Early Modern Philosophy

Gender and Early Modern Women Philosophers

Would marriage have changed the emotional lives of seventeenth century philosophers?

The answer is not clear. In the seventeenth century, primogeniture, or leaving the entire inheritance of a father to his oldest son, was the norm. About one-quarter of younger sons in the middle classes did not marry because they could not afford to set up households or find brides with substantial dowries. Child mortality was between 30 and 50 percent of all live births, and after 20 years of marriage it was highly unlikely that both spouses would still be alive.

These statistics rendered family relationships more dependent on roles than on individual emotional attachments based on distinct personalities. (During the early modern period, people did not marry for what we consider to be romantic reasons.) None of this is to say that there were not strong lifelong friendships between men and women. Philosophers such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Gottfried Leibniz had long-term female correspondents, but it is doubtful that they knew what we would call “love.”


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