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One Woman’s Gender Revolution in 17th-Century France

Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693), the first cousin to King Louis XIV, was the wealthiest unmarried woman of her time. How did she overcome the constraints of her day and, at the same time, affirm her social identity?

In her book, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Writings, Châteaux, and Female Self-Construction in Early Modern France, Borough of Manhattan Community College Professor Sophie Maríñez offers some intriguing answers.

Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693)
Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693)

Montpensier’s iconoclastic spirit first came to the fore when she participated in the Fronde, a series of civil wars between 1648 and 1653 contesting the French crown’s growing authority. She lost favor with her noble peers and fled to Saint-Fargeau, a commune in north-central France, where she began the dual process of reconstructing her family’s chateau and constructing her own political consciousness — articulated through memoirs, letters, and novels. “Montpensier thought she was better off being unmarried than having to marry someone imposed by her family,” Maríñez says. “She wrote letters to a friend in which she imagined a retreat where men and women could live away from the court, free from the constraints of marriage.” 

Montpensier built or rebuilt a total of four chateaux during her life: two during her first exile, another during her second exile (for refusing to marry the king of Portugal), and another towards the end of her life after a failed relationship. “Every time she had this crisis, she went back to architecture as a way of rebuilding herself,” Maríñez explains. “Back then, architecture was a way to express your rank and who you were.”

While Montpensier’s family money gave her a life of tremendous privilege, she still broke ground in a society grappling with “la querelle des femmes” — a centuries-long debate over women’s natural inferiority to men and duty to marry. “I think she shows so much resilience in the conflicts she had with her father and the king, how she fought back through all those years,” Maríñez says. “Ultimately, it’s a story about female courage and strength.”

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Book Cover: 'Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Writings, Châteaux, and Female Self-Construction in Early Modern France' by Sophie Maríñez
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Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Writings, Châteaux, and Female Self-Construction in Early Modern France
Brill, 2017, Year

Work By
Sophie Maríñez (Professor, Modern Languages) | Profile

Colleges and Schools
Borough of Manhattan Community College

Bonus Content
A 17th-Century Champion for Women’s Autonomy Inspires Student Learning (BMCC News)

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