In the 1750s Octavie Belot published two treatises on political subjects, the first a polemic against Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1755), the second a contribution to the debate then unfolding about the proper role of the nobility in French society. At this time political works by women writers were considered oddities in France: the novel, the memoir, and the private letter were deemed more suitable forms of female expression. Any woman writer who sought to publish a work on a scientific, philosophical, or political topic faced a major obstacle – as Jean Bloch points out, inadequately educated women had little hope of having their work acknowledged when they were competing with highly educated men in these areas.1 A small number of women, including Emilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749) and Elisabeth Ferrand (1700-1752), were able to make contributions to scientific knowledge. In the philosophical and political spheres, women’s contributions tended to fall into a limited range of categories: they produced pamphlets on education, on the equality of the sexes, or on correct behaviour in society. Direct engagement with the ideas of the male philosophers outside these areas was rarer: Marie Huber (1695-1753) did so on theological questions, and Du Châtelet’s writings in such domains, such as her Discourse on Happiness, were in the main published posthumously. It was only toward the end of the century, on the ‘eve of the Revolution’ as Bloch puts it, that women’s writing became ‘more political and we find them writing petitions, pamphlets and articles.’2 Only then were women writers – such as Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), Marie Jodin (1741-1790), Louise-Félicité de Keralio (1758-1821), and Sophie de Grouchy (1764-1822) – able to disseminate political ideas more broadly. Belot therefore occupies a highly unusual position, as one of the few published female political commentators of the mid-century. In what follows I analyse Belot’s arguments in her treatises on Rousseau and on the role of the nobility, and trace the ways in which she both

defends the status quo and yet, in seeming contradiction, proposes changes to the class structure. I relate the ideas she expresses in the treatises to the political observations she makes in later writings – in the prefaces to her translations of English-language works, and in her private letters of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s – which reveal her increasing disillusionment with political processes.