Enlightened Émilie: The 18th Century Feminist Before Feminism

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By Ed Rampell

Of Femmes, Physics and Philosophes

There is some encouraging chatter about the steady closing of the gender gap in the sciences, despite a 2012 Yale University study which concluded that: “Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.” (This was reported by Eileen Pollack in the New York Times Magazine, in 2013). The study further notes that only one-fifth of all PhDs in physics awarded in the United States go to women, and only half of those women are American.

Furthermore, writes Vivian Zhang in Forbes this year, women hold only 26% of all data jobs in the United States.

So what are the prejudices and influences, overt and unconscious, that have kept, and still keep, the sciences a man’s world? Arguments range from biological predisposition to temperament to misogyny, and the lack of encouragement of women to study math and science in schools and universities, to the lack of stories about women in science. It’s on that last point that Coeurage Theatre Company is stepping in.

The troupe’s latest production, Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, explores the life of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, an 18th century Frenchwoman who worked in math and physics in a time when intelligence was considered a gendered trait, and a female working in the sciences was unheard of.

“Émilie was part of the French king’s court and a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher – a savant, very brilliant, with little training. She was self-taught,” and her theories later supported Albert Einstein’s 20th century theory of relativity, explains Sammi Smith, who plays the title role. As an author, Émilie Du Châtelet translated Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking works on physics and was the first female to have a scientific paper published by France’s Academy of Sciences.

Smith added that “Émilie’s character is unapologetic about what she had to contribute to the world,” as well as for her unconventional lifestyle. She defied 18th century patriarchal gender norms and taboos by having a child out of wedlock and practicing a form of open marriage.

Émilie had a long term affair with renowned French Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire (played here by Marc Forget), a philosopher and writer of novels, operas, and plays. Voltaire’s most famous work is arguably Candide (1759), which Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein co-adapted as a Broadway musical, 200 years later.

Émilie may have lived during the Age of Reason, but this free thinker remains strikingly relevant. “It’s interesting how bold she was, and it was a revolutionary thing at that time,” observed Donelle, adding that being an iconoclastic woman who shattered all the sexist tropes of her time.

On the other hand, she wrote and embraced her own rules, insists the director. “Feminism is about choice and for women being able to balance relationships, careers, families, and their aspirations… It’s still a revolutionary concept that a woman can stand on her own and not have to rely on anyone else to have confidence and success.” One could argue the bold, brilliant, and “brazen” (as Donelle dubbed her) Émilie was a feminist before there was feminism, a woman who (dangerously) insisted on living life on her own terms.

Nevertheless, there’s a price to be paid for challenging society’s norms. Without disclosing plot spoilers, does Gunderson’s play prove that “biology is destiny” and you can’t have it all, after all? Donelle laughed: “There’s a beautiful message in it: keep asking the questions. That’s the most important part of life. You won’t get everything you want and it does have an end. Life doesn’t go on and on.”

Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is being performed on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with additional performances on Wednesdays, September 6 and 13 at 8:00 p.m. The final performance is on Sunday, September 17 at 7:00 p.m. at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax, Los Angeles, CA 90036. For more information: See: www.greenwaycourtheatre.org/emilie or call (213)944-2165. Free parking is in adjacent lot.

Coeurage Theatre Company strives “to make impassioned theatre accessible for all audiences through Pay What You Want admission and fresh, challenging productions.”

Read Stage Raw’s review here.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.