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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Marie le Jars de Gournay

b. 1565, Paris; d. 1645, Paris

Neither marriage nor the convent—the life options available to bourgeois women—appealed to Marie de Gournay. Her father, a minor official at the French court, died in 1577, leaving his wife and six children in financial straits. To economize, the family moved to a provincial estate, where Marie, the eldest, faced a dearth of educational opportunities. Mustering her own resources, she taught herself Latin (eventually translating the works of numerous classical authors). Intellectually and psychologically isolated, under constant pressure to marry, and uncertain of her own capacities, she experienced an epiphany in the writings of Michel de Montaigne, which, she later stated, “revealed me to myself” (Dykeman, Neglected Canon, 82). She wrote an admiring letter to the man who had become her spiritual father and he responded enthusiastically. The friendship was life-changing for both of them—Montaigne adopted de Gournay as his daughter and appointed her executor of his literary estate. After his death in 1592, she prepared a new edition of his Essays (1595), thus launching herself into the world of letters. In 1596, she settled into a life of genteel poverty in Paris, writing poetry and literary essays, translating classics, and attending the glittering salons of Marguerite de Valois, who had become a patron. Her conservative stances on literature and religion generated venemous attacks, such as the pamphlet L’anti-Gournay, published in 1610. In the 1620s, her most productive years, she penned two feminist tracts, The Equality of Men and Women (1622) and The Ladies’ Complaint (1626). While both are spirited assaults on the second-class status of women, the second dispenses with abstract irony and reveals a bitterness grounded in personal experience.