How History Remembers Emilie du Chatelet

While Emilie’s translation in Principia remain her best-known work, it is often her long-time affair with Voltaire that is highlighted. When reading Emilie’s story one is struck by her knowledge and ability to be successful in what was then completely and utterly a  “man’s world”. I was intrigued by her story, but as I began to conduct research about her I was dismayed that, in many cases, Emilie’s relationship with Voltaire is mentioned as one of the main components of her life.  The Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes her life as: “French Voltaire (age 41) by Maurice Quentin de La Tourmathematician and physicist who was the mistress of Voltaire.” To contrast, her name is mentioned nowhere in his introduction paragraphs. Historically speaking, his fame and contributions far outweigh hers. But, I cannot help but feel that there is a subtle, yet powerful, distinction in how history remembers female accomplishments as compared to male accomplishments. Even in the NOVA show, which originally peaked my interest about Emilie, they made her affair with Voltaire prominent. Yet, when presenting the story on Einstein, made mention of his affair, but it was not a prominent part of the story. Some might argue that the prominence of an affair in history’s eyes depends on whom the affair was with. However, I would argue that history is quick to record and make prominent the affairs of women and equally as quick to look past such affairs when the subject is a man. Her work on Principia made Newton’s work accessible to French scholars and her work on the algebraic synthesis in the book helped propel Newtonian science forward. Principia was finally published in 1759, ten years after Emilie’s death—it remains the only French translation of the Principia.In the preface Voltaire wrote, “No woman was ever more learned than she was, yet no one deserved less than she did to be called a blue-stocking. She only ever spoke about science to those from whom she thought she could learn; never did she discuss it to attract attention to herself. She was not ever seen gathering around her those circles which wage battles of the mind, where one sets up a kind of tribunal and passes judgment on one’s century – which then in its turn judges you most severely. For a long time she moved in circles which did not know her worth and she paid no attention to such ignorance. … I saw her, one day, divide a nine-figure number by nine other figures, in her head, without any help, in the presence of a mathematician unable to keep up with her.” (from O’Connor and Robertson Chatelet Biography, para. 30).

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2 Comments

  1. bxoxo said,

    this woman made an extreme impact and more women today should follow in her foot steps by making a difference as a woman!

  2. Nicole the Photographer said,

    do you mean all the women university graduates and medical students who now outnumber the men????

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