Montesquieu's Political Analysis of the Woman Problem in the Persian Letters

I-Kai Jeng


This paper discusses why Montesquieu sees the woman problem as particularly important for political philosophy through an interpretation of significant passages in his Persian Letters. It defends two claims. First, contrary to a common view that in Montesquieu's ideal political community, men and women each perform tasks that are suitable to their natures, it shows that the true ideal pursued is a gender-free equality. Second, the optimistic picture presented of Parisian politics and mores in Montesquieu's times in the Persian Letters is not meant as an endorsement or justification of French society. Instead, they are presented positively only insofar as they are potentially transitional stages towards genuine equality. These two claims will be defended as follows. Section 1 introduces the terms by which Montesquieu understands and articulates the woman problem: nature and convention, the standard for evaluating political regimes, and what he means by the “springs” of these regimes. Section 2 turns to a close analysis of the un/equal love relations between men and women in Persia (representing despotism), Paris (monarchy), and a love story symbolizing republican regimes. In that section it becomes clear that a republic and the gender equality it entails constitute the desirable, if practically infeasible, ideal in Montesquieu's estimation. Section 3 concludes with a close reading and comparison of three letters in the novel, which suggest both Montesquieu’s moderate optimisim concerning reform within monarchy and bleak prospects for improvement within despotism.


Montesquieu; The Woman Problem; Persian Letters; Equality

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