The Senses in the Construction of Gender

deadline for submissions: 
June 30, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Line Cottegnies/ Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3

International Conference : « The Senses and the Construction of Gender (XVIth - XVIIIth Century) »

 30-31 March 2018

 Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 / Université Versailles-Saint-Quentin (France)

Over the past three decades, research on the discourses on the equality/inequality between the sexes has intensified. In the context of the British Isles, it has particularly focused on the period 1540-1640 which was particularly prolific on the subject in the wake of the Reformation, Renaissance humanism and the succession of three queens on the English and Scottish thrones. The controversies of that time reactivated at least four debates inherited from the middle Ages: the debate on marriage, the contest for knowledge, the debate on woman’s rule and finally the debate about clothes and gender roles. Those debates raised the following questions: was it in the interest of both sexes to be married? Should women have access to education and culture for their benefit and that of society at large? Could women rule without being de facto tyrants? And finally, a question that might sound subsidiary but which makes perfect sense in the light of the others: could men and women cross-dress without turning the world upside down?

In most cases, the scholarly works that have analyzed those different debates have focused on the differences between men and women in terms of intellectual and moral abilities that formed the core of the arguments of the philogynists and the misogynists. In so doing, they have almost entirely left out if not the body at least the five senses. Yet historians of the senses such as Constance Classen, Robert Jütte and David Howes have shown that the five senses were used in the various attempts to build a gender hierarchy in the XVIth, XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. On the one hand, the senses were used to oppose one sex to the other, with man being traditionally described as a reasonable animal contrary to woman presented as a sensual creature. On the other hand, the masculine and the feminine have in turn been used to build a hierarchy between the senses since Plato and Aristotle, as for example, in De Sensu by Charles Bouvelles (1470-1559), and down to Molyneux’s problem and Locke’s empiricism. The noble senses (sight and hearing), traditionally associated with the mind, have thus been considered as masculine and the senses of proximity (taste, smell and touch), more corporeal, as feminine. It is not surprising therefore that Biblical exegesis should have attributed the responsibility of the fall to Eve’s greediness.

 The senses were also used in the ancient theories of gender and sex, still influential in the early modern period, to differentiate between men and women from a sensory perspective. The male sensorium was seen as distinct from the female sensorium. In the humoral theory developed in the Hippocratic corpus on which the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medicine was still based, woman is cold and wet while man is warm and dry. People also believed that they could tell man and woman apart by touching them, smelling them, looking at them or listening to them. According to the poet Lucretius, men’s scent is sweet while women’s stench is disgusting and foul, and in Socrates’ thought, borrowing the perfume of the opposite sex was as reprehensible as cross-dressing. As Thomas Laqueur demonstrated in an important work entitled Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), the advances in medicine in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, and particularly in physiology, redefined the sexes along anatomical and physiological lines, which led to a more precise – and to some extent normative – definition of female sensitivity.

 Finally, Aristotle (in Generation of Animals) argues in favour of colour-gender norms to distinguish between men and women visually: for the former, dark clothes indicating their strength and gravity, for the latter, and merely for the sake of symmetry, light colours. This gender-specific apparel, however, has evolved over the centuries and it would be interesting to delve into what Elisabeth Fisher has called “a chromatic taxonomy” of clothes at all stages of life from the XVIth to the XVIIIth century.[1]. In addition, the different sounds produced by the two sexes with their clothes, jewellery, musical instruments or any other objects as well as their voices are also elements that can potentially be gendered and used to classify the sexes. Beside the research on shrews and gossips, who were stock characters in the popular pamphlets of the Querelle, gender-specific sounds in the early modern period have been little studied. It would therefore be interesting to investigate the various sources that can be used to try to make the sounds and vocal activity of the two sexes heard again.

 The aim this conference is to investigate the role played by the senses in shaping gender differences. How did the senses help justify gender inequalities and stigmatize any form of rebellion against masculine domination ; how did different discourses on the senses in pamphlets, treatises or plays nevertheless surface to defend the opposite theses of female superiority or of the equality between the sexes ? Paintings and engravings representing the five senses could also be used, perhaps, to shed light on this question and encourage us, in the wake of Margaret Zimmerman’s invitation, to look for “the Querelle of the sexes” in different and less common places.[2]

 Finally, in the perspective inaugurated by Linda Woodbridge,[3] we shall also seek to historicize contemporary theoretical and literary discourses in the light of the social history of women in the British Isles. We will for instance try to highlight the mechanisms of socialisation for men and women which are based on the senses, sometimes from early childhood, on the ground that they were shaped in a predetermined way which defined everyone’s position in society. Prescriptive literature (conduct books, sermons, treatises on education, etc…) and newsbooks can be used to bring to the fore the rules of civility which were designed to restrain the appetite (for instance), as also to codify the way men and women were supposed to look at or to touch things and people, or to modulate their voices when they spoke. The specific objects that helped give shape to these gendered codes can also be studied here.

 The conference organizers welcome papers on questions such as:

1. How did misogynists use the senses in their argument to justify gender hierarchy through the alleged inability of women to keep their senses under check? Through the theory of a sensorial plot hatched by women to blind men and even disempower them? By the association between the senses and moral degradation? Between the senses and mysticism, or witchcraft, or possession?

2. How did philogynists defend women and gender equality through: the disparagement of men as sensual creatures and the praise of women as rational creatures; a reappraisal of the feminine senses and of women’s sensory abilities?

 3. Which aspects of early women’s position met with positive or negative responses in these discourses in terms of: rules and precepts? Ownership and use of gendered objects? Practices of corporal mortification? Criminalisation and corporal punishments (scold’s bridle, cucking stool)?

 Abstracts of about 150 words for 25-minute papers should be sent to the following address :, before 30 June 2016.

 Organizers:  Armel Dubois-Nayt, Line Cottegnies, Claire Boulard et Isabelle Bour (PEARL - PRISMES : EA 4398), Université Sorbonne Nouvelle / DYPAC : EA 2449, Université Versailles-Saint-Quentin.


[1] « Robes et Culottes courtes : l’habit fait-il le sexe ? », in A. Dafflon Novelle, Filles-Garçons : Sociabilisation différenciée ?, Grenoble, PUG, 2006, p. 241-266.

[2] « The Querelle des Femmes as a Cultural Studies Paradigm », in A. Jacobson Schutte, T. Kuehn & S. Seidel Menchi (éd.), Time, Space, and Women’s Lives in Early Modern Europe, Kirksville (Missouri), Truman State UP, 2001, p.17-28.

[3] Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance : Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620, Brighton : Harvester, 1984.