Rousseau’s Women

bust of Rousseau
bust of Rousseau

Rousseau’s writings are often regarded as contradictory. In his life, he was attacked as a hypocrite who wrote of the duties and obligations of the citizen but who himself lived in exile from society. The structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov has been more generous to Rousseau, arguing that he self-consciously inhabits different perspectives in order to capture a contradiction “in the human condition” (19). I would qualify this statement with the assertion that Rousseau captures an extraordinarily Romantic dilemma. He is attracted to the freedoms of solitary life even as he affirms an obligation to commit oneself completely to the interests of a community, or a politics. In this blog post, I’ll say a little about Rousseau’s contradictory (and socially conservative) views of women and how I think they correspond to the divide in Rousseau’s thinking between “natural” freedom and moral commitment, private interest and public good.

Rousseau may be most famous for his assertion that it was a woman’s responsibility not only for being faithful to her husband but also for seeming so. Impossibly, she should prevent jealous thoughts from even entering her husband’s mind. This way of thinking about women was a natural extension of Rousseau’s psychology, which emphasized the ways that secrecy, reserve and competition were at the root of evils like slavery, greed and tyranny. Mary Wollstonecraft famously critiqued Rousseau in the Vindication of the Rights of Women, noting that a woman may well seem faithful yet act unfaithfully. Wollstonecraft saw that Rousseau’s picture of feminine virtue was having emotionally stunting effects on real women; it was at the heart of a system of education that rendered women excessively embodied dependents rather than rational and autonomous people.

Rousseau’s moralizing proscriptions for women—like his long diatribe at the beginning of Emile against women who employ wet nurses—can really make a contemporary reader cringe. But the philosopher David Gauthier is right to observe that, “the woman who was at the center of Rousseau’s life in no way displayed the supposed throne of feminine virtue.” This woman was Madame de Warens; Rousseau movingly depicts his relationship with her in The Confessions. After having abandoned an unhappy marriage, Louise Élénore de Warens converted to Catholicism in order to receive a pension from the King of Sardinia, who sent her to Annecy, France to serve the faith. It was there that she became Rousseau’s benefactor.

M de WarensIn The Confessions, Rousseau asserts that the period in his life that brought him the greatest happiness was one when he felt his identity bound up with Madame de Warens’. But the particulars of their relationship were at odds with the traditional family structure that Rousseau proffered as a model in other works. The two were never married. When Madame de Warens began sleeping with Rousseau, she was also sleeping with Claude Anet, a servant with a wealth of botanical knowledge. This sexual arrangement did not engender the kind of bad feeling that ostensibly drove Rousseau to make a virtue of fidelity: “between the three of us was established a bond perhaps unique on this earth. Our every wish and care and affection was held in common, none of them extending outside our own little circle” (194). A reader familiar with Wollstonecraft’s Rousseau will be surprised to find that this three-some represented an ideal mode of relation for Rousseau, one of complete transparency. The problem was that it had to be kept private, limited to “our own little circle.”

In a fit of hyperbole, Rousseau writes that Madame de Warens “could have slept with twenty men every day with a clear conscience” and determines that, in this, she was led by “false principles.” But Rousseau’s problem with her sexual morals was not really justified on psychological grounds. In sleeping with more than one man at a time, she did not, Rousseau asserts, create pernicious rivalries—she brought people closer together. Nor does she create in the men around her the sort of fatal doubts about paternity that are the classic grounds for the chastity double standard. (The question of contraception would be an interesting one to pursue. Rousseau doesn’t bring it up.) Rousseau’s criticism of Madame de Warens was more deeply bound up with his ongoing sense that the pleasures of private life were incompatible with a more expansive commitment to community. The loving intimacy that Rousseau celebrated with Madame de Warens and Claude Anet was problematic as a model for social relations because it represented a union between too few equals.

In his sentimental novel Julie, Rousseau sought to imagine a relation between men and women that could bind both to a larger moral order. The exemplary relationship here is a passionless marriage in which husband and wife oversee a minimally exploitative domestic community. In order for this ideal community to come into being, the heroine Julie must repress her passion for Saint-Preux, the bourgeoisie tutor who she has a love affair with in the first part of the novel. Julie’s husband eventually invites Saint-Preux into their life. Much of the drama of the novel lies in Julie and Saint-Preux’s ongoing efforts to repress their desire for one another.

Engraving by Jean Michel Moreau (1741-1814)
Engraving by Jean Michel Moreau (1741-1814)

In Rousseau’s Social Contract, citizens have to give up their “natural freedom” in order to become “men” united to a single “moral body.” In imagining Julie’s transition from fallen woman to virtuous materfamilias, Rousseau thinks through what it means to give up one’s freedom and to enter the social order. Julie proves to be up for the challenge: she remains faithfully committed to her husband and children. As if to really drive this point home, Rousseau has her die prematurely from a fever she contracts saving her drowning son. But as much as it seems that Rousseau is celebrating Julie’s self-denial, it is crucial that our sympathy for Julie, as sentimental-romantic readers, depends upon our attraction to the ideal of passionate love represented in her relationship with her tutor. Julie’s final letter to her lover reveals the extent to which her exemplary morals had all along been irreconcilable with her happiness. The utopian social experiment had been founded on an act of bad faith. Julie writes: “however much I wanted to stifle the first sentiment that brought me alive, it crystallized into my heart”; “The virtue that separated us on earth shall unite us in the eternal abode.” Here, Rousseau seems to acknowledge that seeming virtuous all the time is an exhausting labor that alienates the self.

Rousseau’s interest in the value of feminine seeming was a way of playing out the unresolved moral-philosophical dilemmas that pre-occupied him.  But he was never able to square his ideas about what a woman ought to be with his own personal experience . In the Confessions–a text devoted to unveiling the truths of his personal life–a woman like Madame de Warens is to be celebrated: the peace of a household held between equals depends on her abundant love. Writing in the novelistic mode, with its emphasis on social relations, Rousseau sought to extend the love Madame de Warens had modeled to a larger community. In doing so, he endorsed a feminine ideal that became the critical object of early feminist thought. But not without an underlying sense that there was something false about it.