Rousseau and Mill on Gender

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Whereas Rousseau takes both the stand of a feminist and a sexist in his work, Mill is quite protective about women in arguing that men do not know what women are capable of because they have never been given a chance to develop and prove it. Mill lived in a time when women were generally subject to oppression and humiliation coming from their husbands and fathers due to the socially preconceived ideas that women were both physically and mentally less able than men. Rousseau on the other side has a very bilateral perspective on gender when promoting the patriarchal family where men are superior to women in contrast to providing women with some sort of agency and acknowledging that females have certain talents that men do not and they are able to make males dependent on them. Mill starts off his “Subjection of Women” by contrasting the situation of women in a patriarchal culture to that of slaves. Due to the use of physical power that men exercise over women, their relationship reminds nothing more that the situation of slavery and marriage is one of the only remaining examples of slavery in a Christian Europe where “slavery, has been at length abolished” (5). Mill strongly believes that violence should not be tolerated in the matter of domination over women and he points out that the fact that patriarchy and women’s oppression have been known through history is not a good enough explanation of why this should continue. He believes women have been oppressed because they have not been allowed any alternative. Men claim that women are not able of doing anything, which is why they are trying to stop them. However, according to Mill, in reality we do not know what the nature of women is, since they live in subjection and did not have a chance for self-development. Mill denies that “anyone knows, or can know the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (22). He claims that “if men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men[…] something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each”(22). The belief that women are naturally weak and docile and that they “are brought up […] in the belief that their ideal of character is […] submission, and yielding to the control of others”(15-16) is an “eminently artificial thing” (22). Mill stated that when it comes to marriage, many women are limited by social expectations of their traditional behavior. But he believed that only if creating a free market for women’s talents and activities they perform, we would be able to discover their true nature and this would actually be beneficial for both men and women. Mill was an advocate for equality between men and women and he claimed that the reason why males fear women emancipation is because they are afraid that in such means of living “there will be not enough of them who will be willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them [wives and mothers]” (28). Comparing to Mill, who is very clear on his view on women, Rousseau takes two stands on gender relations. As a sexist, Rousseau promotes the patriarchal family as the only natural society and he states that there are particular tasks prescribed to women that they should be trained for. He believes that tasks such as “sewing, embroidery and lacemaking come by themselves” and are natural to women, but when it comes to education, “all little girls learn to read and write with repugnance” (543). Rousseau assumes that learning beyond what traditional roles involve, is actually detrimental for the woman. He claims that “to cultivate man’s qualities in women and to neglect those which are proper to them is obviously to work to their detriment” (539). As a sexist, he believes that the duty of a girl’s family is to “make a decent woman of her, and be sure that as a result she will be worth more for herself and for us [men]” (539)....
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