A woman not lost to history



Opinion columnist Kevin Wiggins sheds light on Émilie du Châtelet, an important figure of the Enlightenment who is often forgotten or written out of history, and the importance of including women in the discourse.


Émilie du Châtelet is quite possibly one of the most badass women you’ve never heard about. Born in 1706, Émilie was a philosopher, physicist, mathematician and even with all this, she is only remembered for being Voltaire’s mistress. Her career achievements include discovering infrared radiation, proving that fire is a state rather than a substance, developing the first workable theory of kinetic energy as well as being the first woman admitted to the Royal Academié. She did all of this without attending a university or having any formal education. Despite all of these achievements, she is all but forgotten outside of the French-speaking world.

In 1725, Émilie was married off to the Marquis du Châtelet. As an aristocratic woman in the 1700’s, she was expected to help improve both her husband and her family’s political future. Bluntly put, she had to use her body and charm to secure promotions for her family. That was until François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, stumbled into her life at a party in the early 1730s. Aristocratic life in Paris was essentially the equivalent of an episode of Jersey Shore, but with philosophy professors, priests and artists thrown in the mix. So, in 1733, the lovers said to hell with the hoity-toity drama of Parisian society. Émile’s on-paper-husband saw an excuse to not dirty his boots in the country. So, he excitedly gave her and her mister the chateau keys and off they went for the countryside.

Effectively retiring from public life, the two set off on an intellectual tour de force. Voltaire and Émilie were a complimentary duo that gives Sherlock and Watson a run for their money. Supposedly, Émilie aided Voltaire with his “Elements of the Philosophy of Newton.” She helped with the scientific intricacies which Voltaire struggled with. A few years later, the two entered an essay contest over the question of what fire is. They disagreed, so Émilie decided to enter separately, disagreeing with Voltaire that fire was a condition, not a substance. Neither won, but as it turned out, Émilie was right.

What is even more extraordinary about Émilie is her pure abandon for the respectable norms of her time. She wanted to be a philosophé and she had the brains to achieve what so many men of her time yearned to be. She touched everything from physics to philosophy. The figurehead of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, has even been accused of lifting her ideas in his “Thoughts on The True Estimation of Living Forces.” She was a true person (not man) of the Enlightenment. She covered every inch of the Enlightenment project, all without the formal education afforded her male counterparts.

One of the most striking things that Émilie wrote was a complete critique of the entire Bible. This at a time when atheism was illegal, but also when the Catholic church was at the height of its political stranglehold on French society. She went through the Bible verse by verse, pointing out inadequacies, inconsistencies and implausible happenings as she went striking with venomous articulacy. There’s no English translation of her work in its entirety, but her pen holds its strength even in translation…

“In Genesis, Moses depicts God as…capable of jealousy, anger, revenge, repentance — in other words, with all the faults of men. If God wanted to depict himself in an appealing way, he should at least have depicted himself with qualities that bring respect for men and not those that make them hate him.”

Émilie’s scholarship and biblical exegesis is a blistering, uncompromisingly radiant pieces of work. It was never formally published due to the nature of the times she lived in but was circulated among her friends.

As I hope I’ve shown you, Émilie is by far one of the most gripping figures of the Enlightenment. Her erasure from the canon of the popular history of science is criminal. As history moves on, perhaps we can grow more aware of those the past forgot so that we don’t forget the work of people today. There are historical facts, and there are the things history remembers. The historian’s job is necessarily and critically conservative – to determine what about our world today is worth conserving. Over 98 percent of what was written by the Ancient Greeks has been lost to us. Of that, only one female author has been identified. Perhaps, just perhaps, now we can preserve as much of the history of humankind as possible. By doing this, we would give future generations a complete past and one worth remembering, one where badasses like Émilie du Châtelet are on every page.