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Woman's Education According to Rousseau and Wollstonecraft

Essay that discusses Jean Jacques Roussea and Mary Wollstonecraft's views toward the education of women, highlighting the "novel" idea that men and women should be educated together.


"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 m�nage and keep busy in their house."

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile



"The neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore."

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women


The salons of Jean Jacques Rousseau's day greatly admired his theories, including his advocation of breast-feeding and his concept of natural education. Today he has enormous influence on accepted educational doctrines. Rousseau describes his methods in Emile, the story of a boy's upbringing in natural state. Admiring his sentiment, Mary Wollstonecraft applauded Rousseau's scheme for Emile but deplored the neglect of Emile's perfect wife, Sophie. Her disappointment in Rousseau was a main influence on Wollstonecraft's best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Rousseau outlines his theories for the ideal education for women in Chapter V of Emile written between 1757 and 1761. These so contradict his plan for Emile that it becomes necessary to place them in the framework of his time and the particular prejudices of Rousseau. Certainly he broke no ground regarding the topic of women. Nearly a hundred years before Emile, Mrs. Makin published An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen. In her Serious Proposal to Ladies of 1694, Mary Astell advocated a convent where serious-minded women might retire for study and contemplation. In his Essay on Projects , Daniel Defoe suggests an academy for women where they might study whatever they chose. He observes as early as 1697, "We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence, while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves."1 As women and their education were very popular topics among the frequenters of the salons, Rousseau was often drawn into their discussions as a consultant. After publication Rousseau realized some recognition as a spokesman for the rights of people, although there was a decided rise in the intensity of demands for recognition of women's state.2

Rousseau describes his passionate feelings for several women in his life in his Confessions, the first of which was the strange feelings he had as a boy when Mademoiselle Lambercier punished him. "Who would have believed that the chastisement I received at eight from a thirty-year-old girl would have determined my tastes, desires, and passions for the rest of my life?"3 Having left Protestant Switzerland for Catholic France, Rousseau began to meet the women who would support and influence his work for the rest of his life. One of his first encounters was with Madame de Warens, whom he referred to as maman, also a convert to Catholicism and an escapee from Geneva. Because of her support he was able to take part in knowledgeable conversations, philosophical discussions, and intellectual pursuits. From her privileged position he was able to observe with fraternal pity the people whose fate he might have shared.

At the age of thirty, Rousseau left Madame de Warens' residence. He wished to be accepted in the intellectual circles of the salons, and to gain entrance to the Academie des Sciences. He succeeded at the Academie but failed to be accepted socially at the salons. One of his sponsors, P�re Castel, advised, "Since musicians and servants will not sing together with you, change your tactics, and try the women."4 He took this advice and made the acquaintance of several intelligent and influential women.

According to Claude Fervel in Jean Jacques Rousseau et les femmes, Rousseau's feelings of inferiority among these women induced his unnatural attachment to a twenty-three year old servant girl, Th�r�se Levasseur. "She is so limited," says Hume, "that she knows neither the year, the month, nor the day of the week; she is unaware of the value of money and in spite of all that, she has on Jean Jacques the empire of a nurse over her charge."5 Certainly Levasseur had some influence in Rousseau's concept of the ideal woman.

Rousseau primarily claimed that "[n]ature has created man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable."6 In the eighteenth century, morality took on a new meaning founded on the natural goodness of man. Happiness became a right supplanting the idea of duty. Sensual delights were natural and therefore rational. All of Rousseau's educational theories derive from his attempt to preserve nature's pure state. His concept of negative education allowed a child to discover for himself and to be punished by the nature he sought to defy. The tutor must not try to reason with the child or show authority. Books would not be forced on the child; at twelve Emile would hardly know what to do with a book. Positive education, or direct instruction, would only begin at approximately the age of adulthood, and then the studies would be based on the student's natural curiosity. Rousseau stressed utility, the need for teaching things with practical applications.

This concept of negative education as applicable to women was totally inconceivable to Rousseau. He viewed women's options as entirely limited to the roles of wife and mother. What need would there be to allow her to determine for herself when nature had already physiologically dictated her destiny? His scheme for Emile was radical; his scheme for Sophie was not radical enough. Rousseau demanded a reversion to primitivism in the education of women, offering minimal vocational training while insisting on her inability to reason and her inferiority to man. "A woman's education must be planned in relation to man".[S]he will always be in subjection to a man"and she will never be free to set her own opinion above his."7 He stresses freedom of movement and physical exertion for Emile, asserting that weak bodies contain weak minds. At the same time he discourages Sophie from too much physical activity and uses her weakness as another proof of her inferiority. "The object of that cultivation is different. In the one sex it is the development of corporeal powers; in the other, that of personal charms," Rousseau asserts.8

Emile is not instructed in religious matters until he reaches adulthood. He has a natural sense of morality "from reason tempered by the heart."9 Presumably woman cannot reason, so she cannot maintain a state of morality, and must be guarded by men throughout her life. Rousseau proposes that Sophie must be made to love virtue, although she will never understand theological rationale for living uprightly. She must be made to feel subject to society's opinions of her. In fact, Sophie fails at this. In the fragmentary sequel to Emile, Les Solitaires, Rousseau tells of the infidelity of Sophie who had been "educated" to be Emile's ideal wife. Mary Wollstonecraft makes no mention of this book and probably never read it, but she would make the right assumptions about the likelihood of Sophie's fidelity.

Helen Misenheimer points out in Rousseau on the Education of Women that Rousseau leaves off the sexual education of Emile in describing Sophie. In fact, she is his sexual identity. Rousseau considers a man's union with a woman a debasement of his nature. While insisting on the importance of motherhood, he stumbles on women's role as mothers. In addressing mothers in Book I of Emile, he acknowledges their primacy in the education of youth. By denying women the ability to reason he denies them the ability to raise children, which Mary Wollstonecraft later attempts to prove.

Francis Gribble proposes, "Contemporary critics contended that Jean Jacques did not mean a word that he said; the difficulty of the modern critic is to discover that he ever said anything at all which he did not immediately afterwards contradict."10 When accosted by a father who informed him he was using the Emile method to raise his son, Rousseau replied that he was sorry for him but even sorrier for his son.11 Certainly he contradicts himself in Chapter V of Emile. One must ask if woman is as "natural" as man, and nature is essentially good, then why should the same principles of "negative education" not apply to women? Misenheimer discusses the dichotomy of women in Rousseau's writings. She claims that Rousseau makes woman totally subservient to man, making her into a mere plaything for the superior sex. Yet by inserting Sophie in her place in his educational theories, he encourages others to give the question further thought at a moment in history when social revolution uniquely supports her. This is exactly the cause which Mary Wollstonecraft takes up. Furthermore, by speaking of all society and not just the elite, he becomes one of the first writers even to recognize the ordinary woman, giving her a foothold to independence. Rousseau certainly did not intend to liberate women; he advocated the freedom of man.


Mary Wollstonecraft reputedly tried to rear one of her charges, Ann Fuseli, as a child of nature. The experiment proved disappointing when she caught her stealing and lying.14 She considered herself a rationalist, but she greatly admired Rousseau's "pure sentiment." She did not, however, share Rousseau's admiration for primitive society, and took great exception to his views of women. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she asserts, "Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally: a crowd of authors that all is now right: and I, that all will be right [sic]."12

Her most famous and controversial work, Rights of Woman, was not the first work to advocate better education for women. Among Wollstonecraft's contemporaries, there were several in France who had written in behalf of women. Olympe de Gouges spoke boldly in defense of her sex in several publications, one titled A Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Condorcet advocated better education for women in Memoirs on Public Instruction. Wollstonecraft had reviewed Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education for the Analytical, and acknowledged her debt to the work in Rights of Woman. Letters denies any fundamental difference in character between the sexes, attributing women's weaknesses to faulty education and social position. Wollstonecraft repeats and develops almost every point of her work.

Like many English intellectuals, Wollstonecraft watched the French Revolution with interest, anticipating that the great social experiment would one day reach her shore. The Revolution "must have seemed like a happy fusion of all she had been taught to respect by her sage London friends, and all that she cherished by nature".And so she, like many of her countrymen, looked hopefully to France as the great proving-ground."13 She espouses the cause of freedom in her Vindication of the Rights of Men, written in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. She digresses occasionally in this work, criticizing the effects of wealth and rank and chiding Burke for his fondness for waifishness and weakness in women.

In her previous work, Wollstonecraft had shown an interest in women's status without directly addressing the matter. According to her husband William Godwin, she spent only six weeks in actual composition, but she had been developing the ideas for Rights of Woman all her life. She found that most writers showed either outright disdain or condescending praise of women's weakness. The immediate cause of Rights of Woman was Talleyrand's Report on Public Institution, an outline of the projected plan of national education under a new French constitution. Talleyrand declared that girls should be educated with boys only until the age of eight. Wollstonecraft prefaces her book with a letter to Talleyrand which urges him and his compatriots not to deny women their rights.13

Wollstonecraft seeks to find a rational explanation for the state of her sex. She questions whether women are really created for the pleasure of men:

[T]hough the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against, I will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that Moses's beautiful, poetical cosmogony, and the account of the fall of man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being.14

She discovers the only reason for women's state is their lack of education. In Chapter V she attacks several writers, especially Rousseau, who had written poor accounts of women. Wollstonecraft cites and comments on long passages from Emile. She is not unaware of Rousseau's relationships with women. In her chapter "On National Education," she states:

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.15

She treats his description of Sophie with smug indignation, as when Rousseau describes Sophie's garb, "simple as it seems, was only put in its proper order to be taken to pieces by the imagination." To this she retorts, "Is this modesty? Is this a preparation for immortality?"16 She correctly accuses Rousseau of depicting not a wife and sensible mother, but a pleasing mistress.

Getting to the heart of Rousseau's error, she determines:

Men have superior strength of body, but were it not for mistaken notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to earn their own subsistence, the true definition of independence". Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of boys, that we may know how far the natural superiority of man extends.17

She cautions that she has no desire to breed a generation of independent and unattached women like herself, but that she seeks to develop wiser and more virtuous mothers. She believes that children's characters are formed before the age of seven, shuddering to think of the damage done by addle-headed mothers. Without stressing independence she believes that once women gain intellectual equality, they should be given political and economic equality as well.

In Chapter XII, "On National Education," Wollstonecraft develops her proposal. She feels that private education is confined to the �lite, and that school-children need the company of other children. She has an aversion to boarding schools because of the interruptions of vacations. She suggests day schools where children may spend time with other children. These need to be national establishments, so that school-matters are not left to the "caprice of the parents."18 Like Rousseau, she emphasizes that children must be allowed to play freely.

What is so radical about Wollstonecraft's idea is that girls are not educated relative to boys, but with them. She states:

If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex". Nay, marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses.19

After the age of nine, girls and boys intended for domestic employments or mechanical trades will be removed to other schools. The two sexes will still study together in the mornings, and in the afternoons girls will learn millinery, mantua-making, and other fitting pursuits.

Girls and boys still together? I hear some readers ask: yes. And I should not fear any other consequence than that some early attachment might take place". Besides, this would be a sure way to promote early marriages, and from early marriages the most salutary physical and moral effects naturally flow.20

Women should be taught anatomy and medicine to make them rational nurses of their infants, parents, and husbands.

At the time of its publication in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was considered radical and revolutionary. By the end of the year Joseph Johnson published a second edition. An American edition appeared in Boston and Philadelphia, and a French translation appeared in Paris and Lyons. Aaron Burr admired it and attempted to raise his own daughter according to its principles, although he complained in 1793 that he had "not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this book."21 Contemporary reactions ranged from shock to amusement to enthusiasm. Despite a number of mean-spirited parodies, including A Sketch of the Rights of Boys and Girls and A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, there is no doubt her book had a tremendous impact on British and American feminism. Her argument that one must educate mothers so they may better raise their children would be echoed by the advocates of "Republican Motherhood" in the first years of the new American republic.22

Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas were savagely attacked after her death, when the horrors of the French Revolution had convinced most Englishmen that all revolutionary theories were dangerous. However, there is little doubt that her ideas live on, and like Rousseau's, still have an impact on education. Public education, teaching by the exploitation of natural curiosity, practical applications, are all ideas descended from Rousseau and Wollstonecraft. Most distinctive of these is Wollstonecraft's radical notion that women and men be educated together.

1As cited in Ralph M. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), p. 143.

2Helen Evans Misenheimer, Rousseau on the Education of Women (Washington, DC: University Press of America, Inc., 1981), p. 64.

3Confessions, I as cited by Misenheimer, p. 21.

4Ibid., p. 24.

5Claude Fervel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et les femmes, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 26.

6Misenheimer, p. 19.

7Rousseau, pp. 322, 325.

8Rousseau, as cited by Wollstonecraft, p. 176.

9Rousseau, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 39.

10Francis Gribble, Rousseau and the Women he Loved, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 4.

11William Boyd, The Minor Educational Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 8.

12Wardle, p. 178.

13Wollstonecraft, p. 22.

14Wollstonecraft, pp. 173-174.

15Ibid., pp. 403-404.

16Ibid., p.195.

17Ibid., p. 189.

18Ibid., p. 379.

19Ibid., pp. 380, 381.

20Ibid., p. 389.

21Matthew L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, as cited by Wardle, p.158.

22Linda K. Kerber, "The Republican Mother," Women's America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 87-95.

Contributors : Heather E. Wallace
Last modified 2005-01-20 03:11 PM

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