Women and gender in the confessions: eighteenth century contexts objective

Download 46.26 Kb.
Size46.26 Kb.

Objective: This handout is intended to help clarify and contextualize Rousseau’s representations of women in the Confessions and elsewhere in his philosophy, within the context of women’s lives in eighteenth century France and Europe. Feel free to use as is with your students, or adapt and compress for your own purposes. It provides basic information that you can supplement through the sources suggested in Unit 3.


This handout focuses on the experience of women in the eighteenth century. It does so for two reasons: first, in his philosophical work, Rousseau repeatedly insists on immutable, biologically determined differences between men and women. He insists on this in an era when gender, family, the nature of humanity and the role of all persons in the civil affairs of the state were being rethought. Some of Rousseau’s contemporaries, for instance, such as Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges, believed women should possess equal civil rights with men. Rousseau did not. Another of Rousseau’s contemporaries, the Chevalier d’Eon, was born anatomically male but lived most of his life as a woman. S/he believed women were closer to God.

To focus on the experience of women is therefore not to suggest that gender identities are fixed and limited to categories such as “man” and “woman.” It is rather to try to determine what it meant to belong to the category “woman” during the eighteenth century.


The historical experience of women differed widely in this period, as in ours – according to class, geography, marital status and number of children, to name just a few. A vast gulf separated a woman such as Rousseau’s formidable aristocratic patron Mme. de Luxembourg from the illiterate child Anzoletta, whom Rousseau and his friend Carrio purchase from her mother in Venice. As Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks notes, “the role of gender in determining the historical experiences of men and women varie[s] over time and from group to group. For some people, such as the very poor, social class was probably more important than gender” (12). French women could not vote in this period, true, but then neither could anyone else: France was an absolute monarchy, as was the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia-Savoy. Even within a country civil rights could vary: in the south of France, and according to the customary laws of Paris, all children, regardless of sex, were “equally eligible to inherit,” while elsewhere in the country “customs and laws…varied widely” (Rogers 34-5; see also Desan).

The eighteenth century was also the age of the transatlantic slave trade. A slave woman’s experience might differ slightly from that of a slave man’s, but the most salient factor in either person’s experience was slavery, not gender.


For the most part, however, into whatever class or station of life she’d been born, when a woman got married in eighteenth century Europe, her person and assets were given over to “the absolute control of another party” (Rogers 35; see also Wiesner-Hanks 44). This would have happened to Mme. de Luxembourg, Mme. d’Epinay, Sophie d’Houdetot, Mme. Dupin, Mme. de Warens and any number of other independent-minded women whom we encounter in the Confessions.

As Suzanne Desan notes,

Husband, wife and family of origin all assumed that the husband would have more authority within the household. Husband and wife might well work toward a common goal and enjoy reciprocal respect or affection. Spouses continually negotiated the contours of their relationship, but popular assumptions, law, religious teaching and long-standing patterns of family practice all worked to reinforce the patriarchal authority over both wives and children.

Once married, women had few options. A husband’s adultery was not grounds for separation, but if a woman was accused of adultery, her husband had the right to have her locked up in a convent for two years. With the consent of her family, he could even lock her up for the rest of her life, all the while maintaining control of her property (Rogers 38; Desan). He could even kill her; according to one legal treatise of the time, “the husband…does not have the right to kill his wife, but, if he does so, he quite readily obtains a pardon” (qtd. Rogers 38). Conversely, the law deemed that a husband did owe his wife economic support and should not exercise brutality against her. Desan notes that an “an abused wife, with the support of her family, might succeed in having a violent husband imprisoned. About five percent (10 cases) of the lettres de cachet in Caen immured brutal husbands.” On the death of their husbands, widows did regain possession and control of their dowries and any other assets, but they could not dispose of it as they wished. Overall, as Rogers notes:

Access to all professions and the rights to litigate, to bear witness in court, to have guardianship of minors, to have one’s signature considered legally binding and valid, to witness a will, to make a will – these rights were enjoyed by Frenchwomen of the eighteenth century either not at all or to a limited extent. (40-41).


Mme. de Warens, for instance, may have legally ceded body and person to her husband when she married him, but she leaves him and her country and takes up with a series of younger lovers, her pension from the King of Sardinia and Savoy granted her on the basis of a carefully staged conversion to Catholicism.

Adultery may have carried strict penalties according to the law, but at least among the aristocracy and the upper classes, as long as the woman in question behaved with discretion, adultery was more or less acceptable and above all, widely practiced. This was, after all, an age when those born wealthy and noble, and including men as well as women, rarely had the liberty of choosing their own marriage partners. Thus Mme. de Warens (Claude Anet; Rousseau), Sophie d’Houdetot (Saint Lambert) and Mme. d’Epinay (Grimm) all maintain long-term, loving, companionable liaisons with men who were not their husbands. Paradoxically, the poorer you were, the more choice you had in choosing a partner: in such cases, no property was involved.

Beyond the Confessions, there is also plenty of evidence of women exercising greater autonomy than the letter of European law ostensibly allowed for. Wiesner-Hanks notes that,

In almost all city law codes beginning in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, married women who carried out business on their own, or alongside their husbands, were allowed to declare themselves unmarried…for legal purposes. This meant they could borrow and loan money and make contracts…It is [also] clear from court records that women often actively managed their dowry property and carried out legal transactions without getting special approval. (45)


The oft-repeated shibboleth that “women first enter the work force” in the 20th century is inaccurate; for one, laboring, agricultural, working-class, artisanal and slave women of all ages and in all societies have always worked. Lieselotte Steinbrügge notes of agriculture in Old Regime France,

Women…worked as hard as men…[Agriculture] at the time employed five-sixths of the female population. In some regions, according to local custom, women even did the heaviest labor. In some cases they replaced draught animals in the fields. The division of work into light and heavy physical labor by no means followed gender lines. The same can be said of the artisanal trades and emerging industry. Women’s integration in the agricultural and artisanal production processes [was] obvious… (15)

Domestic service, of the kind Marion (Book II) and Thérèse Levasseur engage in, was also a major employer,

Probably the largest employer of women in most [European] cities throughout the [early modern] period. Between 15 and 30 percent of the population of most cities was made up of servants…One of every twelve people in Old Regime France were servants, two-thirds of them female. (Wiesner-Hanks 113)

Furthermore, the presence of servants did not necessarily mean “lives of indolence for their employers.” As Toni Bowers notes,

It is important to remember that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century homes were places of endless labor. Far from a luxury, household help was indispensable for the upkeep of all but the shabbiest dwellings before labor-saving innovations such as indoor plumbing, electricity, modern food storage and preparation, easily accessible fuel, appliances, and supermarkets. Whether rural or urban, households produced their own consumables to a far greater extent than today. Mistresses and/or servants routinely made their own baked goods, including bread; grew and preserved their own produce; raised, milked, butchered, and cooked their own animals; churned their own cheese and butter; produced their own liquor and medicines, and made soap and starch, which were used to launder by hand all clothing and linens.

Spinning, sewing, and mending were consuming tasks that fell to all the females of the household – mistress, children, and servants alike. Clothing, linens, draperies – all were made by hand as, especially early in our period, was the fabric they were cut from. Though in towns it was possible to bespeak a new suit at a tailor's or dressmaker's, the cost was well beyond the means of most families. Even in better-off urban households -- those more likely to patronize merchants and where servants could be expected to do the day-to-day drudgery -- the ladies were not spared needlework. Free of the need to spin, sew, mend, and darn, they instead spent countless hours painstakingly producing luxury textiles such as lace and embroidered linens. "Taking in" needlework beyond that required for one's own family was one of very few wage-earning occupations available to respectable women, while "taking in washing,” a back-breaking and often dangerous job, was a last resort of the impoverished.

Women engaged not only in agricultural and domestic labor, however. They also worked as midwives, merchants, herbalists, miners and craftswomen, among other professions. However, as Merry Wiesner-Hanks notes, “Religious opinion and the language of laws and records…all viewed whatever productive labor a woman did as simply part of her domestic role.” A woman was, above all, “a helpmate to her husband and an example for her children” (103).

Generally, whenever they did engage in wage-labor, women made less than men. For many, it was not enough to make ends meet. In his Making of Revolutionary Paris, David Garrioch notes,

For young women [in Paris] who could not find work, particularly those from the provinces with no family in the capital, prostitution might be the only means of survival. It provided subsistence to somewhere around 10,000 to 15,000 young women [in Paris], though was by no means the resort solely of poverty-stricken provincials: female wages were so low that a woman alone, worse still with small children, had trouble making ends meet. Every quarter [in Paris] therefore had its filles du monde who despite police bans on renting to prostitutes had little trouble finding suitable rooms overlooking the street. Despite their worldly profession, like the beggars they were often accepted members of the neighborhood community” (61-62).

If women generally had few civil rights, a prostitute in Paris

…had absolutely no individual rights or liberty. She was constantly in danger of being rounded up either for medical examination or to be sent to prison at La Salpetriere or Bicetre. Conditions were so terrible in these prisons – starvation diet of bread and broth, hard labor, overcrowded conditions – that some women committed suicide rather than be subjected to them…prostitution was [furthermore] judged to be a crime of which only women were guilty,

And therefore a crime for which only women could be prosecuted (Rogers 41).

It is within such a context that we should read Rousseau’s encounter with “Pope Joan” in Part II of the Confessions. The inequity in female wage-labor is also worth keeping in mind when we seek to account for Rousseau’s relation with Thérèse Levasseur, who is working as a chambermaid and laundress when the two first meet. (This is not to suggest Thérèse was a prostitute, merely that economic considerations played a part in their relationship: she had a large family that Rousseau supported). The situation was slightly different in Italy: “major Italian cities such as Florence and Venice were the most tolerant [in Europe], favoring regulation over suppression and often viewing prostitutes as a significant source of municipal income” (Wiesner-Hanks 122).

Merry Wiesner-Hanks sums up women’s economic role in the fifteenth through the eighteenth century as follows:

The early modern period has been viewed as a time of tremendous economic change, with the expansion of commercial capitalism, the beginning of proto-industrial production, and the creation of a world market system because of European colonization. When we evaluate women’s economic role during this period, however, we find that continuities outweigh the changes. Women were increasingly pushed out of craft guilds, but they had only rarely been full members in the first place. They took over new types of agricultural tasks but continued to be paid half of what men were paid no matter what types of work they did. They dominated the urban marketplace but only rarely were able to amass much profit [what they earned belonged legally to men]. Women’s economic activities were increasingly restricted during the early modern period, but their legal dependence on father or husband, unequal access to family resources, and inability to receive formally acknowledged training had adversely affected their economic position in the Middle Ages [as well] and would continue to do so into the twenty-first century.

It is clear from the records, however, that…at least a few midwives, merchants, market women and medical practitioners took great pride in their work, seeing it as a vocation the way many men did their occupations… (133-4)


In the Middle Ages in France, for instance, Adrienne Rogers notes that

Noblewomen had acted as peers and had even arbitrated vassals’ disputes and participated in parlements [French law courts], but by the eighteenth century, they could not hold any judicial offices. Access to all professions and the rights to litigate, to bear witness in court, to have guardianship of minors, to have one’s signature considered legally binding and valid, to witness a will, to make a will – these rights were enjoyed by Frenchwomen of the eighteenth century either not at all or to a limited extent…As early as 1788, when the king called together the Estates General [the prelude to the French Revolution], a few women petitioned in hope that they might have a share in the benefits of liberty…

But this was not to be: in December 1789, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, “women were excluded from ‘the right to vote,’” and “in the Constitution of 1791, the Constituent Assembly denied women citizenship, grouping them with other ‘passive’ citizens, such as children, minors and convicted felons” (Rogers 43). Other civil rights, however, such as the right to divorce and the right to keep property, were obtained following the French Revolution. (For more, see Wiesner-Hanks, “Ideas and Laws”; Rogers, “Women and the Law.”)

The eighteenth century was an era of upheaval in which human nature, and with it the nature of men and women, was being rethought. The religious worldview was losing its validity, and with it the biblical curse which for centuries had allowed women to be conceived as subordinate to men. The…notion of natural human equality also facilitated a new anthropological definition of the female human being. “Woman in a state of nature, like man, is a free and powerful being,” wrote Choderlos de Laclos in Des femmes et de leur éducation (On Women and their Education), following Rousseau’s postulate on the natural equality of all human beings.

This development, however, by no means culminated in the concept of the equality of the sexes. The eighteenth century is the period when the sex-specific character attributed to men and women developed and diverged; it is the epoch in which the ideological and institutional foundations were laid for women’s exclusions from civil rights and higher education…It is the age that saw the emergence of an image of female nature that allowed precisely these exclusions to be considered “natural.”

The division of humanity into two unequal parts was legitimated with genuinely Enlightenment principles – this in an age professing devotion to the equality of all human beings. The road there led past the very authority that allowed men to conceive of liberation from the shackles of tutelage: Nature…the paradigm of Enlightenment emancipation in general, when applied to women, comes to mean ‘subsumption’ and ‘limitation.’ - Steinbrügge, The Moral Sex, 4-5


“Anyone at the court, in Paris, or in the provinces, who judges the ministers, magistrates, and prelates, without knowing the women who govern them is like a man who can tell that a machine works, but who has no knowledge of the inner springs” – Montesquieu, Persian Letters, 1721

“Since women find the path to fame and power closed to their sex, they achieve their goals via other routes” – Mme. Lambert, 1747

As Steinbrügge observes,

Legend has it that in France the eighteenth century was the century of women, and the facts would seem to substantiate this view. The intellectual elite met in salons led by women; the important thinkers of the age corresponded and discussed their ideas with women. A number of women took up writing themselves, producing scientific tracts, translations, novels or pedagogical programs. Women such as Madame du Châtelet, Madame de Graffigny, Madame Riccoboni, Madame de Lambert, Julie de Lespinasse, and Madame de Genlis – to name only a few – represent this development. It was this integration of women into intellectual life which, a century later, moved the Goncourt brothers to devote a celebrated study to the women of the eighteenth century, in which they concluded that woman had been the governing principle of the age…(1)

The key phrase here is of course “woman” as a “principle,” rather than diverse women –acting, doing, and creating.


It was precisely this perception of eighteenth century France as condemned to the “reign of woman” that Rousseau would excoriate in his polemics and philosophical work, declaring (somewhat hysterically) in his Letter to d’Alembert, that “never has a people perished from an excess of wine; all perish from the disorder of women.”

In his immensely influential pedagogical treatise, Émile, he would argue that women should be loving mothers and wives above all, and that “nature” decreed that their influence should be circumscribed to the home, the domestic sphere and the domestic affections. He

Predicted no end of moral corruption and social decadence if women were not systematically raised to fulfill a feminine role in a domestic environment, and kept away from the public and intellectual activity that [was] the proper province of male republican citizens. (Lange 2-3)

As Lange’s reference to “male republican citizens” indicates, Rousseau was at once more politically radical and more socially conservative than many of his Enlightenment contemporaries. On the one hand, he advocated for a republic of free citizens in an age when even a staunch advocate of free speech such as Voltaire thought the lower classes were better off remaining uneducated. On the other hand, women simply weren’t part of the equation, as far as Rousseau was concerned (and his pronouncements in this regard are both numerous and tedious).

The witty, well-read, intellectual, hard-working salonnières of the era (see Goodman) Rousseau dismissed as “plagues” to all around them: “A brilliant wife is a plague to her husband, her children, her friends, her valets, everyone. From the sublime elevation of her fair genius she disdains all her women’s duties and always begins by making herself into a man” (Émile, qtd. Dent 106).


“It is common knowledge that the difference between the sexes is purely physical, and restricted to those parts of the body serving the propagation of human nature…[A] woman is just as capable as a man of learning.” – Mme. de Puisieux, Woman is Not Inferior to Man, 1750

“If a woman has the right to be guillotined, she also has the right to vote.” – Olympe de Gouges, 1791

“If all Men are born Free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” – Mary Astell, writing in response to John Locke, 1706

Few went as far as Enlightenment philosophe Condorcet (On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship, 1790) or feminist activists such as Olympe de Gouges (Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) in advocating for the rights of women to have the vote, but many – including Diderot (Sur les femmes, 1772) and the Baron d’Holbach (Des Femmes, 1773), believed women’s inferiority due to their legal subordination and poor education, a stance implicitly suggesting their lot could be improved. (Diderot’s opinions regarding women’s rights or lack thereof continue to be a matter of debate).

That Rousseau’s opinions differed from some of his contemporaries’ views in this regard is an important point to stress: that is, Rousseau’s chauvinism was partially a product of his society, yes, but it was mostly a product of Rousseau. The intellectual technology, as it were, for arriving at a different point of view, was available.


In fact, many women, such as writer, intellectual, early feminist and salonnière Germaine de Staël, found his precepts liberatory.


In the Confessions, gender relations and gender roles and identities arguably emerge as complex, constructed, and dynamic, rather than as predetermined, “natural,” given facts. Rousseau declares that he has begun to dress as a woman in his old age (his famous Armenian costume), and tells his readers, “I shall now become a woman.” As Roseanne Kennedy observes in Rousseau in Drag, he falls in love with a woman, Sophie d’Houdetot, who cross-dresses as a man. He tells us that he is happiest when being ordered around by a woman – when, in fact, he adopts the role society suggested belonged to women. What we make of this is up to us as readers.

Rousseau’s is a most intriguing sexism, a complex and even insightful account of the ways political agendas support, constrain and construct sexual identities –Wingrove, Rousseau’s Republican Romance, 315

Bowers, Toni. “Domesticity and the Family in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Defining Gender, 1450-1910. http://www.amdigital.co.uk/m-collections/collection/defining-gender-1450-1910/

Suzanne Desan, “Making and Breaking Marriage: An Overview of Old Regime Marriage as a Social Practice.” Family, Gender and Law in Early Modern France. Penn State UP, 2009. 1-25.

Kennedy, Roseanne. Rousseau in Drag: Deconstructing Gender. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Lange, Lynda. “Introduction.” Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 2002.

Rogers, Adrienne. “Women and the Law.” French Women and the Age of Enlightenment. Ed. Samia Spencer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. 83-97.

Steinbrügge, Lieselotte. “Introduction.” The Moral Sex: Women’s Nature in the French Enlightenment. Trans. Pamela E. Selwyn. Oxford UP, 1995.

Théré, Christine. “Women and Birth Control in Eighteenth Century France.” Trans. Nicole Wilson-Denner. Eighteenth Century Studies 32.4 (1999) 552-564.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Wingrove, Elizabeth. Rousseau’s Republican Romance. Princeton UP, 2000.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2020
send message

    Main page