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Circulating Gender in the Global Enlightenment: Ideas, Networks, Agencies

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CIRGEN (Circulating Gender in the Global Enlightenment: Ideas, Networks, Agencies)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

CIRGEN’s key aim is to offer a transnational and transdisciplinary perspective on the circulation of discussions on gender in Europe and its colonial territories during the Enlightenment, paying particular attention to Southern Europe and the Hispanic world, spaces not sufficiently considered in existing scholarship.

Focusing on processes of cultural transfer and mediation (as well as obstacles to circulation and cultural misunderstandings), our project goes beyond approaches that consider gender in the Enlightenment from a national perspective, in terms of centers and peripheries, or from an Anglo-centric and Franco-centric standpoint. By problematizing the cultural geographies of the Enlightenment, it provides a more complex understanding of the plural and gendered paths to modernity, as well as of its limits and its paradoxes.

Using interdisciplinary approaches from cultural and intellectual history, history of science, and postcolonial studies, we explore the circulation of notions of gender in five distinct but interrelated areas: Translation, Sociability and Networks, Travel, Reading, and Sensibility.

The overall objectives of CIRGEN are: 1) to evidence the transnational and transatlantic dimension of discussions on gender going beyond existing national or comparative perspectives; 2) to decenter customary radial and vertical perspectives about the dissemination of gender models and roles by highlighting pluri-centric cultural transfers and multilateral dialogues both within Europe and beyond; 3) to challenge dichotomous visions of the Enlightenment as either intrinsically misogynistic or feminist avant la lettre by stressing its plurality and contested legacy to the modern world; 4) to understand the role played by gender in the cultural geographies of Enlightenment, with a particular emphasis on the symbolic construction of the “South”; 5) to document the practical and symbolic role of women in the making of modern reading publics; 6) and to advance current scholarship on gendered categorization of emotions by pinning down their role in defining national identities and moral standards of civilization.

Our project will help revise and overcome national, gender and ethnic prejudices exploring in depth how models of gender underlaid discussions of “national characters”, processes of “civilization”, and social and racial differences, and by understanding these developments as open-ended, not teleologically determined. CIRGEN is strongly committed to disseminating this research to different types of publics, academic and non-academic (students, teachers, and the general public) to achieve societal impact.
From the beginning of the project in 2019, we have worked to achieve these goals through our five axes of research.

1.We have analyzed the impact translations and adaptations had on the controversies over the nature and education of women, the so-called querelle des femmes. Our ongoing repertoire of translations of debates on gender will significantly enrichen existing ones, focused on France and Britain, and give a more encompassing view of international circulation that also involves Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Americas. At the same time, our case studies of women translators of scientifical works in the Hispanic world reveal forms of gendered popularization of specialized knowledge that had not been previously explored in these territories.

2.In sociability and networks, we have studied women’s involvement in a global world, including their interaction with male scientific networks and their mediating role in diplomatic and epistolary circles, with a specific attention to the important role of island as nodes in global networks. By exploring the different levels of connection that they built or used (personal, symbolic, direct, and indirect; through travel, epistolary exchange, personal and family links, and reading), we are expanding ideas of Enlightened sociability and reframing the very notion of what constitutes a network.

3.Concerning travel and the making of gendered geographies, our forthcoming book on the cultural, gendered construction of the “South” in the 18th and 19th centuries problematizes the single narrative of Orientalization. It nuances the idea of Southern Europe as an “internal Other” by looking at the interplay between external gazes and self-representations and by underlining the plurality of positions linked to gender, class, nation, political ideologies, and personal circumstances. Also, our work in progress on the Hispanic occupation of Tahiti complicates dichotomies between centres and peripheries.

4. As far as women readers are concerned, the database Writing for Women in the Eighteenth-century, in construction, will help us to explore the circulation of books targeting female publics, the very notion of “literature for women”, and the transnational and transatlantic circulation of debates on gender. In parallel, we have already begun to study how the woman reader symbolized wider non-specialist readerships, and what counts as a female library, given that women often managed and made use of family and conjugal book collections.

5.In relation to sensibility and gender, we have explored the body/mind relationship in physiological models of passions and discussed the embodied dimensions of emotions in theories of amorous matching, as well as probed reversed images of the sentimental ideals such as the gendered paradoxes of solitude in the age of sociability.

Our work along these lines has resulted so far in 12 peer-reviewed publications, one conference and 8 seminars, more than 40 papers at conferences and workshops, and many outreach actions. See more about our activities in our website (
The results of our research will impact on the areas of Enlightenment and global history, on women’s and gender history, on cultural and translation studies and studies of gender and science. Our approaches contribute to decenter usual perspectives in several ways.

On the one hand, looking at Enlightenment cultural geographies from a gender perspective and from the standing point of Southern Europe and the Hispanic world pushes forward key debates in Enlightenment studies. It helps to problematize the too sharp division between radical and moderate Enlightenments, and it refocuses current international discussion on the “Catholic Enlightenment” to avoid the pitfalls of seeing Catholicism either as essentially antimodern or as the true crucible of modernity.

By focusing on historical actors that are not those usually privileged in global and transnational histories (merchants, explorers, agents of empire) we challenge identification of eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism as male to investigate how women crossed borders and oceans, either in physical or symbolic ways. This requires revising conceptual notions such as that of ‘cultural mediation’ and interrogating in imaginative ways sources where women are usually less visible than men.

The ways in which we combine broader perspectives with a biographical approach allow us to bridge usual separation between cultural, social, and political history, public and private, male and female, the global and the local.

Finally, we contribute to the “material turn” in History and the Humanities by exploring the performativity of gender, particularly the role of material objects in the gendering of the senses.
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