Compulsory Domesticity? - Comparing gender notions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill in "Émile" and "The Subjection of Women"

Seminar Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Gender Notion
2.1 Sophie's “Education” as a Natural Woman
2.2 The Paradox of Reason

3. Compulsory Domesticity?
3.1 John Stuart Mill's Gender Notion
3.2 Mill and Rousseau on Childhood Education
3.3 Natural Differences versus violent Repression

4. Conclusion: Mill and Rousseau in Critical Perspective


“Women do wrong to complain of the inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of mere prejudice, but of reason.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau “Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law; there remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house.” John Stuart Mill

1. Introduction

Although political philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes thought it important that all individuals be free to govern themselves, they often based their theories of representative democracy on the nuclear family as the smallest unit in society. Since families are formed by individuals, how is it possible that these thinkers dismissed the voice of one half of the population - women? Even though Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts so much emphasis on the individual’s necessity for freedom in order to prepare his readers for a future democratic state, his ideas of self-government did not expand to include women. The idea that women’s political voices are represented in those of their husbands or fathers was commonly accepted as natural, yet as this essay will show, it must be seen as much more than a minor flaw in works like the Social Contract and the Émile.

When, a century later, John Stuart Mill analyzes women's role in society, he recognizes and condemns the inequalities and injustices, but he neither questions the idea of the separate spheres nor the order of the family as the smallest constituent of the state.

This essay examines how gender notions shifted in the century between the publication of Rousseau’s Émile1 in 1762 and Mill’s “The Subjection of Women2” in 1869. Therefore, the first part takes a closer look at Rousseau and how he creates his ideal of the natural man along with his notion of a “separate but equal” woman. How can Rousseau’s general desire for equality and freedom of the individual be combined with his claim that women need to be complementary and serviceable to men? How does Sophie achieve an equal status with the “natural man” Émile when she is defined by nature to be man’s servant? The second part will look at Mill’s claim of total equality between men and women as a guarantor for social progress in society. In what way is Mill’s concept about women’s nature different from Rousseau’s? Furthermore, how does Mill’s concept of domesticity and his assumption that women would prefer the domestic realm, when given the choice between having a career or creating a home, relate to Rousseau’s ideas of domesticity?

2. Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Gender Notion in Émile

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau creates his new man, the ‘natural man’ Émile, he is well aware that Émile needs to have a mate, or ‘helpmeet,’ as he calls her. Just as Émile has been educated to become an example of the new man - a man who shall not be raised to become an aristocratic gentleman or be overly civilized and dependent on society - Sophie, the new woman, will have to be educated accordingly in order to be a perfect mate to this new natural man. As Rousseau sees it, Sophie should be as truly a woman as Émile is a man, but her role includes being obedient to her future husband. Her main tasks are to complement Émile, be ‘pleasing’, passive and weak, and employ a sense of coquetry that simultaneously holds some psychological power over Émile but does not turn into “dangerous lasciviousness.” Rousseau encounters a major conflict between individual independence and the interdependence of the individual and society. He wants Émile to be as independent as possible, but he believes society to have a corrupting influence that is incompatible with his notion of a self-reliant and free man. But since a total retreat from society is impossible, he wants Émile to find a way to live in society without compromising his independence. Furthermore, what characterizes Rousseau’s new man are the qualities of being an observer, being independent of public opinion and having strong desires - primarily powerful sexual urges and secondarily the desire for love and stability. Sophie, argues Rousseau, will have to be educated according to these qualities in order to fulfill her role as an equal partner.

2.1 Sophie’s “Education” as a Natural Woman

Rousseau stresses three central points in his argument on how Sophie can fulfill her role as a partner for Émile. The first is the necessity to educate both partners to enter a commitment that ensures Émile’s physical, i.e. sexual, well being. The second point addresses the importance of having a strong moral or spiritual side to their relationship. The third point stresses the economic union, namely a commitment to form a nuclear family as a basis for society.3 This third point is most important: Rousseau founds his theories on Sophie's education on the fact that there are fundamental sex differences, which cannot be overcome and therefore both justify and necessitate a separate education of the sexes. Instead of concentrating on the similarities, Rousseau backs these differences up with his own observations, scientific "proof," and his quasi-religious idea of nature as a substitute for the divine order.

Although Sophie’s education is based on the same ideals as Émile’s, she must be educated with special regard to deal with her own desires and society's many seductions (as seen for example in the fascination with clothes and consumer culture). But above this, she must learn a social code, a special form of psychological coquetry, in order to attract Émile and hold him in the relationship. This includes subtle psychological tricks in order to make him feel independent, although he is not. She has to be educated in order to counter the inadequacies of her man and make his life more pleasant. This means her main function, though not entirely, is to please:

A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what she should be taught while she is young.4


1 Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Émile. (1762) North Clarendon, Vermont and London: 2000.

2 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women. (1869) Virago Press, London: 1983.

3Here we can see the economic goal that Roussau has in mind. Yet the question arises of how far his model relationship and consequently his ideas about education are formed by his desire to create an economically efficient state. Does this economic pressure influence what is to be seen as natural in women and men?

4 Rousseau, 393.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Compulsory Domesticity? - Comparing gender notions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill in "Émile" and "The Subjection of Women"
Brown University  (Department of History)
European Intellectual History: Discovering the Modern
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Compulsory, Domesticity, Comparing, Jean-Jacques, Rousseau, John, Stuart, Mill, Subjection, Women, European, Intellectual, History, Discovering, Modern, Emile
Quote paper
Bert Bobock (Author), 2005, Compulsory Domesticity? - Comparing gender notions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill in "Émile" and "The Subjection of Women", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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