Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sexist?

Paul Thomas. Feminist Studies. Volume 17, Issue 2. Summer 1991.

Give a man a trade which suits his sex and a young man a trade which suits his age. Every sedentary and indoor profession which effeminates and softens the body neither pleases nor suits him. Never did a young boy by himself aspire to be a tailor. Art is required to bring to this woman’s trade the sex for which it is not made. (There were no tailors among the ancients. Men’s costumes were made at home by women). The needle and the sword cannot be wielded by the same hands. If I were sovereign, I would permit sewing and the needle trades only to women and to cripples reduced to occupations like theirs. Assuming eunuchs to be necessary, I find it quite mad for orientals to make them specially. Why are they not satisfied by those made by nature, with those crowds of cowardly men whose heart it has mutilated? The delicate and fearful man is condemned by nature to a sedentary life. He is made to live with women or in their manner. Let him practice one of those trades which are fit for them; that is all to the good. And if there absolutely must be true eunuchs, let men who dishonor their sex by taking jobs which do not suit it be reduced to this condition. Their choice proclaims nature’s mistake. Correct its mistakes one way or the other. You will only have done good. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or Education, book 3)

Why is there a question mark in my title? The story has it that Sidney and Beatrice Webb disposed of a similar query about their Soviet Communism, a New Civilization? simply by removing the question mark from the title of the second edition. In deliberatety not following the Webbs’ example I am trying to call attention to a dilemma that confronts anyone who attempts to deal with Rousseau’s sexism. The question is not whether he should be identified as a sexist. He should. The question is how and why we should set about so characterizing him.

At one level, there is no real difficulty about foregrounding Rousseau’s sexism. All too frequently it appears to foreground itself (as in the quotation from Emile above). Rousseau wants his readers to notice it. Our problem remains: how is Rousseau’s sexism, and the way it emerges across and throughout his writings, to be problematized and contextualized? Rousseau, after all, is best known, in the history of Western political theory, for his fervent advocacy of egalitarianism and of radical participatory democracy. How could he at once champion, and set his seal on, these radical causes; present sexual differentiation in society not as a natural datum or “given” but as a conventional construct; acknowledge the complementarity of sexual roles in society; and (as it were, in the same breath) advocate the further confinement and domestication of women as a social and political desideratum?

These, I hope to show, are questions that do not admit of easy, formulaic answers. They are also questions that raise what are still live issues for us today. To interrogate Rousseau’s assumptions and beliefs is for this very reason to go beyond Rousseau as a historical figure, but it is also to insist that Rousseau was a historical figure of a very particular and influential kind. It is in large measure because Rousseau was to cast such a long shadow that so many questions we are driven to ask about his thought are questions that remain on our own agenda, still awaiting their final settlement.

One important point that should frame what follows has been well put by Joan Landes. “Rousseau,” she says, “is far from a pedestrian misogynist. He did not just write about women. He wrote to them. And by way of this address, he interpellated women as a new kind of political and moral subject…. There is massive evidence that Rousseau was read, discussed, appropriated and resisted by women of his age.” One of these women was, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was quick to see the connection between Rousseau’s sexual politics and other aspects of his political theory and to recognize the danger to women posed by the popularity of Rousseau’s writings. This popularity outlived Wollstonecraft and Rousseau alike. As Linda Kerber has pointed out, if “the Social Contract and [Montesquieu’s] Spirit of the Laws were in some sense `men’s books,’ Emile and Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse were in some sense women’s books.” The possibility Kerber raises is one to give us pause: “Rousseau’s conservatism about women may well have served to make his radical comments about men’s behavior more palatable.”

Sexism — whether it is that of Rousseau or anyone else — is in general not a “given,” still less an ingrained necessity; it is not a label but a construct. To acknowledge that is has been constructed, with variations, over and over again is to stipulate that sexism has a history, a history within which Rousseau on any reckoning occupies a particularly important place. That Rousseau’s misanthropy entailed a large measure of misogyny was well known to the philosophes, who remarked on it frequently; that his Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater and the fifth book of Emile alone would occupy places of honor in any proper history of misogyny was by no means lost on his contemporaries, some of whom (Condorcet, Wollstonecraft and — less directly — Diderot) took issue in print with Rousseau’s sexual politics. What matters, as these examples indicate, is not just that Rousseau held and expressed views others regarded as retrograde. It matters also that these views were very widely disseminated. Emile and Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse were during Rousseau’s lifetime unprecedented best-sellers which gained him considerable notoriety and catapulted him to the dizzy heights of the man of letters, an elevation he affected to despise. It is reasonable to suppose that these works were read in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by enormous numbers of women — with what results on their beliefs and attitudes we can only speculate. Jean Elshtain suggests, I think rightly, that Rousseau was largely responsible for the creation of a romantic sensibility among women readers of these books; Gita May observes that the cult of domesticity, which Rousseau espoused and refurbished in these books, had some ideological appeal even to prominent literary and political women — she cites Madame de Staël, Madame Roland, and George Sand as examples — who had turned their backs on domesticity. These women too were “interpellated in a new way” by Rousseau’s example: “The personality and works of Rousseau afforded an unparalleled opportunity for self-revelation” for all manner of literate women. That Emile and Julie, in particular, in short order attained the status of being what Roland Barthes called textes producteurs, identified, that is, by name in numerous other works of literature, in English, German, and Russian, as well as French, has ominous implications. Yet if Rousseau was in these ways an influential theorist — and the tracing out of influence is not the province of the present essay — the extent of his influence in no way disposes of questions raised directly by his sexual politics. Why did he extol the traditional, patriarchal family? Why did he exclude women from active participation in political life? How can his idealization of the family and his seclusion of women be related to, let alone reconciled with, the civic egalitarianism among men that a Rousseauist politics enjoins and requires?

Rousseau propounded familial and civic ideals critically, not descriptively. They were proffered as solutions to a moral emergency, to whose existence he was acutely concerned to draw the attention of his contemporaries. But this predicament, which has to do with the dimensions of a beleaguered selfhood, instead of being highlighted, is if anything obscured from view in Susan Okin’s pioneering and already classic feminist account. Her Rousseau “asserts, in accordance with a long tradition that extends as far back as Aristotle and is still very common, that women have a kind of intellect different from and inferior to that of men, and lack the capacity for abstract reason and creativity.” The question here is not the existence or persistence of such a tradition, which has indeed operated to the detriment of women, and still does. The question is rather of Rousseau’s place within it, since this in one important sense is far less straightforward than Okin imagines. Because he did not value “intellect” in the sense of “the capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity,” Rousseau consciously, indeed ostentatiously, set himself up against a tradition that by and large valued it highly and often uncritically. Although chapter and verse can be cited to the effect that Rousseau withheld the fruits and rewards of intellect from women — and although Okin does a creditable and thorough job of citing them — Rousseau also forcefully denied that this harvest was worth collecting. Okin, whose priorities are very different, brackets this question instead of confronting it. She complains that Rousseau “was not at all interested in discovering what woman’s natural potential might enable her to achieve,” for he “was far less interested in what [women] could achieve than in what they should achieve.”

But it is Okin who values achievement, not Rousseau, who for his part considered that it was precisely the “achievements” paraded at some length in the First and Second Discourses that had done the human species so much harm. Surely the blot on Rousseau’s record is not that he denied women access to “benefits” which he considered to be of negative value, but also and more nearly that he denied them access to benefits he thought were real. To be more specific: he did not infer from his perception of the human predicament that women should play a more active role in political affairs. He quite deliberately advocated their confinement within the private realm of the household, thus inscribing himself within Okin’s long and sorry sequence — a rogue’s gallery — of political theorists who exclude women from participating in political life. But it is Joan Landes, not Susan Okin, who hits the nail on the head: “Woman’s duty consists of subordinating her independent aims and interests to a higher goal, the ethical life of the community. But unlike her male companion, of whom Rousseau also demands the sublimation of particular interests on behalf of a desire for the public good, woman is barred completely from active participation in the very sphere that gives purpose to her actions.”

Small wonder, then, that Zillah Eisenstein is so concerned to excoriate Rousseau for his “inability to understand” that “the patriarchal structuring of society is antithetical to the practice of democracy.” She castigates him also because “Rousseau’s independence for men is rooted in a patriarchal and, hence, dependent existence for women” and because, for Rousseau, “the promise of independence and equality for men requires the subordination of women. In trying to deny woman her ‘natural’ power, Rousseau renders her powerless. In trying to strengthen man, he weakens woman.” Unhappily, however, Eisenstein paints both “democracy” and “patriarchy” in untowardly broad strokes. Her Rousseau, and that of Carole Patemen after her, is made to occupy far too Lockean-liberal an orbit and is thus made to express views with which Rousseau himself would vehemently have disagreed.

It was in Rousseau’s view an ominous comment on civilization that only if women were confined within the home and made compliant to men’s wishes (or what he took men’s wishes to be) could they act as bulwarks against corruption. Confinement is in itself an abomination, as the celebrated swaddling passage in Emile (which is also an attack on the laziness and selfishness of many mothers) was designed to make clear. The claim that happiness, defined negatively as the absence or abeyance of corruption, can be augmented by the confinement of women is nevertheless hard to defend, and Rousseau has difficulty defending it. The admonition that only if they approximated the “chaste and virtuous, tender and farsighted” mother apostrophised in, but perhaps oddly absent from, Emile could women act as barriers against corruption, seems no less outrageous. Is more than sheer perversity involved in Rousseau’s insistence on such claims — claims which he must have known in advance would offend his contemporaries? Rousseau’s position on this issue, which seems to raise more questions than it solves, refers us back to his Second Discourse and forward to his Social Contract.

Sexual Politics in Prospect: Interdependence for Whom?

Jean Elshtain has suggestively indicated the possibility of using Rousseau’s sexism to get to the heart of his political theory, and his political theory to get to the heart of his sexism. In accepting her invitation, which is also a challenge, we should indicate in a preliminary sense that Rousseau himself seems to have been well aware that his sexual politics do not occupy an orbit separate from what till now has passed for his political theory tout court. The paradoxes, dilemmas, ambiguities, and ambivalence of each realm really do point up and illuminate those of the other. To see this, we must in the first instance plunge in medias res and reexamine the politics of Rousseau’s Social Contract state with the question of sexual politics in mind. This means connecting the argument of The Social Contract, which in itself has precious little to say about sexual relations or family life, with those of Rousseau’s other writings, which have a great deal to say about them. The Social Contract’s institutional innovation, the general will, cannot have a particular object; it negates and remedies personal dependence by inaugurating and maintaining civic equality of the kind that establishes symmetry between sovereign and subject. Without such symmetry, society will not embody community so much as hold it hostage. Without the aid of the general will, our artificial selves, our amourpropre, will continue to repress our natural identities. But the general will cannot engage our amour-propre all on its own. The legislator must have done his work in the background, and women, it is altogether legitimate to surmise, must be prepared to do theirs — on the sidelines. “Women’s virtue [thus] acquires a spatial dimension. Her confinement to the public realm functions as a public sign of her political virtue.” What is involved here is not just a question of personnel. The counterpart of civic equality among men is to be domestic inequality (between women and men). These form a kind of joint agenda or desideratum. Although in The Social Contract, as elsewhere in Rousseau’s writings, the open, unmasked, honest, forthright, and transparent soul emerges as the antithesis to the everyday social self, which is duplicitous, enervated, and unhappy, we do need to ask whose soul is being discussed. To do so is to see that male, not female, transparency is the very fulcrum of Rousseau’s argument. Women are there to help the general will do its work in overcoming men’s inner divisions. For a Rousseauean politics for men to work, it is by no means necessary that women should overcome their own inner divisions. Women, indeed, would be likely to become more divided against themselves in one crucially important respect, as we shall see, as men become less so. Identity and autonomy are for Rousseau gender-defined by their very nature; “gender is a constitutive category of [his] thought.”

Rousseau’s political solution to the problem of self-division is not simplistically to “remove” the artificial self so that the surviving traces of our natural identities might reemerge. In order to be fortified, the structure of man must first be weakened — a task Rousseau assigns the legislator in The Social Contract and, at a different level, the tutor in Emile. But just as the tutor in Emile cannot do his work unaided — he needs Sophie — the legislator too needs the help of women, dangerous allies though these may be. Their enlistment in the struggle indicates that the siren calls of the private self cannot simply be blocked out with wax. Rousseau, wishing to take men as they were and the laws as they might be, was concerned to establish a politically creative counterpoint between (men’s) private and public selves and not with obliterating the former for the sake of the latter. Hannah Arendt perceptively recognized that the obliteration of the private would entail a public realm with nothing to define itself against. Such a public realm would have great difficulty arising at all. But if the private realm is in this way reinscribed, then women are reinscribed too, and in a rigidly subordinate capacity. Taking men as they are and the laws as they might be means in effect taking women not as they are but as they might be; it means redirecting the power of women to the sidelines of public life and keeping them apart from active, political participation.

The articulation of the general will may depend upon an overcoming of distinctions among the (male) citizenry, but these distinctions have first to exist if they are to be overcome. Rousseau envisaged not their extirpation but a dialectic of public duty and private need, which could be played upon for the sake of the common good. To see the relations of women and men in this light is to see that the family engenders the one form of inequality Rousseau would try to justify, defend, and extend. To see the question of “man or citizen” that is posed so acutely in Judith N. Shklar’s interpretation of Rousseau in the light of the relations of women and men is to see that whichever choice is made, it is to be made at the expense of women, whose self-division is in a significant sense to be extended for the sake of overcoming men’s. It is entirely possible that the change in human nature Marx was somewhat derisively to identify as the sine qua non of a Rousseauean politics means in the first instance a change in the nature of women; men are, after all, to be taken “as they are.”

The public sphere where men act politically and the private, domestic sphere where women urge men to act politically never converge in Rousseau’s political theory. But they are related and mutually reinforcing. The former is external: men’s externalization or exteriorization is valued as an end in itself, as something without which radical participatory democracy, or Rousseau’s understanding of the term, would be impossible. The latter is internal. But it is valued for the same reason. It too helps, or can help, men participate in the external world of politics, although it also has additional benefits. For these reasons the domestic sphere, the domain of women, is highly valued by Rousseau. It is a source of value in its own right, which also exists for the sake of a public, political sphere from which women are perforce excluded. Sexual differences of the kind that empower men politically and by the same token disempower women by excluding them from direct political participation are distinctions Rousseau acknowledged and defended. Their further development, he believed, should be encouraged for moral as well as political reasons. Sexual differentiation was to Rousseau not a natural datum but a political project. This does not imply that women are to be left with no power. Their power is considerable. It is, however, power that is alternately erotic and maternal (and, Rousseau being Rousseau, often both at once). In either aspect, women’s power is acknowledged, valued, savored, and anatomized; but the prescription that follows from Rousseau’s investigations is that it should be contained, confined within the household. It should not be extended outwards into a political arena that is and should remain the preserve of men. This is not to say that women’s power will therefore have no political effects outside the household. It is to say that because of the kind of power women exercise, its effects can best be expressed and realized indirectly, at the private, domestic level. Women will in this way influence the public, political realm that is the province of men without directly encroaching upon or within it.

Women, however, do not necessarily or automatically empower men as a result of their confinement. To the contrary, eighteenth-century society, or Rousseau’s view of it, provides ample evidence that the confinement of women can easily disempower men. Rousseau was well aware that there are risks involved in the confinement of women, but he thought they were worth taking. Women, according to Rousseau, might teach or empower men to transcend their tendencies to self-absorption and to acquire those sentiments of sociability that are essential to political participation and moral being alike. But here again we run a risk. In the process of being influenced by women, men might become too dependent on them. Rousseau, we might surmise, was only too well aware that women who were too submissive to male demands would distract men from public life, thus again disempowering them. Yet this too is a risk worth countenancing, because most men are dependent on women anyway, whether they admit it or not, and this very dependence might be played upon by women to salutary political effect.

All the more reason, then, for the extension of separate and unequal spheres, one (the public and political) for men, the other (the private and domestic) for women and men. We must stress that this is a separation of a particular type. The two realms ought not to be hermetically sealed one from the other but should be made interdependent. Rousseau evidently had in mind the establishment of a kind of self-sustaining circuit between the two, in which women might use their power over men in the domestic sphere to good political effect. Women could fortify the male ego in such a way that men, their inner divisions overcome (or at least suspended), would be encouraged to emerge into the political arena, cleansed of amour-propre (or at least purged for a while from some of its effects), in order to deliberate on some aspect of the common good (which includes the good of women in a way that awaits further specification below).

Up to a point, then, moral fortification would be mutual but only up to that point. Commentators such as Joel Schwartz, and, to a lesser extent, Jean Elshtain, who defend the “complementarity” or “interdependence” of the sexes according to Rousseau, rightly stress Rousseau’s idea that the two spheres should influence each other. What they overlook is that there is no question in Rousseau’s picture of anything like equal weighting. However much we stress the elements of recognition, acknowledgment, and mutuality that surely are involved in this picture, we cannot avoid the basic proposition that one of Rousseau’s “realms,” the private and domestic, is there for the sake of the other, the public and political. The relationship between the two is complementary without being truly reciprocal because the direct exercise of political power is not shared. Women prepare men, and not themselves, for one of the most valuable manifestations of what it means to be human. The exercise of political power, according to Rousseau, is and ought to be the province of men, fortified by the solace, comfort, and distraction that women, hearth, and home might provide. Women are, or can be, fitted to exercise a kind of power that is different in principle from whatever men get up to in the forum. If female power can be made to work as Rousseau thinks it should, it will act as a complement or counterpart to, and not as an integral part of, political life, properly so-called. Although it is likely to be indispensable to political life, as one of its enabling conditions, it will nevertheless exist only on the margins of politics. This is where The Social Contract (which, as Elshtain indicates, scarcely mentions women or the family) in effect places female power. As Landes points out, “the very generality of the [general] will is predicated on the silent but tacit consent of women”; we are thus entitled to our suspicion about how “general” it really is. If, as Kerber surmises, “the general will is a concept without gender,” this appears to sit ill with the further point that “the women who are ruled are, at the same time, not ruled; because they are not ruled, they need not participate in the general will. They are invisible….”

The most striking feature of this admittedly bare-bones outline of what the interpenetration of Rousseau’s (male) politics and his sexism might actually look like is in any case its singularly unconvincing character. Rousseau offers no guarantee that such a system, of sexual interdependence among unequals for the sake of masculinized political virtue, would or could work, or work for very long. His argument, as I have paraphrased and to some extent reconstructed it above, is not about what will happen under certain enabling conditions but about what could, or more properly should, happen under those conditions. Rousseau’s reflections do not have an air of likelihood about them. What they boil down to, if we may further distill the argument, is that if women could be persuaded to restrict themselves to hearth and home (a restriction for which they are not fitted by nature, as Penny Weiss has indicated), the result could be the right kind and degree of male as well as female empowerment. Men, bolstered and fortified by their healthy domestic settings, could then be dispatched to the political arena with what could be beneficial political results. Here we must forcefully protest. We need only take into account the sheer number of things that could go wrong in such a scenario, if it were restricted for the purposes of argument to what goes on between two people, to see that Rousseau’s picture is anything but persuasive. If we extend it to cover the many other people who would surely be concerned, Rousseau’s picture would be something between a delicate balance and a tall order.

Thinking outside the paradigm outlined above makes it, if anything, even less convincing. Rousseau’s implied models, here as elsewhere, are his beloved Ancients. But not all of these, however carefully Rousseau might select among them, enjoyed domestic or sexual arrangements of the kind that appear to be enjoined, as Rousseau (forever the classicist) knew perfectly well. If we go even further back in time — and again the invitation to do so was proffered in no uncertain terms by Rousseau himself — we encounter the paradox that Rousseau’s prescriptions for a more golden future are, ultimately and problematically, predicated upon a portrayal of our savage ancestors (in the Second Discourse) as having had natural sexual differences that Rousseau minimizes to a degree we should still regard as extraordinary. And even if we emphasize the point, as did Rousseau himself, that the difference between the state of nature and our current, “civilized” condition is one that is traced out historically by the onset and maintenance of corruption, the sense in which this helps Rousseau’s argument for the confinement of women is by no means obvious. If there is nothing more powerful than corruption, as Rousseau thought, then what exactly is going to prevent it from continuing its work in the Social Contract state? Rousseau was not unaware of this problem, and far from seeking to evade the issue, he had an answer to the question posed above. The trouble, as we shall see, is that his answer, which gives us a vital clue to the character of his sexism, implicates Rousseau more and more deeply in it, so that he becomes somewhat like Hobbes’s bird in a lime pit: “the more he struggles, the more belimed.”

Sexual Politics in Retrospect: The Golden Age Revisited

Rousseau’s Second Discourse argues that human beings cannot sensibly be said to have been fitted by nature to live together in any known (or imaginable) form of society or association. Any form of human sociability, “private” (conjugal, familial) or “public” (political), can only be against nature. We were never as a species adapted even for language — let alone passion, family life, love, culture, reason, morality, politics, or whatever else the philosophes (or theologians) were wont to add to the inventory. Rousseau considered human alienation to be irreducible to any one of the social forms that happen cumulatively to have encouraged its growth. Alienation is rather to be traced back to the very datum of human association itself. The primal form of human association and dependence must have been the family, or conjugal unit, which represents the closest approximation to the lack of self-division that characterized our ancestors’ lives in the state of nature. Locke supposed our natural sociability to have long been evident in our familial relationships. Rousseau’s disagreement was fundamental. Before conjugal arrangements had been elaborated, there could have been no reason why any of our male progenitors should have attached himself in even a semipermanent manner either to a particular female, after casual copulation, or to progeny he would not have recognized as his. Locke, who presumed otherwise, “evidently supposes what is in question,” and what is in question, at the very least, is memory — of which Locke is unable to prove the existence without arguing in a circle. Memory, wrote Rousseau, “by which one individual gives preference to another for the act of procreation, requires…more progress or corruption in human understanding than can be supposed in man in the state of animality here.”

If we bear “animality” in mind, the “golden age,” which Rousseau extols in the Second Discourse, looks rather less “domestic” or “conjugal” than we might initially suppose. Rousseau was speaking not of households but of huts and caves. Nor is there any reason to suppose that l’age d’or was populated by beings we would recognize as human. Rousseau’s speculations about orangutans are not there by accident.

The golden age was golden largely because speech and reason were no more than facultés virtuelles. Dispositions toward pitié and natural self-love are qualities our ancestors shared with animals. Rousseau’s société naissante occupies a stage in the formation of the human species that predates the fateful separation of amour-propre (pride or vanity) from amour de soi (natural self-love or self-preservation), because the former, unlike the latter, necessarily involves sociability, comparison, and imagination.

Familial relationships at first must have been purely affective, based on the play of feelings — which is one reason why Rousseau (reiterating Aristotle’s insistence that the principles of moral and political justice cannot be derived from the forms of authority existing in the oikos or household) insisted that political arrangements could never legitimately be derived from them. “Family” life at first had nothing ethical about it; it becomes a moral resource only much later, when it can be marshaled against corruption. But this does not mean that family life was ever really innocent or neutral. To the contrary, it has its place in the erosion of what once must have been a neutral, self-contained amour de soi. The comparison of the self to others is a process which takes place in cumulative stages Rousseau lists in a kind of geometrical progression. As natural man comes into contact with others, his natural concern for self-preservation, mitigated as it is by his capacity for pitié, a natural, not a social disposition, gives way by the stages Rousseau reconstructs to amour-propre, which can be nothing but social, because it denotes a preoccupation with the advancement of the self in the eyes or at the expense of others and involves a conception of the self as a kind of propriété that is to be guarded against the encroachments of other selves. Only association with others, or with another, makes possible evaluation, comparison, judgment, the constituents of amour-propre. The presence of even one other person unhinges (contrived) desires from (real) needs, and this uncoupling renders even the golden age unstable.

The implications for Rousseau’s sexual politics are at least as ambiguous as the golden age itself. On the one hand, any sentiment our savage ancestors devised for members of the other sex must have partaken of the corrupt self-love they were already engaged in developing. Our ancestors ceased to live in and for themselves. Their original self-containment evaporated. They brought into the hut or cave what was to destroy it, by reaching beyond its boundaries. What came to matter to our ancestors, once they had become coupled in more than a momentary manner, was whether each of them was esteemed or admired by the other. The rot had set in. It remained only for propriété to be extended from the hut or cave to the land, and from thence to practically everything else. The effect of sociability, even that of only two persons, is to render active a hitherto dormant play of passion and reason.

On the other hand, the golden age remains available to us as a moral resource. Some of its traces remain dimly discernible. The most enduring among them is the family. It is thanks to the family, as a rudimentary, fundamental mode of sociability, that the needs and powers of the inhabitants of the golden age were kept in some sort of equilibrium. Whatever proponents of the idea of original sin may have thought, during the golden age, evil and corruption were contained — not permanently but for a long time. Inner self-division, the soil on which imagination, inequality, and cupidity — the Augustinian term fits — were to flourish, was at this stage held at bay. It is largely for this reason that Rousseau, with little discernible reluctance, espoused the male-dominated, patriarchal family. Whether that kind of family existed throughout the golden age is unclear, but it certainly emerged from the golden age and was still available as a bulwark against the fragmentation and deformation of human identity, as one of the few possible sources of human happiness.

All too readily available, however, was an alternative to original sin and to Rousseau’s golden age which Rousseau thought would have the opposite effect. Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage proposed that “natural” needs should provide a permanent basis for the erasure of hypocrisy from our social and sexual arrangements. Rousseau insisted that what Diderot considered natural drives, needs, and passions were in fact conventional and that as such they posed problems requiring a social solution, not an Arcadian escape from stultifying convention, the mere contemplation of which could only make most people even more miserable than they already were. Those who think the passions are “natural” are as guilty of reading them back, ahistorically, into some conveniently imagined primal state as those who make man a philosopher (or a sinner) before he is a man. The truth about the compulsion of needs in society, no matter how “natural,” thus laudable, they are imagined to be, is that “the less the needs are natural and pressing the more the passions increase and, what is worse, the power to satisfy them.” It is sociability — not nature — that leads to the play of the passions and to the power of women. In making ourselves less dependent on nature and more dependent on each other, we have misused our natural liberty and developed new compulsions which we impose on ourselves, our fellows, our children, and on members of the opposite sex. In Robert L. Wokler’s words, “the whole of Rousseau’s prescriptive political theory and philosophy of education is hinged on the assumption that however much [people] have been the victims of their own history they remain its authors…. Despite his skepticism about our civilized achievements, Rousseau believed that our perfectibility still enabled us to pursue public and domestic modes of life that were morally superior to those of the contemporary world.”

But public and domestic are on the face of things separate solutions. That the pursuit of one may entail neglect of the other is clear in the case of Emile, who is urged, or manipulated, to abjure and relinquish political activity in order to be a family man. But the bringing into existence of even a single human being immune to the blandishments of social life is no easy option. It requires both the full-time attentions of a tutor who (presumably) has nothing else to do and, eventually, the help of Sophie, which the tutor enlists. Rousseau’s sequel to Emile, the fragment “Emile and Sophie,” might be taken as a melancholy afterthought suggesting that all this devotion in the long run may prove unavailing. But even if authenticity, transparency, and identity, however worthy as ideals they may be, are unlikely for anybody, no matter how propitious the circumstances, Rousseau makes it plain that they are more likely to be approximated by men than by women. This is partly because men have women to help them in their quest, as the tutor has Sophie, whereas women can not and should not count on the help of men in the same way. It may seem at first glance that women are there to provide boundaries for men, and men for women. But the boundaries are drawn up differently in either case, and the difference is one of kind, not degree. Women’s education encourages modesty, chastity, and restraint, largely because men’s autonomy is said to depend on these. But whereas men, fortified by these female accomplishments, are thus able to brave and withstand the “empire of opinion,” women are never permitted to put themselves above men’s judgments in anything like the same way. Linda Zerilli has forcefully indicated that, according to Rousseau, men should opt for authenticity over reputation, a choice not extended to women; in this sense, transparency is the goal for men, but duplicity is the fate of women. A woman’s reputation is her very being. Women are condemned to the kind of self-division men are at least urged to combat (with women’s help). Women, who must be not just estimable but also esteemed, remain subject to the incriminating judgments of men. Emile is told that to be complete he needs a female counterpart, that to be virtuous he must love her — and that to remain free he must attach himself not to his wife’s being but to her reputation, her image. The double standard here is unmistakable: “opinion is the grave of virtue among men, and its throne among women.” Although man is, or ought to be, himself by virtue of his being, woman is her image, her self displayed. Her fate lies and should lie in her appearance, as his should not.

Rousseau’s Second Discourse begins, as Weiss has accurately and persuasively indicated, by assuming remarkably few natural differences between females and males in the savage state. From this, Rousseau proposes finally that the one remnant or trace of his state of nature that can still speak to our own condition as moderns is the resolutely nonegalitarian institution of the maledominated family. Female autonomy in the savage state is, in other words, not denied but asserted by Rousseau — in order later to be undermined. Elshtain considers that a real misogynist would simply have denied it all along. The truth is, however, more complicated. How is this shift, a shift to the deliberate withholding of equality between the sexes, finally to be accounted for? The conjugal unit in the state of nature, as we have seen, at once gives birth to and successfully contains men’s nascent amour-propre. Males presumably spent more time in their huts and caves with their females than with other males outside these domiciles. Our female ancestors at once stimulated amour-propre and held it at bay. They were thus responsible for amour-propre, in that they provided it with its original field of play, and for its neutralization, in that they must also have contained it. By Rousseau’s time, women retained responsibility, if not sole responsibility, for men’s amour-propre without, however, remaining able to neutralize it. But they could still deflect it, thus turning it to some sort of good account.

My point here is not just that women in Rousseau’s theory have a heavy and disproportionate burden of responsibility to carry, although of course they do. It is rather that the double service Rousseau expects from women runs in tandem or in parallel with his various investigations of the paradox of human perfectibility in an imperfect world. Perfectibility, a concept Rousseau introduced to the French Enlightenment, as Wokler has made clear, is a capacity bound up with free will that helps constitute our humanity as a species. It had not been well used in the past; we have only to consider the cowed miscreant who had emerged from centuries of civilization and domestication to see this. Even so, perfectibility remains available to us in principle, and it is at this point that the strands in Rousseau’s argument, however uncomfortably, finally begin to come together. Because amour-propre, other things being equal, will deflect perfectibility, moving it in the untoward direction of corruption and self-division, and because women can but have not always or often contained men’s amour-propre, a large share of the blame for what has gone wrong in humanity’s successive wrong turnings can be laid at the door of women.

If the family was the sole surviving trace of humanity’s golden age, or the only one that continued to be applicable, or extendable, in Rousseau’s own day, Rousseau was in general markedly reluctant to base legitimacy on longevity. He suspended his own rule in this one, particular case; his reflections on sexual differences issue in the unconscionable proposition that “it is just that this sex [women] should suffer for all the pain they have caused us [men].” But here a fatal slippage has taken place in Rousseau’s thought. Quite apart from the question of blameworthiness, women can be said to have caused the pain in question only if an assumption which is implicit or buried in the above account is brought out into the open. This is the assumption that women, in their capacity as bearers or agents of civilization, are also necessarily the bearers or agents of corruption too. The same assumption can be put another way. If women have corrupted and can still corrupt men, they can also redeem men; women have become in effect stand-ins or surrogates for civilization and perfectibility. It is to the interrogation of this assumption that we now turn.

On Mother’s Milk and Queen Bees

Elshtain may seem guilty at first glance of merely throwing out a glib line when she says that, in Rousseau’s view, “women spoiled civilization”; after all, Rousseau regarded “civilization” as a sustained exercise in the spoliation of all of us. Yet the very connection Elshtain suggets between “women” and “civilization” is provocative and instructive, not glib and throwaway. What Rousseau says, au fond, about civilization is that it is a matrix of (accomplished) alienation and (potential) “perfectibility.” It is striking that this characterization is disconcertingly close to what Rousseau also says about women. The implications of this proximity are more than a little disturbing.

Let us take a seemingly extreme example. In Emile, the moral character of society is said to depend upon, and to be imbibed with, mother’s milk. “We suck with out mother’s milk the pleasures of the age and its ruling maxims”; “let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiment will be re-awakened in every heart, the state will be repeopled. The first point, this point alone, will bring everything back together. The attraction of domestic life is the best counterpoison to bad morals…let women once again become moral, men will become fathers and husbands again.” The key word here may be “counterpoison.” Women are at once the bearers and transmitters of culture and civilization from one generation to the next and are to be regarded — and addressed — as surrogates or stand-ins for civilization itself. Women, like civilization, can corrupt; they can be corrupted; and, there again, they can rescue others from corruption. These others need not be men, but the point remains that women’s capacity to redeem or corrupt men is at the center of Rousseau’s concerns. Here, Okin is quite right; women can in principle either disable or empower men, men who, in Rousseau’s view, need all the help they can get. Women alone can provide it. The problem of women and the problem of (male) selfhood are cognate. To solve one is to solve, or help solve, the other; and neither one admits of being solved all on its own. It is for this reason that Rousseau “holds women responsible for the general state of bad morals in society.” Apostrophizing in the Second Discourse his “amiable and virtuous” Genevan citoyennes, Rousseau insists that “the fate of your sex will always be to govern ours. It is fortunate when your chaste power, exercised solely in conjugal union, makes itself felt only for the glory of the state and the public happiness…. What barbarous man could resist the voice of honour and reason in the mouth of a tender wife?…Therefore always be what you are, the chaste guardians of morals and the gentle bonds of peace; and continue to exploit on every occasion the rights of the heart and of nature for the benefit of duty and virtue.” We need only compare this exhortation with a passage from the Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater to see how deeply Rousseau’s fetishizing of women runs.

Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men, more womanish than she, who know how to render all sorts of homage to beauty except that of the heart, which is her due. But observe these same men, always constrained in these voluntary prisons, get up, sit down, pace continually back and forth to the fireplace, to the window, pick up and set down a fan a hundred times, leaf through books, glance at pictures, turn and pirouette about the room, while the idol, stretched out motionlessly on her couch, has only her eyes and her tongue active….

The eroticism of female idleness is unmistakable and implies that women are at all costs to be kept busy. The alternative is almost too horrible to contemplate. “In becoming sociable and a slave, [man] becomes weak, fearful, servile; and his soft and effeminate way of life completes the enervation of both his strength and his courage.” Political decay and male effeminacy go hand in hand. Seen in this light, Rousseau’s depiction of the motionless idol surrounded by her male drones in his Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater is not contradicted but affirmed by his vision of womanhood in Emile. Here, the “chaste and beautiful woman who has an elevated soul sees the whole earth at her feet [and]…triumphs over all and herself.” This “object of perfection” (unlike the “object of sensual pleasure”) animates and inspires men, detaching them from “the baseness of the human I.” The Second Discourse can lambaste love as “an artificial sentiment extolled by women in order to establish their ascendency and make dominant the sex that ought to obey”; and Rousseau’s Emile can declaim: “Woe to the age in which women lose their ascendency, one in which their judgments no longer have [any] effect on men.” What links these apparently contradictory statements, and others like them — no reader of Rousseau will be hard put to find similar ones — is a pronounced sense of women’s erotic power as something that can either accompany and reinforce or forestall corruption. The tension between corruptibility and perfectibility is one that women, to Rousseau, do not just represent but actually embody and personify.

Rousseau’s aim was not to obliterate woman’s power — nobody could do this — but to channel it, to use it to what he thought was good effect. Rousseau wants a great deal from women and demands more from them than from men. He wants them to offer men refuge (the home), solace, consolation, distraction (themselves). But he wants still more. Women should also use their power to push men out into the public realm. Women can play on men’s fragile and divided selves, but they can build on them too. They are uniquely fitted to help heal men’s divisions by setting up a counterpoint between private desire and public action. Just as the theater in Rousseau’s Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater is a hideous parody of the Assembly in the Social Contract state, the Queen Bee passage from the same text is a hideous parody of what Rousseau thought women might be capable of doing for, or to, men.

Rousseau wants sexual passion and fears to be used and organized for the good of the community, which is defined in relation and in opposition to the nexus of private desires. Passions create both the obstacles to and the opportunities for citizenship; it is women who determine the character of a community. “A Spartan mother had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A helot arrives; trembling she asks him for news. ‘Your five sons were killed.’ ‘Base slave, did I ask you that?’ ‘We won the victory.’ The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods. This is the female citizen.” We can only rejoice if such a female citizen, who is a monster, is — as Rousseau thinks — no longer available. But his account is more than tinged with regret at her passing. Perhaps she can still serve as a kind of reminder, as shock tactics. In the world of the Social Contract, the general will ensures that “since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one,” and it frees men from all personal dependence on the particular wills of others. This dependence on the civic forum ensures that domestic and sexual arrangements cannot degenerate into dependence. That the dependence of women upon men is the price to be paid for men’s freedom (which in considerable part consists in freedom from dependence upon women) may have preoccupied Rousseau — but not too much. Yet it should surely occupy us. It is a price none of us can afford to pay. Rousseau’s solution is in this sense our predicament. Emile says to his prospective wife, “Sophie, you are the arbiter of my fate. You know it well. But do not hope to make me forget the rights of humanity. They are more sacred to me than yours. I will never give them up for you.” At this point Sophie — no motionless idol she — “puts an arm around his neck and gives him a kiss.” He passes the test, and so has she. Duty is satisfied, sexuality controlled. Let those take comfort who can.