Rousseau and Wollstonecraft on Women

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Women, who make up in estimates, one-half of humanity, have always been a source of fascination. From the early days of Plato, the roles of women have been debated, what were their proper roles, and could they work beside men, in areas distinctly characterized to be men’s work? Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft, both writers of the 18th century, take it upon themselves to write about how to achieve the ideal women through education. However, their relations stop there, for both recommend different forms of education, and both envision diverging views of how the ideal women functions. For the 18th century, Rousseau may have perhaps expressed the common outlook on women for the time, and Wollstonecraft may have appeared more revolutionary, but neither expressed views on women that would be socially sanctioned at present times in the western world. Before analyzing the works of Rousseau and Wollstonecraft on women, it is necessary to understand the basic premises of their arguments. In the chapter, “Sophie, or Women” found in Rousseau’s book, “Women, Love, and Family,” Rousseau states that the main function of a woman is to please her male counterpart, and her education should be situated towards that goal. He believed that because by nature, both genders are inherently different, they naturally had different duties. For Rousseau, education was to serve the function of providing that knowledge to perform those duties prescribed to the individual sexes, and from thereon, was to consist of nothing more. Wollstonecraft, who writes her piece after Rousseau, criticizes Rousseau’s work and assumes a different approach in educating women in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” For her, she believed that to perfect the women, women must be educated under the same guidelines as their male peers. Only then, would most women give up their vanity and propensity to seek desirability. With an equal education, women would become spouses that are more compatible and as mothers, they would be invested in their children’s future. Readers do not need to interpret Wollstonecraft’s text to find that she disagrees with Rousseau as she blatantly references and criticizes his views throughout her piece. More so than Rousseau’s portrayal of the man, or Emile, Wollstonecraft is upset with his portrayal of the female, or Sophie. She takes issue with Rousseau’s belief that a women needs to be a total dependent. She states that according to Rousseau, a woman is “made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man….with respect to the female character, obedience is the grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigour” (Wollstonecraft, p. 48-49). Wollstonecraft follows the quote by citing her own beliefs on women, arguing that both women and men should maintain the same level of virtue, or in other words, men need to virtuous as well. As a result, “their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim” (Wollstonecraft, p. 49), and it is not necessary for the women to retain themselves as objects of desire. It upsets Wollstonecraft that Rousseau holds that a female’s education is directed to render them pleasing, a belief that she views as plaguing her own society and a quality “only useful to a mistress” (Wollstonecraft, p. 50). Wollstonecraft argues that when this is the case, a woman would spend her life trying to please men, including men outside of her marriage when the marriage fails to be a relationship of intimacy. In sum, a woman whose sole task is to please, in the end, cannot be chaste. In reference to Rousseau, Wollstonecraft agrees that a girl spends her days with her dolls, an image which Rousseau uses to show that girls from a young age engage in activities to nurture. However, Wollstonecraft states girls have no choice when they are confined for hours, but to imitate the activities of the elder...
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