the myth of liberation through work,” by which they meant proletarian labor.

The rise of the service sector, the decline of unions, the loss of benefits, and the advent of variable scheduling have made blue- (or pink-) collar work as daunting for men and women in recent decades as it was for Tillmon. Women still outnumber men in low-wage jobs (those that pay $11 an hour or less). Close to 80 percent of U.S. workers still have no paid family leave. Hard-pressed working mothers who can afford it typically turn to low-wage-earning women caregivers for help. This reinforces gender stereotypes that assign nurturing to the powerless. On the top you have, as Hochschild puts it, “order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs,” and on the bottom, “emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators.”

And then came the pandemic shutdowns. There are currently nearly 2 million fewer women in the workforce than before the arrival of COVID-19. Many of those women left jobs to care for housebound children. Working women’s annual earnings plummet after a single year off from work; so, of course, do future earnings and chances of promotion. Freedoms and opportunities that had seemed entrenched vanished overnight. Meanwhile, the entire nation discovered its dependence on caregivers, now understood as everyone who keeps us fed and watered—meatpackers, warehouse pickers, checkout clerks, baristas, and more—in addition to those who nurture and nurse us. As the months passed, Poulain, with his insistence on putting care work on the same footing as all other kinds, seemed less like a historical curiosity and more like a man for our time. He had roughed out the blueprint of a world to come, in which the gendered hierarchy of labor would be turned on its head. The new reality of 2020 and 2021 allowed me to gauge just how original he was, and how relevant he remains.

Poulain’s main insight has lost none of its subversiveness. The subjugation of women, he writes, is humanity’s first and most consequential injustice. When men usurped the rights and freedoms of the people dearest to them—their wives, mothers, sisters—they unleashed on the world “greed, ambition, vanity, extravagance, idleness, condescension, cruelty, tyranny, deceit, schisms, wars.”

Poulain illustrates his points with a “historical conjecture” in the form of a state-of-nature narrative. This is a counterfactual, designed to force readers to imagine a society utterly unlike theirs. “At the beginning of the world,” he writes, “there was no government, no learning, no employment, no established religion.” He goes on: “Both men and women, who were naive and innocent, contributed equally to the tasks of tilling and hunting as savages do today. A man went about his business and a woman hers; the person who made the greatest contribution was the most respected.” Naturally, women got pregnant and had to stop tilling or hunting. But mothers suffered no penalties for “the indisposition of pregnancy and its aftermath,” because reproduction equaled production, and children were contributions indeed. “The help of their husbands became absolutely essential to them,” Poulain writes, but husbands didn’t assume that they should be treated as lords in return. Wives’ attention to the family’s well-being was no less essential than husbands’. They leaned on each other: “Dependence was not considered irksome.”

Over time, however, families multiplied and began to compete for resources. In the scrabble of all against all, Poulain continues, physical prowess became more important than fertility. Husbands began to dominate their wives and reduce them to servants. Having bested women, men “imagined they were superior in all respects.” They swooped down upon neighboring tribes, confiscated land and possessions, and ruled tyrannically over the people they subjugated. The mutuality that had defined family life “disappeared at the moment of this invasion.”

In contrast to Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short,” Poulain’s origin story is an alternative Garden of Eden, complete with Adam, Eve, and the fall. In his version, it was Adam, not Eve, who ended the idyll, with violence. Exile from the garden was the shift from family-based communitarianism to a political economy based on private property, which to Poulain was basically theft. As for the state, Poulain dismissed it as the codification of crime, an institution meant to safeguard stolen wealth and ensure that men would continue to profit: “All laws seem to have been made to keep men in their present position of power.”

Illustration by Oliver Munday; image by Bibliothèque nationale de France

Perhaps Poulain sounds like a character in a fairy tale, the genius too far ahead of his time, the prophet shouting into the wind. But he really was a prophet. “If his ideas seem at first sight marginal,” Stuurman writes, that’s because Poulain pushed “the limits of the thinkable.” Moreover, he helped erase his own name, first by publishing anonymously, then by downplaying his authorship of his books. He wasn’t humble, exactly; he seems to have been disappointed that his books didn’t get more attention. He might be said to have undercut his own authority, writing that everything men say about women “should be suspect, because they are both judges and litigants.” Or maybe he was afraid of being ridiculed, which he was, including by some female readers. That his conservative king, Louis XIV, had a certain scorn for “learned ladies” (the title of a satire by a royal favorite, Molière) and a robust network of spies may have also argued for keeping a low profile.

Fully forgotten by the 19th century, Poulain took a long time to resurface. In 1902, a young French graduate student named Henri Piéron pulled Poulain’s dusty books off the shelves of the French National Library, apparently by chance (the copy of On the Equality of the Two Sexes had likely never been opened, since its pages were uncut). Piéron recognized the significance of his find: He was something of a radical himself, and precociously well read in philosophy. In a pioneering essay, he described the experience of reading Poulain: “Sometimes the astonishment is such that you feel the need to return to the first page and make sure that the Roman numerals really do say 1673.”

It took another half century for Poulain’s name to begin circulating, and then only in academia. Look hard and you’ll find a footnote here, a mention there, usually in works about other feminists or in histories of feminism. You can count the books about him on two hands. Enroll in a doctoral program in gender or women’s studies and you may actually read him, and maybe you’ll find the experience as disorienting as I did. In 2010, a historian wrote that Poulain “seems to crash through his times to offer us nothing less than the full-blown agenda of feminism in our own era.” I’m not so sure. The more closely I’ve considered Poulain, the more he and his work make the agenda of feminism in our own era look far from full-blown.

Poulain was born into a world beset by anxieties about where women fit in. (Of what era could that not be said?) The increase in trade and the growth of cities were loosening old constraints, and daughters and wives with means were learning to read and write. An outpouring of pamphlets and books revived an old dispute dating back to the 15th century, la querelle des femmes—“the quarrel over women.” At issue in the debate about female inferiority were, among other topics, their intellect, or lack thereof, and their morality, or lack thereof. La querelle had its formulas: Gallant men overpraised women, then disparaged them, then offered the poor creatures their protection. Female authors objected to their defamation, pointing to the Didos of legend and to Queen Elizabeth.

Poulain broke away from this script. He wanted the freedom “to think of things in themselves,” as a feminist many centuries after him, Virginia Woolf, put it in A Room of One’s Own. That, and the freedom to think for oneself. The man who gave Poulain those freedoms was René Descartes, who died in 1650, when Poulain was 3, and whose works had been banned by the Church and kept out of universities. When a friend invited Poulain to a lecture on the philosopher in the 1660s, he was hooked. That was “the happiest moment in the world,” he wrote. Descartes, too, had abandoned his academic studies as soon as he could, and grasped, he wrote, that he should not “believe too firmly what I learned only from example and custom.” All knowledge taken on faith paled in comparison to “the simple and natural reasonings of a man of good sense.”

These days, the notion that you can clear your mind of bias sounds naive, but luckily, Poulain was naive. He applied the Cartesian method to himself and concluded that “all my knowledge was of no use whatsoever in the world, except to make a living in a profession which I did not wish to follow.” That revelation freed him—forced him—to see the world from the Martian perspective, as it were. Descartes laid new foundations for the sciences and philosophy. Poulain trained his newfound innocence on human relations. What he saw was prejudice masquerading as the natural order of things. And the oldest and most entrenched prejudice was against women and their work.

Poulain leapfrogs so far over conventional timelines that he lends himself to a parlor game: What contemporary categories can we shoehorn him into? Let the historians disapprove. The comparisons deliver a useful jolt, exposing an unexpectedly long lineage for views we hail as quintessentially postmodern.

Poulain is a cultural relativist. He grasps that European supremacism is belief, not fact. He scoffs at Europeans who swan around thinking they are better than everyone else. He is so aware of the irrationality of norms that he wonders why we feel shame about excretion. “There is no imperfection or baseness about relieving the body,” he writes, meaning that no custom is more or less advanced than any other: “All ways of doing it are equal.” Poulain could have been a feminist art historian. He doesn’t rank the supposedly major arts above the so-called minor arts, especially those traditionally created by women, such as tapestries and other kinds of needlework. “It takes skill to keep the proportions on a canvas, to work the silk or wool evenly,” he observes. “One has to have mastered countless different techniques of needlework to be competent at it.” Poulain is Foucauldian. Power is performative, he says, a chimera of gesture and costume: “Decorations were invented to distinguish certain people, and signs of respect were created to enhance perceived differences.”

Above all, Poulain is, well, a Marxist feminist. He rejects the gendering of the public and the private—men in the streets and on the job, women in the home—that was in the process of being imposed by early capitalism. He sees a new order supplanting an older one in which the home would serve as its own little factory and husbands and wives would work shoulder to shoulder (unless, of course, they belonged to the nobility). To Poulain’s dismay, the home has become a workplace where the housewife toils alone.

He doesn’t try to determine the price of parenthood in the marketplace of labor (he isn’t an economist), but he grasps that it has value—more than many male professions. “We could do without princes, soldiers, and tradesmen,” he argues, “but we cannot do without women in our childhood.” Therefore, women’s nurturing work should be elevated, not debased. “We offer great rewards to a man who can tame a tiger, admire those who can train horses, monkeys, and elephants, and praise to the skies the author of some modest work,” he writes. “Yet we neglect women who have spent years and years nourishing and educating children.”

He shares a trait with my role model, Hochschild, in that he acknowledges women’s emotional labor as labor. Running households, raising children, and (I would add, though he is not explicit about this) exercising the discipline and self-control required to adhere to acceptable codes of female behavior and keep exacting husbands happy—the enterprise requires the managerial skills of a general: “Military art makes no higher demands than the other arts women are capable of, except that it is tougher, noisier, and does more harm.”

To Poulain’s further credit, he avoids the angel-in-the-house syndrome that would constrain women in the Victorian era. Women can mother, but, he asserts, they can do everything else as well. After all, Cartesians separate mind and body, from which it follows that, as Poulain writes, “the mind has no sex.” Women are as good as men at every endeavor that doesn’t require brute strength. “A most minute anatomical study reveals no difference,” he writes, addressing his male readers. “A woman’s brain is exactly the same as ours.” In his second book, On the Education of Ladies (1674), Poulain prescribes scientific training for women—for everyone, in fact. His notion of science privileges women, though, because when he says scientific, he means evidence-based, and he sees women as natural scientists—not because they are born that way, but because in his day and among members of his class, women interacted more intimately with the material world than men did.

He predicts that, given the proper training (by which he means the empirical kind he didn’t get), women could be as good as men in law, government, the clergy, and medicine, and might surpass them—especially in medicine. Women understand bodies: “Is it not women who take care of the poor and sick of the parish, who visit the prisons and help in the hospitals?” Medical schools were closed to women, of course—which had the benefit, in Poulain’s view, of sparing them the arcane curriculum that had students reading ancient authors such as Hippocrates. Women’s “observations about medical practice are so accurate and so precisely reasoned, that they often make all the notebooks of the faculty superfluous.”

So much that Poulain espoused we now endorse. And yet, as I went down rabbit holes trying to find out what happened to him, I worried that his ideas were still too utopian. He wanted to undo assumptions about gender and work that have been set in stone for millennia—unconscious presuppositions that, to judge from the fact that women still work the second shift, have yet to budge. His egalitarianism was total and uncompromising. Are we actually now primed to listen to him in ways that his peers hadn’t been?

Here’s what my perambulations through the stacks taught me: Poulain never really went away. He himself sank into near-total obscurity, first as a parish priest shunted from one unprepossessing town to another; he then left the clergy or was forced out on account of his problematic ideas—the record is unclear—at the age of 41. After that, he converted to Calvinism, fled anti-Protestant France, and spent most of the rest of his life teaching French and classics in Geneva.

But his ideas run like a secret, subterranean river beneath the history of revolutionary thought. His inconspicuousness gave license to publishers and authors to plunder his books and arguments without attribution. This raiding started a few years after first publication and continued into the 18th century. Entire passages were lifted from On the Equality of the Two Sexes by the pseudonymous 18th-century feminist “Sophia,” in her Woman Not Inferior to Man, which was reissued in London several times over the course of 40 years, and even translated back into French. I wonder whether Poulain would have been peeved at the French Enlightenment philosophers who actually did know his name and borrowed from him without mentioning it. I think he would have been highly annoyed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose attack on exploitative social relations helped spur two revolutions, the American and the French. Rousseau almost certainly read Poulain early in his career while conducting research for a magnum opus on the history of women on behalf of a beautiful noblewoman, Louise Marie-Madeleine Dupin. (Rousseau fell in love with Dupin and she shrewdly made him her assistant.) She was one of the few writers of the time to identify Poulain as a major influence, but she never finished her book, so hardly anyone read her until Rousseau scholars recently began rooting around in her papers.

Set Poulain’s Equality and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality side by side, and the similarities will seem too numerous for coincidence. Rousseau appears to have helped himself to Poulain’s ideas, imagery, modes of argument—sometimes entire phrases. But here’s the catch: Even as he outlines his version of an egalitarian polity, Rousseau all but kicks women out of it. Political activity is for men only. A woman’s job is to raise future citizens.

I feel sure, however, that Poulain would have been pleased by how Simone de Beauvoir made use of him in The Second Sex (1949)—if a little disappointed too. Beauvoir knew his work well and cited him by name. She could have introduced Poulain to 20th-century feminists. She didn’t, though, because she never acknowledged the extent of his originality. She gave him one of the book’s two epigraphs. But the gesture was double-edged. She quotes, or rather misquotes slightly, his self-effacing observation that everything men say about women should be viewed with suspicion. I read this nod in his direction as a soft appropriation. Beauvoir was asserting her right as a woman to make this man’s thoughts her own.

Fair enough. Beauvoir was the more expansive thinker and better stylist: dialectical; subtle; fluent in biology, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, political theory, existentialism, phenomenology, and so on. She salutes him as “the leading feminist of the time” (perhaps not the highest bar), and in five sentences explains his hypothesis that men use their strength to arrange society to their benefit, and women acquiesce by habit. But her book contains more echoes of his ideas, such as how women internalize their own subjugation. Perhaps these echoes reflect nothing more than the sad fact that women’s lot hadn’t changed all that much over the three intervening centuries, but I like to think that she’s in explicit dialogue with him. She’s the student who surpasses her teacher. The Second Sex became one of feminism’s foundational texts because Beauvoir had Poulain, plus her immense erudition, plus, of course, her own experiences as a woman.

Beauvoir owes her most memorable insight to Poulain: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” The aphorism sticks in the mind, whereas Poulain’s articulation of the same idea is wordy and forgettable: “The difference in behavior we observe between men and women springs from the education they receive.” Still, he elaborates vividly; a girl “is made afraid of everything, told that ghosts lurk in any part of the house where she might be alone.” Are women vain? Consider “all the glances, all the comments about the importance of beauty [that] absorb her mind completely, and the compliments she receives about it [that] are her sole source of joy.” Beauvoir takes these thoughts and gives them psychological depth. A girl strikes poses in front of the mirror, applying makeup and wriggling into constraining clothes, Beauvoir writes, and as the girl does this, she becomes a self divided, seeing herself as a man would see her. Poulain depicts the influence of family and home. Beauvoir has the panoramic perspective of a modern sociologist. Girls learn to be fearful not just from parents or governesses but from institutions—schools, sporting clubs, workplaces—that discourage adventure and exploration.

And yet Beauvoir leaves out the part of Poulain’s feminism that strikes me as so timely today. She doesn’t have many good things to say about motherhood. On the contrary: Maternity—the passions leading up to it, the life changes that it demands—mostly makes her cringe. If Poulain scants the broader social dimension of psychological conditioning, she’s positively revolted by the biological dimension. Love leads to dependence, and dependence abases, she writes with some bitterness in her chapter on “The Woman in Love.” Later, nurture ensnares. If women want equality, they must not “subordinate existence to life, the human being to its animality.” What she is saying in her existentialism-ese is that “existence” (that is, freedom) must be chosen over “life”—that is, allowing oneself to be mired in the repetitive processes of nature. The brilliant and prolific Beauvoir had no intention of getting stuck in those. Housework, undone as soon as it is done, doesn’t build toward “the creation of anything durable.” Motherhood at least yields something of lasting value, but—she adds—let women beware of becoming attached to pregnancy and nursing, lest they reduce themselves to “fowls with high egg-production.”

That phrase stings, although I understand why she wrote it. Like many feminists who came before and after her, Beauvoir had good reason to run as far as she could from everything women of her generation were supposed to run toward. Domesticity, for Beauvoir, would have been tantamount to having her mind pickled and stored in a pantry. I get that. Even now, “motherhood as experience and institution,” in Adrienne Rich’s words, constrains and subordinates, despite having become a choice, not a fate. Indeed, that motherhood is chosen rather than forced upon one makes my own choices feel more fraught, not less. In any case, Poulain, who wrestled with the discipline of a Church he disliked, would have known what it meant to live under the threat of intellectual extinction. But the destiny he feared didn’t involve dusting and cooking and tending babies (a priest only had to baptize them). So Poulain could give reproduction its due.

“Dependence was not considered irksome”: That thought of his is still more uncommon than it should be. Life is dependence all the way down. If we haven’t absorbed this by now, we’ve learned nothing in the past year and a half. Children depend on adults, parents depend on communities and—in enlightened countries—on social policies, and all of us depend on “essential” and “frontline” workers. But Americans were raised to prize self-sufficiency, and we don’t find it easy to face the specter of our interconnectedness. My spike of shame when people ask what I do is both typical and ridiculous. What’s wonderful about Poulain is that he gives me cover. No, he does more than that. He gives me hope. I’m comforted by his refusal to accept that caregiving demeans the caregiver, or that leaning on others is pathetic.

I find his fearlessness inspiring. At the height of Louis XIV’s authoritarian and patriarchal rule, this single, childless 26-year-old defended nurture and interdependence against a revulsion that was by then almost instinctive. I wonder what his readers, most of them male, made of these sentences: “God desired to produce human beings dependent upon each other” and “Both sexes are necessary to produce together their offspring.” Reproduction is the “highest purpose in the world,” and so “it is hard to understand how those who maintain that men are nobler than women justify their arguments as far as children are concerned.” Is it because mothers work harder than fathers that women rank lower than men?

That is not a rhetorical question. In 17th-century France, only the lower orders did physical labor; thus anyone doing physical labor occupied a lower order. Plus ça change! Poulain doesn’t buy that, of course. Just because women’s “effort is greater than ours” doesn’t mean men should “use this against them to bring scorn upon them,” he writes. In a subtle hint that we must reconceive care work as civilization-building equal in stature to any other kind, he pairs “mothers and fathers toiling to bring up their children”—the italics are mine—with “good princes working at governing their subjects or magistrates seeking to mete out justice.” Who among his peers could have imagined a world that placed parenting on the same social rung as ruling and judging? I would guess none of them. And who among us can fully envision that world even now? Poulain will be vindicated only when we understand that anything less is simply illogical.

This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “The Radical Feminism of a 17th-Century Priest.”

When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.