Invisible Women: The Enigmas of Diderot’s Enlightenment Encyclopédie

Researching for my Honors Thesis regarding the illustrations within the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot began with obtaining the primary sources in the form of five miniaturized physical copies of the original illustration plates, available from the Fine Arts Library’s reserves collection. Further study via our Libraries’ databases brought me to the ARTFL website, The University of Chicago’s collaborative website with the French government. Dedicated to providing digital access to the articles and illustrations of the Encyclopedie in French, I was able to read their translations into English there, as well as see the plates digitally, which allowed me to zoom into the pictures, which was very helpful. The copies of the plates from the Fine Arts Library were so small, I had to wear magnifying glasses to see any detail.

It was not until I had read online through many of the 2,052 search results that came up with my library search, that I found the articles that would really compel my research. Two articles regarding the roles of women during this time had me completely fascinated, and wanting to know more. Dena Goodman’s article, “Enlightenment Salons: The Convergence of Female and Philosophic Ambitions” from the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies, via JSTOR, asserts that self-educated women provided “safe spaces” for philosophic discourse via salons for philosophers from across all classes and occupations. The article by Geraldine Sheridan, “An Other Text: Rationalist Iconography and the Representation of Women’s Work in the Encyclopédie” from the journal Diderot Studies, was the article that most impressed me. Sheridan discusses France’s labor force, women’s roles within it, and how women and men were treated as if they were of different societal classes. She reveals that there is so much more to learn from the Encyclopédie than even Diderot imagined, for we have a somewhat sanitized “snapshot in time” of everyday life in France illustrated for us. By looking beyond the mechanical illustrations, we can glimpse their society in action.

My original short paper was difficult for me to write, simply because I felt limited on time, and felt that the subject deserved to be studied more in depth. So, when I was invited by Professor Anderson-Riedel to write an Honors Thesis, it was with great gusto that I agreed to continue this research throughout 2017, and to presenting my finalized paper at the Honors Symposium in April 2018.

I was thrilled to find out through Professor Anderson-Riedel that Sheridan has published a book entitled “Louder Than Words: ways of seeing women workers in eighteenth-century France”. Professor Anderson-Riedel requested that the Libraries purchase this book, and it has since been added to UNM’s Parish Library collection. It has been instrumental to my ongoing study.

The timing of this research has made my quest all the more germane. As women’s roles in modern society are being vigorously challenged in political spheres, and as women push back against harassment, for more equitable wages, and recognition for our work, understanding how “traditional values” are embedded within our history is paramount. The limits of Enlightenment thinkers to recognize their equals gives us insight into how difficult it is, even for the most educated among us, to let go of our ingrained biases. Even the most educated, progressive philosophers of our society are the result of our collective cultural roots.

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