Rousseau's Take on Women and Education

Rousseau and his wife, engraving depicting his last words
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau is considered one of the key Enlightenment philosophers, and his writings reveal that he was concerned with “equality among men,” but he certainly did not make women's equality his focus. Having lived from 1712 to 1778, Rousseau was a major influence on the intellectual thinking of the 18th century. He inspired the political activism that led to the French Revolution and influenced Kant’s view of ethics, rooting them in human nature.

His 1762 treatise "Emile, or on Education" and his book "The Social Contract" influenced philosophies about education and politics, respectively. Rousseau's main argument has been summarized as “man is good but has been corrupted by social institutions.” He also wrote that “nature has created man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable." The experiences of women, however, did not inspire this degree of contemplation from Rousseau, who essentially deemed them the weaker sex, content to be dependent upon men.

Rousseau's Contradictory Views on Women

While Rousseau is often praised for his views on human equality, the reality is that he did not believe women deserved equality. According to Rousseau, women needed to rely on men for their well-being because they were less rational than men. He argued that men might have desired women but did not need them to survive, while women both desired men and needed them. In "Emile," he writes about the difference between what he believes women and men need in education. Since the main purpose in life, to Rousseau, is for a woman to be a wife and mother, she doesn't need to be educated to the extent that men traditionally have. He argues:

“Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not have the same education. In following the directions of nature they must act together but they should not do the same things; their duties have a common end, but the duties themselves are different and consequently also the tastes that direct them. After having tried to form the natural man, let us also see, in order not to leave our work incomplete, how the woman is to be formed who suits this man.”

Differing Interpretations of 'Emile'

Some critics view "Emile" as evidence that Rousseau thought woman should be subservient to man, while others contended that he was writing ironically. Some have also pointed out the fundamental contradiction in "Emile" about women and education. In this work, Rousseau suggests that women are responsible for educating the young while arguing that they are incapable of reason. “The whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to educate them when young..." How can women educate anyone, even young children, if they themselves lack reasoning skills?

Rousseau's views about women arguably grew more complex with age. In "Confessions," which he wrote later in life, he credits several women with helping him gain entrance into the intellectual circles of society. Clearly, smart women had played a role in his own development as a scholar.

Mary Wollstonecraft on Rousseau's Writing of Women

Mary Wollstonecraft addresses some of the points Rousseau made about women in "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" and other writings in which she asserts that women are logical and can benefit from education. She questions whether a woman’s purpose is only the pleasure of men. She also directly addresses Rousseau when she writes with great irony of his affection for an uneducated and ignorant servant girl.

“Who ever drew a more exalted female character than Rousseau? Though in the lump he constantly endeavoured to degrade the sex. And why was he thus anxious? Truly to justify to himself the affection which weakness and virtue had made him cherish for that fool Theresa. He could not raise her to the common level of her sex; and therefore he labored to bring woman down to hers. He found her a convenient humble companion, and pride made him determined to find some superiour virtues in the being whom he chose to live with; but did not her conduct during his life, and after his death, clearly show how grossly he was mistaken who called her a celestial innocent.”

Gender Differences According to Rousseau

Rousseau's views on women invited criticism, but the scholar himself acknowledged that he had no solid foundation for his arguments about the differences between the sexes. He wasn't sure what biological differences made women and men distinct, calling them "one of degree." But these differences, he believed, were enough to suggest that men should be "strong and active," and women should be "weak and passive." He wrote:

"If woman is made to please and to be subjugated to man, she ought to make herself pleasing to him rather than to provoke him; her particular strength lies in her charms; by their means she should compel him to discover his own strength and put it to use. The surest art of arousing this strength is to render it necessary by resistance. Thus pride reinforces desire and each triumphs in the other's victory. From this originates attack and defense, the boldness of one sex and the timidity of the other and finally the modesty and shame with which nature has armed the weak for the conquest of the strong."

Did Rousseau Think Women Could Be Heroes?

Before "Emile," Rousseau listed the numerous woman heroes who've impacted society. He discusses Zenobia, Dido, Lucretia, Joan of Arc, Cornelia, Arria, Artemisia, Fulvia, Elisabeth, and the Countess of Thököly. The contributions of heroines should not be overlooked.

"If women had had as great a share as we do in the handling of business, and in the governments of Empires, perhaps they would have pushed Heroism and greatness of courage farther and would have distinguished themselves in greater number. Few of those who have had the good fortune to rule states and command armies have remained in mediocrity; they have almost all distinguished themselves by some brilliant point by which they have deserved our admiration for them…. I repeat it, all proportions maintained, women would have been able to give greater examples of greatness of soul and love of virtue and in greater number than men have ever done if our injustice had not despoiled, along with their freedom, all the occasions manifest them to the eyes of the world."

Here, Rousseau makes it plain that if given the opportunity to shape society as men had, women could very well change the world. Whatever biological differences between men and women existed, the so-called weaker sex had shown repeatedly that they were capable of greatness.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rousseau's Take on Women and Education." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Rousseau's Take on Women and Education. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rousseau's Take on Women and Education." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).