English author H.G. Wells envisioned a future of alien invasion and time travel. He dabbled in dystopian nightmares and conjured up mad scientists and invisible men. And, to the disgust of two of his feminist lovers, he imagined a utopia where “women are to be as free as men.”

Advertisements

How the dangerously powerful words of two of history’s original “nasty women,” Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft, were silenced, suppressed, and nearly lost to history.

Almost 350 years after it was written, the feminist philosophy of François Poullain de la Barre still resonates on subjects like gender, prejudice, intersectionality, and the role of men in women’s fight for equality.

Joan of Arc, Countess Emilia Plater, Wonder Woman: Singular women placed on a pedestal, carefully arranged and served on a silver platter of inimitable exceptionalism, meant to be admired for their sacrifice, but not duplicated. These are the flawed foundations of the stories of “heroic” women that have helped insure that the concept of the women warrior remains an anomaly more akin to a fictional superhero than an accepted reality.

While the stories of history’s first female doctors of philosophy are inspiring, they also highlight the galling realities of women’s centuries-long struggle to obtain equal educational opportunities and professional and intellectual respect. Seen as a whole, they have the power to light a fire beneath armchair inspiration and provoke similarly bold and progressive action.

In an age when wealthy Americans visited Europe either to sell off their daughters in marriage to titled men or to buy up European culture and historical heritage, Edith Wharton and Natalie Clifford Barney went there in search of gender and intellectual equality. They found it in France.