Rousseau on Women and Education

What Did He Write About Women?

Rousseau and his wife, engraving depicting his last words
Rousseau and his wife, engraving depicting his last words. Culture Club / Getty Images

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is considered one of the key Enlightenment philosophers.  He lived from 1712 to 1778, and was a major influence on the intellectual thinking of the 18th century, both on those who agreed with his ideas and those who argued against them.  He inspired many behind the French Revolution and he influenced Kant’s view of ethics, rooting ethics in human nature.

His Emile was a major influence on thinking about education, and The Social Contract on thinking about political life and organization.

His central idea has been summarized as “man is good but has been corrupted by social institutions.” “Nature has created man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable,” he wrote. He was, especially in early writing, concerned with “equality among men” and the reasons that such equality was not actualized.

Man Not Woman?

But while Rousseau is often credited with a view of human equality, the reality is that he did not include women fully in that sense of equality.  Women were, for Rousseau, weaker and less rational than men, and must depend on men.  Men, for Rousseau, desire women but do not need them; women, he wrote, both desire men and need them.  His main work that deals with women – and makes clear that his statements about “man” and “men” in other works likely are not meant to apply to women – is Emile, where 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, her educational needs differ significantly from that of women.

Some critics have seen Emile as evidence that Rousseau makes woman subservient to man, while others, contemporary to Rousseau, contended that he was writing ironically.

  Some have pointed out the contradiction in identifying women in Emile as both the educators of the young, and incapable of reason.

In his Confessions, written later in his life, he credits several specific women for their role in gaining him entrance into the intellectual circles of society.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Rousseau

Mary Wollstonecraft implicitly addresses the ideas of Rousseau in her Vindication and some other writings, advocating for the reason of women and for women’s education, and questioning whether women’s purpose is only the pleasure of men.  She addresses him explicitly as well, as here where she writes with great irony of his autobiographical story 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 determine 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.”

One source for many of the writings of Rousseau on women and related topics is the collection edited by Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace, Rousseau on Women, Love and Family, 2009.

A long excerpt from Emile (1762):

Except for her sex, woman is like a man: she has the same organs, the same needs, the same faculties. The machine is constructed the same way, the pieces are the same, they work the same way, the face is similar. In whatever way one looks at them, the difference is only one of degree.

Yet where sex is concerned woman and man are both complementary and different. The difficulty in comparing them lies in our inability to decide in either case what is due to sexual difference and what is not. From the standpoint of comparative anatomy and even upon cursory inspection one can see general differences between them which do not seem connected to sex. However, they are related, but by connections that elude our observations. How far such differences may extend we cannot tell; all we know for certain is that everything they have in common is from the species and that all their differences are due to sexual difference. Considered from these two standpoints, we find so many similarities and differences that it is perhaps one of the marvels of nature that two beings could be so alike and yet so different.

These similarities and differences must have an influence on morals; this effect is apparent and conforms with experience and shows the futility of the disputes over the superiority or the equality of the sexes—as if each sex, arriving at nature's ends by its own particular route, were not on that account more perfect than if it bore greater resemblance to the other. In their common qualities they are equal; in their differences they cannot be compared. A perfect woman and a perfect man should resemble one another neither in mind nor in face, and perfection admits of neither less nor more.

In the union of the sexes, each alike contributes to the common end, though in different ways. From this diversity springs the first difference that may be observed between man and woman in their moral relations. One should be strong and active, the other weak and passive; one must necessarily have both the power and the will, it is sufficient for the other to offer little resistance.

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.

Who can possibly suppose that nature has indifferently prescribed the same advances to the one sex as to the other and that the first to feel desire should also be the first to display it. What a strange lack of judgment! Since the consequences of the sexual act are so different for the two sexes, is it natural that they should engage in it with equal boldness? How can one fail to see that when the share of each is so unequal, if reserve did not impose on one sex the moderation that nature imposes on the other, the result would be the destruction of both and the human race would perish through the very means ordained for its continuance. Women so easily stir men's senses and awaken in the bottom of their hearts the remains of an almost extinct desire that if there were some unhappy climate on this earth where philosophy had introduced this custom, especially in warm countries where more women than men are born, the men tyrannized over by the women would at last become their victims and would be dragged to their deaths without ever being able to defend themselves.

On Heroines Being Outnumbered in History By Heroes

And a quote from an earlier essay, in which he notes a few names (Zenobia, Dido, Lucretia, Joan of Arc, Cornelia, Arria, Artemisia, Fulvia, Elisabeth, the Countess of Thököly) of “Heroines”:

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.

Quotes from Rousseau on Women and Women’s Education

“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.”

“On the good constitution of mothers depends primarily that of the children; on the care of women depends the early education of men; and on women, again, depend their morals, their passions, their tastes, their pleasures, and even their happiness. Thus 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, to care for them when grown, to council them, to console them, and to make life agreeable and sweet to them -- these are the duties of women at all times, and should be taught them from their infancy. Unless we are guided by this principle we shall miss our aim, and all the precepts we give them will accomplish nothing either for their happiness or for our own.

"Give, without scruples, a woman's education to women, see to it that they love the cares of their sex, that they possess modesty, that they know how to grow old in their menage and keep busy in their house."

“To cultivate in women the qualities of the men and to neglect those that are their own is, then, obviously to work to their detriment. Shrewd women see this too clearly to be duped by it. In trying to usurp our advantages they do not abandon their own, but from this it comes to pass that, not being able to manage both properly on account of their incompatibility, they fall short of their own possibilities without attaining to ours, and thus lose half their value. Believe me, judicious mother, do not make a good man of your daughter as though to give the lie to nature, but make of her a good woman, and be assured that she will be worth more to herself and to us.”