Nisita '12 Examines Emilie du Châtelet's Influence on Feminism

Lexi Nisita '12
Lexi Nisita '12
To modern-day feminists, the canon of authors and thinkers who contributed to the movement are well known and oft-repeated; Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar and de Beauvoir are a few. But Lexi Nisita ’12, in conjunction with an Emerson grant, is seeking to add one more name to this list: Emilie du Châtelet, a philosopher better known as Voltaire’s longtime companion.

Nisita first heard of the Marquise Emile du Châtelet in her Art of Translation class taught by Burgess Professor of French Roberta Krueger, who is now advising Nisita on her project. Du Châtelet was a French aristocrat who lived during the first half of the 18th century, coinciding with the Enlightenment in France. But as Nisita tried to delve deeper into du Châtelet’s life and writing, she was disappointed to find that most of the literature about her focused on her relationship with the poet Voltaire and did not give her the credit she deserved. Du Châtelet is even less well known in the United States; her works were first translated into English in 2006.
“[Besides her relationship with Voltaire,] du Châtelet is mostly known today for her contributions to science; in particular, her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica was the first ever into French and is still widely used today,” Nisita said. But not only was du Châtelet a mathemetician and physicist, she was a philosopher as well; Nisita is focusing her research most heavily on du Châtelet’s Discours sur le bonheur (Discourse on Happiness) as well as the brief introduction she wrote accompanying her translation of English satirist Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.

While the subject matter of her book Discours sur le bonheur was hardly uncommon fodder for the time, du Châtelet includes a subtle current of feminism in much of her work. “I believe that while the Discours and the introduction to the Fable of the Bees are not blatantly feminist, they are an attempt to reclaim vices traditionally associated with women, whether by way of literal, contemporary stereotypes or ancient archetypes like Eve and Pandora,” Nisita explained. The reconciliation of “vices” that women stereotypically display, such as excessive spending, pleasure seeking, oversensitivity and passion, with the potential for a happy life spoke volumes to Nisita. Du Châtelet countered a Christian, patriarchal view of happiness by saying that women can be happy just as they are and Nisita shows that this message makes du Châtelet a feminist, if an inadvertent one.

As a philosophy and French double major, Nisita jumped at the opportunity to analyze the ill-remembered contemporary of famous philosophers like Descartes and Hume. Besides better contextualizing an important philosophical period, Nisita credits her interest in the project to “raising recognition of this extraordinary woman and her contributions to the complex world of French feminism.”

Nisita graduated from Saint Paul Academy and Summit School in Saint Paul, Minn.
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