Florence Harding – Wild Child

Young Florence Harding

In 1920, when Warren G. Harding was running for President of the United States, he had secrets to hide, many secrets; and they all had female names. In fact, one of his mistresses is the only person, that we know of, to successfully blackmail a presidential nominee. But, he wasn’t the only one with a past that they wanted to keep hidden. His wife Florence had a few indiscretions of her own.

Florence Kling Harding was supposed to be a boy, at least in the mind of her father. When Amos Kling and his wife, Louisa, were expecting their first child, he told everyone around town in Marion, Ohio, that the child would be a boy. Aside from just wanting a boy, Amos owned a successful hardware store which required much of his time; a son could work along side him and eventually take over the business. So on August 15, 1860 when Florence Mabel, Flossie, was born, although Amos resented the fact that she wasn’t a boy, he had a practical solution. He would raise her as if she were a boy.

From the time Flossie could walk, Amos took her with him to the store. It became an environment that she would always be comfortable in, the sights, smells, sounds, and the company of men. As she grew, Amos trained her in the running of the store and his other businesses as they came about. By the time Flossie was a teenager, Amos had expanded into banking, real estate, and land/tenant management. He had also become a very wealthy man.

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence’s education was extensive, including subjects not always studied by women such as math, rhetoric, logic, Greek, and Latin. She was also very active physically, running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her favorite outdoor activity was horseback riding. Many of her Marian neighbors commented that she was the best horsewoman they had ever seen. (I suspect she was better than many of the men as well.)

All of this continued in spite of the fact that Florence had two younger brothers. Amos never switched his training to the boys. He was a tyrant in the home and it seems that Louisa and the two boys were more submissive, and thus less like Amos in personality than Florence. She was just as competitive and driven as he was and perhaps that’s why he seemed to favor her, but as is the case with many strong-willed children of overbearing parents, there came a time when Florence rebelled against Amos’ demands.

Florence also showed a talent for music. She spent hours practicing the piano, one time for eight hours, until her fingers bled. Music for the sake of art didn’t mean anything to Amos, but he was a firm believer that a woman should be able to provide for herself if necessary. For this reason, he allowed Florence to enroll at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she would have a means to support herself by giving piano lessons. Her ambition, however, was to become a concert pianist.

Amos Kling

Amos Kling

Cincinnati was the country’s center of culture in the west and it opened up a new world to Florence. A world that she reveled in, a world with new people and experiences, but more importantly, a world of independence. After only a year, Amos called Florence home. Whether it was to take care of things at home while her mother was ill, as he said, or because he wanted to reign in his newly liberated daughter, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he released a tiger that he couldn’t put back in the cage.

Amos tried to impose his own standards on Florence once again and their arguments were long and loud, sometimes lasting all night and heard in the street outside their home. More than once he locked her out of the house when she didn’t return before curfew. Sometimes she crawled into the window of her best friend Carrie Phillips, but other times who knows. Amos particularly disliked the fact that she was *gasp* hanging around the new roller rink in town.

Roller skating was a new fad that was sweeping the country. It gave young men and women a chance to socialize and listen to music, and if a few proprieties were breached well, you had to keep your balance, right? In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1885 passed on a minister’s warning that roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.” As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Florence became interested in a young man, Henry De Wolfe, Pete to his friends. Amos was livid, which of course made Pete that much more attractive.

Couple roller skatingFor young women who feel trapped at home, there is one way of escape which has often been used, although it can sometimes have dire consequences. Florence had never expressed a desire to marry or have children and a family like her mother. She had been greatly inspired by Clara Baur, the unmarried founder of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music who was a proponent of careers for women. But at the end of 1879, she found herself in trouble. Trouble that could provide a way out of her father’s house.

Kathleen Lawler, Florence’s long-time assistant said that Florence became pregnant to get away from Amos. Florence herself didn’t admit it, but in her diary early in 1880, she makes a cryptic statement: “Vice often comes in at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination.”

Pete was fun-loving and handsome, and he drank to excess. Just a year older than Florence, they grew up across the street from each other. Pete’s father, Simon, was one of the few men in town who wasn’t afraid of Amos Kling and there was no love lost between the two, so when Pete and Florence took up with each other people held their breath waiting for the explosion which was sure to occur. Neither family approved, but Simon was a different kind of man than Amos and when Pete told him that he had gotten Florence pregnant, Simon told him to take her up to “Columbus, and get married as soon as possible.” So in March 1880, Florence and Pete eloped to Columbus to get married. But, they didn’t.

Carl Anthony, Florence’s biographer, states in his book that there is no record of a marriage between a Kling and a DeWolfe for 10 years before or after 1880 in Franklin County (Columbus), Marion County, or in Crawford County, where they soon set up housekeeping. Florence may or may not have wanted it that way, but Amos had to believe that they were married to prevent him trying to force her back home. And it worked. Not only did Amos leave Florence to her “marriage”, he cut her off and refused to talk to her.

Life with Pete was difficult. They tried to run a roller skating rink, but failed, and Pete didn’t adjust well to the responsibility of a family. He would be gone for days at a time and finally, before their son Marshall was two years old, he deserted them. Florence had no choice except to return to Marion. A friend’s father was kind enough to allow her to stay at their house as she began to teach piano lessons, until she finally was able to raise enough to get a small apartment of her own.

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Even though Florence’s marriage was from all appearances a common law marriage, she did finally get a divorce from Pete in 1886. At that time there was some communication between Amos and Florence and he offered to provide for Marshall. The conditions were that Marshall would live in the Kling home and take the Kling name. Florence agreed.

Amos may have hated losing control of Florence, and hated the choices she made, but he had given her the tools to make them. She was now on her own, independent, free of responsibility for anyone but herself, and she set out to start over. She also set her sights on the dashing young publisher of The Marion Star, Warren G. Harding.

Young Warren Harding

Warren Harding

First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: “Roller Skating Fun

Lola Montez – “Countess for an Hour”

Lola Montez by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781 – 1858)

There are contradictions and unknown facts surrounding the fascinating life of Lola Montez. Many of these were generated by Lola herself through two small autobiographies. She also wrote several performance scripts about her own life. She claimed to have been born in Limerick Ireland on June 23, 1818. At least that is the date on her tombstone, but her birth certificate came to light in the late 1990s correcting the first of many misconceptions about Lola.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born to Elizabeth Oliver and Edward Gilbert February 17, 1821. Elizabeth was fourteen when she married Edward on April 29, 1820 in Cork, Ireland, so it’s clear that Elizabeth was not pregnant with Eliza when she married as some have alledged. Edward, an Ensign in the 25th Foot Regiment was stationed in India in 1823 and took his family with him. Later that year, he died of cholera, and Elizabeth soon married Lieutenant Patrick Craigie.

Both her father and stepfather were good to Eliza, but when she was sent to Scotland for school, she didn’t adjust very well. She first lived with Craigie’s father, then with his sister, and then was sent to boarding school. One of her teachers described her as elegant, graceful, and beautiful, with an “air of haughty ease.” She was also extravagant, impetuous, and had a violent temper. But at this point, her misbehavior was limited to putting flowers in the wig of the man in front of her in church, and supposedly running through the streets naked.

When Eliza was reunited with her mother in 1837, her mother proposed an arranged marriage with a 64 year old widower. Her response was to elope with 31 year old Lieutenant Thomas James. Eliza and Thomas were properly married in Dublin by his brother, and headed back to India where Thomas was stationed. The marriage didn’t last long, however. We don’t know which of them, if either, strayed from the marriage, but when Lola left India, she took up with George Lennox on the ship on the way home. They were not very discreet and were observed both on the ship and in a London hotel together.

At the age of 20, Eliza, or Mrs. Betty James as she called herself, was estranged from her mother and had begun to develop a scandalous reputation by eloping, abandoning her husband, and then having an illicit affair. She also needed a way to support herself, so she decided to become a Spanish dancer. She took dance lessons and then traveled to Spain to learn Spanish and Spanish dance. On June 3, 1843, she made her debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, billed as Donna Lola Montez.

Lola’s talent was questionable, but she was considered to be extraordinarily beautiful with a fabulous figure. Unfortunately, she was recognized by someone in the audience who shouted her name calling her Betty James. Deciding that because of her reputation, London wasn’t the right place to perform, she left and began to tour Europe. In 1844, she met and had an indiscreet affair with Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer. When the affair died out, she decided to go to Paris.

In Paris, Lola’s career was not successful, but she had some success as a courtesan beginning an affair with Alexander Dujarier, a young newspaper editor and owner. With Dujarier she was part of a literary crowd where she met and was rumored to have an affair with Alexander Dumas, pere. In 1845, Dujarier died in a duel unrelated to Lola. After the trial where his assailant was acquitted, she left Paris to go to Munich.

Presenting herself to the Bavarian court as a Spanish noblewoman, Lola became acquainted with King Ludwig I. He was captivated by her and made her his official mistress. Ludwig lavished gifts on Lola including a house with all the trappings and a substantial income. On his birthday, February 17, 1847, he went so far as to make her Countess Marie von Landsfeld, and bestow Bavarian citizenship on her.

Not content to be only a mistress, Lola began to give him advice about politics, typically siding with the middle class and students. This didn’t sit well with his aristocratic advisers and councilors, but in time, Lola’s extravagant lifestyle even turned the lower classes against her. Faced with evidence of her duplicity, Ludwig stood by her, but revolution was in the making and Lola was forced to flee the country after a mob destroyed much of her home. Eventually, Ludwig was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Although Lola continued to write passionate letters to Ludwig (and ask for money), they weren’t reunited and Lola returned to London.

At this point, Lola’s exploits were being followed in the press, and satirized in the theater. In April 1848 “Pas de Fascination, or Catching a Governor” premiered in London as “Lola Montez or Countess for an Hour” by J Sterling Coyne. When she returned to London, Lola may have kept a low profile, but that didn’t stop her from marrying George Trafford Heald in 1848. The problem was, that although Thomas James had gotten an official separation from the Church of England, divorces at the time could only be granted by an act of Parliament, so Lola wasn’t officially divorced. George’s aunt became suspicious and brought a bigamy suit against her. With a warrant out for Lola’s arrest the couple was forced to flee. For a couple of years, they lived in France and Spain, but soon the relationship faltered and Lola once again took off to reinvent herself, this time to the United States.

By this time, Lola was no longer an unknown. Her life had been widely reported in the English speaking world. Nevertheless, she traveled and performed in the eastern US from 1851 to 1853 before heading off to San Francisco, arriving in May 1853. In July, Lola entered into her third “marriage” to a reporter named Patrick Purdy Hull. The marriage lasted less than 3 months and she bought a mine in northern California where she settled down for a while until 1855.

Lola had always been volatile, but her raving seemed to increase during this time. She was suffering from severe headaches and poor health. She specifically railed against the Jesuits, accusing them of trying to poison her and shooting at her. A number of humorous plays had been written about her life and performed in Europe, and these were performed in California. She also wrote her autobiography which was filled with misinformation, possibly to try to counteract some of the negative things that had been written about her in the press and for the stage. It’s possible that her delusions of grandeur and feelings of paranoia at this time were the result of syphilis spreading to her brain.

In June of 1855, Lola decided to resume her career with a tour of Australia. She met with mixed reviews. In Melbourne, the theater audience began to decline after a review saying that her performance was “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” At Castlemaine, however, she received rave encores from a crowd of miners and the members of the Municipal Council. At one point, she attacked a reporter with a bullwhip in response to a bad review.

On May 22, 1856, Lola left Australia to return to San Francisco. On the return voyage, the man she had been involved with during her tour, and who had been acting as her manager, Frank Folland, fell overboard. It is unknown whether or not it was an accident or suicide, but his death seemed to have a profound impact on Lola. She sold her jewelry and gave the money to Folland’s children in an act that seemed out of character for her.

Lola Montez in 1851

Either because of Folland’s death, or because she was tired of the constant battles for the affection of the public, she gave up performing and began writing and lecturing, usually on topics related to beauty and the evils of Catholicism. She lectured in the US, Ireland, and London. Briefly, she tried to reestablish herself in London, but went into debt and fled creditors by returning to New York. For the last two years of her life, she joined the church and began the life of a reformer, working with prostitutes. She lived these years largely in poverty and after a series of strokes died on January 17, 1861. Her tombstone read Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.

Lola was portrayed by Carol Martine in the film Lola Montès (1955) directed by Max Ophüls. The film was refurbished and re-released in 2008 and featured at the Telluride and Cannes film festivals. You can see the trailer here.

Lola Montès trailer

Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders

Fanny Wright – “or a goose that deserves to be hissed”

“It will appear evident upon attentive consideration that equality of intellectual and physical advantages is the only sure foundation of liberty, and that such equality may best, and perhaps only, be obtained by a union of interests and cooperation in labor.” ~ Francis Wright

When the people gathered at Seneca Falls made their Declaration of Sentiments, and voted on their resolutions, the ideas weren’t new. There had been a number of women and men who had championed women’s rights over the years and laid the groundwork for the meeting in New York in 1848. The fact that Lucretia Mott could speak before a mixed group of men and women without ridicule, is testament to the fact that other women had paved the way. One of these women was Frances (Fanny) Wright.

Born September 6, 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, Fanny grew up well-taken care of, but somewhat isolated. Orphaned at the age of 2 and raised by relatives of moderate means, she was unusually well-educated for the time, partly due to access to a college library where an uncle taught. When she was 18, Fanny was introduced to intellectual circles in Glasgow and began writing poetry and plays. Thomas Jefferson filled pages of his commonplace book with quotes from her A Few Days in Athens, a fictionalized exploration of the philosophy of Epicurus, saying “it was a treat to me of the highest order.”

One thing that caught Fanny’s imagination was the new country across the Atlantic. Between 1818 and 1820 Fanny and her sister Camilla traveled around the new United States. They were well received into society, made many new friends, and even had Fanny’s play, Altorf, produced and published. To many it was a brazen act, having her name associated with a public production. On returning to Britain, she published an account of her travels as Views of Society and Manners in America. It was very complementary of the US and thus controversial as well. Fanny was becoming a woman to take seriously.

I think it’s fair to say she became enamored of the country and its possibilities. There was one blot, however, slavery. It disgusted her, but she seemed to understand the economic realities of the institution. In 1825, she wrote A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. In it she details a plan to provide slaves a way to earn their freedom while developing skills and education they would need to make it as free individuals. She was unable to get support from the government for her plan, but she was willing to invest her own resources to put her plan to the test.

In 1826 with support from Lafayette and then senator Andrew Jackson, Fanny purchased acreage in Tennessee, near Memphis, and established her utopian community – Nashoba. Starting with just over 300 acres, 30 slaves, her sister Camilla, and ten white volunteers, they began the experiment. It was hard work and although unaccustomed to manual labor Fanny worked alongside the slaves and volunteers.

At the end of the first year, having been ill much of the time, possibly with malaria, she was in need of rest and a different climate, so Fanny returned to England to raise funds and support for her vision. While she was gone things fell apart. Accounts of harsh treatment of slaves, and sexual relationships outside of marriage and between whites and blacks, reached the newspapers and caused a general uproar among the public. Although Fanny’s unconventional views of marriage and sexual freedom meant that she was not overly concerned with much of the behavior, the community had drifted away from her original vision. It was not a success financially and they had been unable to sustain the atmosphere of cooperation and respect that she envisioned. In 1829, Fanny granted the slaves their freedom and transported them to Haiti where they could begin new lives.

Fanny moved to New Harmony, Indiana, another failed utopian settlement started by a friend from England, Robert Owen. Although the communal aspects of New Harmony were unsuccessful, it was still a secular community, where Fanny’s ideas were more welcome than in Tennessee. She joined Robert Dale Owen, the son, in publishing the New Harmony Gazette where she found a powerful vehicle for spreading her ideas. And she had plenty of ideas. Fanny spoke out for women’s rights, birth control, sexual freedom, equality between the sexes and races. She advocated a system of free, secular public schools, greater separation of church and state, and challenged organized religion.

On July 4, 1828, Fanny spoke at the Independence Day celebration in New Harmony. She was a tremendous success and decided to set out to take her message to others in the country. Not only was she an excellent writer, but she was an eloquent speaker. Frances Trollope said,all my expectations fell far short of the splendor, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator.” People flocked to hear her, some because they were interested in her ideas, but many because of the controversy. She was controversial, not only because of her topics, but because it was unheard of for a woman to speak in front of a mixed crowd, leading to accusations of “promiscuity” in her meetings and being called “The Great Red Harlot.”

‘A DownWright Gabbler, or a goose that deserves to be hissed –,’ an 1829 caricature of Frances Wright.

After touring, Fanny and Robert Dale Owen relocated to New York, renamed the New Harmony Gazette the Free Enquirer and became leaders in the free thought movement and increasingly in the labor movement. Many of Fanny’s society friends distanced themselves from her, and as time went on the public became increasing hostile, even threatening. It was at this time that Fanny went to Haiti to relocate the slaves whom she had freed. She was accompanied on her trip to Haiti by Guillaume D’Arusmont. They became lovers and on her return she found that she was pregnant.  Deciding that she couldn’t face the increasing hostility of the public, she left for Europe with Guillaume.

Fanny and D’Arusmont married, had one daughter, Sylva, and lived in a kind of self-imposed isolation in Europe. Eventually, in 1835, they returned to America settling in Cincinnati. After a brief speaking tour in support of President Jackson, where her appearance provoked near riots, Fanny retired from public life. She died in Cincinnati in 1852.

It would be easy to see Fanny’s life as a failure, but it takes time for new and radical ideas to take root in the consciousness of society, and there has to be someone who is willing to begin that process. Fanny Wright paved the way for women to speak in public rallies, edit newspapers, and represent radical causes. Each time one person speaks up, it makes it easier for the next person, and brings us closer to the goal.

An opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offense, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth; or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.” A Few Days in Athens (1822) Vol. II

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
The Utiopian Visions of Franny Wright
Frances Wright (1795 – 1852)

Bicycles and Women’s Emancipation

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

Susan B. Anthony, 1896

For a little fun today, let’s look at something simple that made a big impact of the freedom of women – the bicycle! By the 1890s, bicycling had become very popular in the United States as well as in Europe, and women weren’t going to be left out of the fun. Bicycles allowed women more freedom of movement out of their own neighborhoods and into the world at large. They could go farther in less time and it was much cheaper to maintain than a horse!

Susan B. Anthony said in an interview with the New York World in 1896, that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Francis Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, even wrote a book about how she learned to ride a bicycle later in life.

But, for a woman to be truly comfortable on a bicycle, not to mention safe, their clothing needed to be modified. In the 1970s when bell-bottoms became popular, we used to put rubber bands around our ankles to keep our pants legs from getting tangled up in the gears. I can’t imagine trying to ride with long skirts.

“Her miserable style of dress is a consequence of her present vassalage not its cause. Woman must become ennobled, in the quality of her being. When she is so, . . . she will be able, unquestioned, to dictate the style of her dress.”  Lucy Stone

So in the 1890s, “Bloomers”, or Turkish trousers, which had come and gone from fashion in the 1850s, made a comeback. This was an outfit that included full trousers gathered at the ankle with a short dress over them. (Although not developed by Amelia Bloomer, she advocated them in her magazine The Lily.)

Around the same time there was a movement toward more rational dress for women, due in part to the unhealthy nature (not to mention extreme discomfort) of corsets. Bloomers were soon displaced by an even more “radical” getup – rationals.

“Woman will never hold her true position, until, by a firm muscle and a steady nerve, she can maintain the RIGHTS she claims . . . but she cannot make the first move . . . until she casts away her swaddling clothes.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Were increased freedom of women on bicycles and the corresponding change in dress in part responsible for a move toward women’s liberation, or were they the result of it? It’s an interesting question, but there will always be those who, even when they accept a new found freedom will try to control it. Women were cautioned not to develop the “bicycle face” and warned that their vocal chords were changing because of bicycle riding, making women loud talkers with harsh voices.  Check out this long list of don’t’s for women cyclists at Brainpickings.org, including such things as the following:

“Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.”

“Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes ‘to see how it feels.’”

“Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.”

Sigh. . . Enjoy your freedom ladies. It was hard fought for and not every woman in the world has the same freedoms today. The fight isn’t over!

Émilie du Châtelet – “femme savant” and paramour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Depending on where you have heard of Émilie du Châtelet you know her as a mathematician and scientist, or the paramour of Voltaire. She was both, a complex woman stimulated by intelligent conversation and study, but also a coquette. On the one hand very unusual for a woman of the 18th century, on the other a product of her time.

Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil led a privileged life.  Her father was an official in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.  At the time of Émilie’s birth, he held the position of Introducer of Ambassadors at court.  This put him in the midst of all of the important social happenings of the time in France. Her mother Gabrielle Anne de Froulay was brought up in a convent and well educated for a woman of that time.  The family owned a home in Paris and an estate in Touraine.

Émilie was born in 1706, the only girl of six children. Three of her brothers survived to adulthood, although only one lived to an old age becoming an abbé and later a bishop. As with many women of the time, Émilie was educated because her father recognized her genius and promoted it by providing tutors for her. Although Émilie’s mother was educated in the convent, there is some evidence that she resisted the rigorous education that her husband gave Émilie. In spite of this, tutors were brought to the house to teach her astronomy, mathematics, and physics. She became fluent in German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and as an adult, published translations of literary as well as scientific works into French. In spite of her recognized brilliance, her education wasn’t strictly academic. She received training in fencing, riding, the harpsichord and opera. However, her preference in study was for mathematics and philosophy, certainly unusual for a woman of the 18th century. In a somewhat scandalous application of her abilities, she used her knowledge of mathematics as a teenager to prosper as a gambler. The proceeds were, of course, used to buy the science and mathematics texts she wanted.

All young aristocratic women of the time were expected to make a good marriage and Émilie was no exception. A marriage was arranged and in 1725, she married Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. She became the Marquise du Chastellet. (The spelling Châtelet was introduced later by Voltaire.) Émilie was nineteen and Claude was in his early thirties. The marriage doesn’t seem to have been a very passionate affair. It would survive infidelities on both sides. They did, however, have three children: Françoise Gabriel Pauline (1726), Louis Marie Florent (1727), and Victor-Esprit (1733) although Victor died in 1734.

emilie de chatelet

Émilie du Châtelet

Claude was a military man, this kept him away from home quite a bit and by the time Émilie had her third child, she was bored. Tired of being away from society and ready to resume her active life and her studies, she reemerged on her own terms. Although Émilie didn’t actively resist convention, she was determined to live her life as she saw fit. She lived life enthusiastically and with boldness. Unfortunately, this approach had its consequences and she became the focus of a fair amount of malicious gossip. Lynn Osen, in her book Women in Mathematics, states that Émilie committed two unforgivable sins: “She refused to give up her serious study of mathematics” and “she stole the heart of Voltaire.”

In eighteenth century French society, as in many other times, the issue that concerned people in their gossip was not whether or not a woman had affairs, but was she discreet. There are three names that are associated with Émilie ’s love life. Although Émilie  knew these unwritten rules, at the end of her first affair she broke them in a very indiscreet way. There are a couple of different versions of how it came about, but the result is the same, she attempted suicide. Whether this was an attempt at emotional blackmail or just evidence of her passionate nature, it was thwarted by her lover when he discovered her and got her immediate medical attention.

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière

Émilie ’s second affair, and a friendship that would last until her death, was with Voltaire. She may have met him when she was young, but her adult friendship began with him in 1733 after the birth of her third child. Even though intellectual women were the butt of many jokes during that time not only in society, but also in literature and the theater (“femme savant” was not a compliment), intellectual men often still sought out these women as their companions. Émilie  and Voltaire were companions in every sense. Over the next 15 – 16 years before Émilie ’s death in 1749, they would rarely be separated and would challenge each other to produce work that has stood the test of time.

Voltaire was often in trouble with the powers that be and was exiled to Britain at one point. When his exile seemed imminent again, Émilie  suggested that they go to one of her husband’s country estates at Cirey. Claude seems to have liked Voltaire and if not welcoming of his wife’s affair at least accepting of it. Émilie  and Voltaire set up a laboratory, accumulated a library and did substantive work during their time here. Émilie  came into her own in mathematics and science and began to make a name for herself.

You could think of them as collaborators of a sort, but although they had many interests in common, their strengths were different. One early example of how they did collaborate was when Voltaire entered a contest for an essay on the scientific properties of heat and light. Émilie  worked with him on his experiments and ideas, but at some point she disagreed with his conclusions and decided to enter the contest herself. Neither won, but both were recognized for their work by having it published. The prize was jointly awarded to three men one of whom was Euler. (That will give some of you an idea of the competition they were up against.)

Although, Émilie  translated literary works and wrote Biblical Commentary on Genesis and the New Testament, there are two major works for which Émilie  du Châtelet  is best known. One is Institution de physique, “Lessons in Physics.” Originally intended as a text for her son, it was her assessment of the latest ideas in science and mathematics. In it she attempted to reconcile and explain the works of the major thinkers of her time, such people as Newton, Leibniz, etc. These were concepts that few people could really grasp at the time.

Émilie ’s most outstanding achievement is her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French with commentary.  It was a complete translation of all three books with a commentary that summarized and explained Newton’s theories. She also applied the new mathematics of calculus to his ideas. This was the only complete translation of Newton’s work into French and remains the standard today. Émilie  worked on this up to the time of her death and Voltaire ensured its publication ten years later.

Jean François de Saint-Lambert

Jean François de Saint-Lambert, artist unknown

The third name associated with Émilie ’s love life is the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. In the winter of 1747 – 1748, Émilie  traveled with Voltaire to Lunéville, the home of the duke of Lorraine. Here she met and fell in love with Saint-Lambert who was ten years her junior. She also became pregnant. Although Voltaire may have been hurt, it is also possible that by that time their relationship had settled into one of companionship rather than lovers. In either case, he remained by her side and with Saint-Lambert returned to Cirey. I’ve read a couple of theories about what happened next. One is that the three of them conspired to get her husband back to Cirey to convince him that the child was his. The other which seems more likely to me is that he cooperated and returned to spend time there in order to give the child legitimacy. In either case, they were all three with her when the child, a daughter, was born in September of 1749. Although, the delivery seemed to go well, Émilie  died a week later.

Some people may have viewed Émilie primarily as Voltaire’s muse, but she was much more. She was a brilliant, sometimes contradictory, woman who chose as much as possible to live life on her own terms.

Women in Mathematics
, Lynn Osen, 1974.
An Eighteenth Century Marquise
, Frank Hamel, 1910.

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science.

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