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“Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not have the same education” 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most influential enlightenment philosophers. He believed that due to the “natural” differences between men and women, they held different roles in culture and society. As a result, he felt that the two sexes should receive an education tailored to their respective roles. His idea had a long-lasting influence on the education of girls and the perception of women. Her was one of the leading advocates of the ideology of the “separate spheres” for men and women: the public domains of men are according to him business, politics and war, the private domains of women are household and family.

Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland In June 1712. His mother died during childbirth, leaving Rousseau’s father, Isaac Rousseau, to raise him on his own. His father was a clockmaker and dance professor too preoccupied with causing trouble on adventures around the world to properly educate his children. This drove Rousseau’s older brother, François, very early out of the house. But their father had one passion, reading, and introduced his children very early to it. Already at the age of seven, Rousseau began reading lengthy novels such as Les Hommes IllustresCassandre and l’Astrée. He started to share his passion of reading with his father; the two would stay up late at night reading together. In 1722, after a quarrel with Pierre Gautier, a captain in the French army, Isaac Rousseau fled to Nyon. Jean-Jacques Rousseau briefly lived with his father and his new wife; however quickly returned to Geneva to live with his uncle Bernand.

At the age of sixteen, Rousseau left Geneva and went to Annecy, France. In 1742, he moved to Paris to become a musician and composer. Here he met Therese Levasseur, who became his illiterate mistress. Together they had five children, all of which were sent to the Paris orphanage. During this time, Rousseau became close friends with two philosophers, Condillac and Diderot. In 1750, an article Rousseau had written in response to an essay question was published in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. This article was widely read and became controversial. It challenged the belief that the progress of civilization brought an improvement in morals. He argued that knowledge and virtue are not correlated. Despite this early fame, Rousseau continued to work in music and composed a very successful opera, Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer). In 1753, Rousseau submitted another response to an essay question, which would be published one year later titled Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men. In this article he challenged the belief that human are social creatures. He stated that before civilization, he imaged that men enjoyed a primitive freedom and happiness, which has now been lost. With the advancement of civilization freedom and happiness give way to misery and oppression. After this Rousseau became a philosopher and continued to write many influential pieces.

 In 1761 he published Julie, or the New Heloise in which he describes the ideal “private sphere.” The work portrays a woman who learned to value herself to become the virtuous model in her role as wife and mother. To Rousseau, female virtue was not simply something to be defended by fathers and husbands but rather a moral quality and a set of behaviors that are a model for all. One year later, in 1762, Rousseau’s Émile or Treatise on Education came out. In this text he follows the education of a young boy and girl. He argues here that due to their natural sexual difference boys and girls need to receive different educations that will adhere to their different roles in culture and society. The man is taught self-governing while the woman is taught obedience. Rousseau’s beliefs were contradictory to those of the contemporaries during this time; they praised the rise of civilization through the development of the arts and sciences and believed that the status of women is an indicator for the level of civilization of a culture and society. Rousseau believed that the modern world was morally corrupt as it was driven by competitive and acquisitive egoism. He placed the blame of this moral failure solely on the shoulders of men. The only mention of women in his views of civilization history is that the competition for women between men was central to the hostility between themselves.

Through Émile, Rousseau was demonstrating that through the proper education men’s reason could be cultivated to make them in charge of these destructive passions thus making them free individuals. Women, however, could not develop in the same way, as he believed they could not be capable of abstract reasoning therefore could not achieve freedom. However, by retaining their natural virtue they could achieve happiness in a way that men could not. For this reason, Rousseau believed that women who tried to cultivate their reason were foolish, by defying their nature they were deserting happiness that only they could enjoy. To support his ideas, he strongly suggested breast-feeding of their own children to elite women rather than sending them to wet-nurses. He argued that breast-feeding was a manifestation of their maternal nature.

Rousseau used the theory of gender complementarity to base his idea of the two spheres, the public and private. The public sphere of the commercial economy and state was to be driven by men and their rational calculation and self-interest. The principles by which the public sphere should be governed were laid out in The Social Contract published too in 1762. The private sphere of the family was to be driven by women due to their natural virtues.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau played a tremendous role in the enlightened discourse about the “women’s question.” His writing was among the most influential during the Enlightenment. It is still relevant today because the foundations of Rousseau’s beliefs, such as kindness and ethics, are still present in today’s society and modern philosophy. Many philosophers post-Enlightenment continue to refer to Rousseau and his writing. His writing helped to implement the idea of natural differences of the sexes and separate spheres, against women have to fight still today to overcome discrimination in the economy, society and politics.

Thelma Bost, Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Global Public Health, Class of 2020 


Literature and Websites

  • Goodman, Dena, “Women and the Enlightenment.” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Bridenthal, Renate, Susan Mosher Stuard, and Merry E. Wiesner. 3rd ed., 233-260. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
  • Chuquet, Arthur, J. J. Rousseau. Paris, Hachette et cie, 1893.
  • Offen, Karen M.  European Feminisms: 1700-1950: A Political History, 31-49. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2000.
  • “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” Wikipedia, at: (Accessed 18 April 2018)


Image 1: Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753.
Image 2: Water-colour portrait of Rousseau, c. 1780s.