Sophie: Woman's Education According
to Rousseau and Wollstonecraft
by Heather E. Wallace
Give, without scruples, a woman's education to women, see to it that
they love the cares of their sex, that they possess modesty, that they
know how to grow old in their mˇnage and keep busy in their house.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile
The neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of
the misery I deplore.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women
The salons of Jean Jacques Rousseau's day greatly admired his theories,
including his advocation of breast-feeding and his concept of natural
education. Today he has enormous influence on accepted educational
doctrines. Rousseau describes his methods in Emile, the story of a
boy's upbringing in natural state. Admiring his sentiment, Mary
Wollstonecraft applauded Rousseau's scheme for Emile but deplored the
neglect of Emile's perfect wife, Sophie. Her disappointment in
Rousseau was a main influence on Wollstonecraft's best-known work, A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Rousseau outlines his theories for
the ideal education for women in Chapter V of Emile written between
1757 and 1761. These so contradict his plan for Emile that it becomes
necessary to place them in the framework of his time and the particular
prejudices of Rousseau. Certainly he broke no ground regarding the
topic of women. Nearly a hundred years before Emile, Mrs. Makin
published An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen. In
her Serious Proposal to Ladies of 1694, Mary Astell advocated a
convent where serious-minded women might retire for study and
contemplation. In his Essay on Projects , Daniel Defoe suggests an
academy for women where they might study whatever they chose. He
observes as early as 1697, "We reproach the sex every day with folly
and impertinence, while I am confident, had they the advantages of
education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves."1
As women and their education were very popular topics among the
frequenters of the salons, Rousseau was often drawn into their
discussions as a consultant. After publication Rousseau realized some
recognition as a spokesman for the rights of people, although there was
a decided rise in the intensity of demands for recognition of women's
Rousseau describes his passionate feelings for several women in his
life in his Confessions, the first of which was the strange feelings he
had as a boy when Mademoiselle Lambercier punished him. "Who would
have believed that the chastisement I received at eight from a
thirty-year-old girl would have determined my tastes, desires, and
passions for the rest of my life?"3 Having left Protestant Switzerland
for Catholic France, Rousseau began to meet the women who would support
and influence his work for the rest of his life. One of his first
encounters was with Madame de Warens, whom he referred to as maman,
also a convert to Catholicism and an escapee from Geneva. Because of
her support he was able to take part in knowledgeable conversations,
philosophical discussions, and intellectual pursuits. From her
privileged position he was able to observe with fraternal pity the
people whose fate he might have shared.
At the age of thirty, Rousseau left Madame de Warens' residence. He
wished to be accepted in the intellectual circles of the salons, and to
gain entrance to the Academie des Sciences. He succeeded at the
Academie but failed to be accepted socially at the salons. One of his
sponsors, P¸re Castel, advised, "Since musicians and servants will not
sing together with you, change your tactics, and try the women."4 He
took this advice and made the acquaintance of several intelligent and
According to Claude Fervel in Jean Jacques Rousseau et les femmes,
Rousseau's feelings of inferiority among these women induced his
unnatural attachment to a twenty-three year old servant girl, Thˇr¸se
Levasseur. "She is so limited," says Hume, "that she knows neither the
year, the month, nor the day of the week; she is unaware of the value
of money and in spite of all that, she has on Jean Jacques the empire
of a nurse over her charge."5 Certainly Levasseur had some influence
in Rousseau's concept of the ideal woman.
Rousseau primarily claimed that "[n]ature has created man happy and
good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable."6 In the
eighteenth century, morality took on a new meaning founded on the
natural goodness of man. Happiness became a right supplanting the idea
of duty. Sensual delights were natural and therefore rational. All of
Rousseau's educational theories derive from his attempt to preserve
nature's pure state. His concept of negative education allowed a child
to discover for himself and to be punished by the nature he sought to
defy. The tutor must not try to reason with the child or show
authority. Books would not be forced on the child; at twelve Emile
would hardly know what to do with a book. Positive education, or
direct instruction, would only begin at approximately the age of
adulthood, and then the studies would be based on the student's natural
curiosity. Rousseau stressed utility, the need for teaching things
with practical applications.
This concept of negative education as applicable to women was totally
inconceivable to Rousseau. He viewed women's options as entirely
limited to the roles of wife and mother. What need would there be to
allow her to determine for herself when nature had already
physiologically dictated her destiny? His scheme for Emile was
radical; his scheme for Sophie was not radical enough. Rousseau
demanded a reversion to primitivism in the education of women, offering
minimal vocational training while insisting on her inability to reason
and her inferiority to man. "A woman's education must be planned in
relation to man".[S]he will always be in subjection to a man"and she
will never be free to set her own opinion above his."7 He stresses
freedom of movement and physical exertion for Emile, asserting that
weak bodies contain weak minds. At the same time he discourages Sophie
from too much physical activity and uses her weakness as another proof
of her inferiority. "The object of that cultivation is different. In
the one sex it is the development of corporeal powers; in the other,
that of personal charms," Rousseau asserts.8
Emile is not instructed in religious matters until he reaches
adulthood. He has a natural sense of morality "from reason tempered by
the heart."9 Presumably woman cannot reason, so she cannot maintain a
state of morality, and must be guarded by men throughout her life.
Rousseau proposes that Sophie must be made to love virtue, although she
will never understand theological rationale for living uprightly. She
must be made to feel subject to society's opinions of her. In fact,
Sophie fails at this. In the fragmentary sequel to Emile, Les
Solitaires, Rousseau tells of the infidelity of Sophie who had been
"educated" to be Emile's ideal wife. Mary Wollstonecraft makes no
mention of this book and probably never read it, but she would make the
right assumptions about the likelihood of Sophie's fidelity.
Helen Misenheimer points out in Rousseau on the Education of Women that
Rousseau leaves off the sexual education of Emile in describing
Sophie. In fact, she is his sexual identity. Rousseau considers a
man's union with a woman a debasement of his nature. While insisting
on the importance of motherhood, he stumbles on women's role as
mothers. In addressing mothers in Book I of Emile, he acknowledges
their primacy in the education of youth. By denying women the ability
to reason he denies them the ability to raise children, which Mary
Wollstonecraft later attempts to prove.
Francis Gribble proposes, "Contemporary critics contended that Jean
Jacques did not mean a word that he said; the difficulty of the modern
critic is to discover that he ever said anything at all which he did
not immediately afterwards contradict."10 When accosted by a father
who informed him he was using the Emile method to raise his son,
Rousseau replied that he was sorry for him but even sorrier for his
son.11 Certainly he contradicts himself in Chapter V of Emile. One
must ask if woman is as "natural" as man, and nature is essentially
good, then why should the same principles of "negative education" not
apply to women? Misenheimer discusses the dichotomy of women in
Rousseau's writings. She claims that Rousseau makes woman totally
subservient to man, making her into a mere plaything for the superior
sex. Yet by inserting Sophie in her place in his educational theories,
he encourages others to give the question further thought at a moment
in history when social revolution uniquely supports her. This is
exactly the cause which Mary Wollstonecraft takes up. Furthermore, by
speaking of all society and not just the elite, he becomes one of the
first writers even to recognize the ordinary woman, giving her a
foothold to independence. Rousseau certainly did not intend to
liberate women; he advocated the freedom of man.
Mary Wollstonecraft reputedly tried to rear one of her charges, Ann
Fuseli, as a child of nature. The experiment proved disappointing
when she caught her stealing and lying.14 She considered herself a
rationalist, but she greatly admired Rousseau's "pure sentiment." She
did not, however, share Rousseau's admiration for primitive society,
and took great exception to his views of women. In A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman she asserts, "Rousseau exerts himself to prove
that all was right originally: a crowd of authors that all is now
right: and I, that all will be right [sic]."12
Her most famous and controversial work, Rights of Woman, was not the
first work to advocate better education for women. Among
Wollstonecraft's contemporaries, there were several in France who had
written in behalf of women. Olympe de Gouges spoke boldly in defense
of her sex in several publications, one titled A Declaration of the
Rights of Woman. Condorcet advocated better education for women in
Memoirs on Public Instruction. Wollstonecraft had reviewed Catherine
Macaulay's Letters on Education for the Analytical, and acknowledged
her debt to the work in Rights of Woman. Letters denies any
fundamental difference in character between the sexes, attributing
women's weaknesses to faulty education and social position.
Wollstonecraft repeats and develops almost every point of her work.
Like many English intellectuals, Wollstonecraft watched the French
Revolution with interest, anticipating that the great social experiment
would one day reach her shore. The Revolution "must have seemed like a
happy fusion of all she had been taught to respect by her sage London
friends, and all that she cherished by nature".And so she, like many of
her countrymen, looked hopefully to France as the great
proving-ground."13 She espouses the cause of freedom in her
Vindication of the Rights of Men, written in reply to Edmund Burke's
Reflections on the Revolution in France. She digresses occasionally in
this work, criticizing the effects of wealth and rank and chiding Burke
for his fondness for waifishness and weakness in women.
In her previous work, Wollstonecraft had shown an interest in women's
status without directly addressing the matter. According to her
husband William Godwin, she spent only six weeks in actual composition,
but she had been developing the ideas for Rights of Woman all her
life. She found that most writers showed either outright disdain or
condescending praise of women's weakness. The immediate cause of
Rights of Woman was Talleyrand's Report on Public Institution, an
outline of the projected plan of national education under a new French
constitution. Talleyrand declared that girls should be educated with
boys only until the age of eight. Wollstonecraft prefaces her book
with a letter to Talleyrand which urges him and his compatriots not
to deny women their rights.13
Wollstonecraft seeks to find a rational explanation for the state of
her sex. She questions whether women are really created for the
pleasure of men:
[T]hough the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against, I
will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that
Moses's beautiful, poetical cosmogony, and the account of the fall of
man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me
was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being.14
She discovers the only reason for women's state is their lack of
education. In Chapter V she attacks several writers, especially
Rousseau, who had written poor accounts of women. Wollstonecraft cites
and comments on long passages from Emile. She is not unaware of
Rousseau's relationships with women. In her chapter "On National
Education," she states:
Who ever drew a more exalted female character than Rousseau? Though in
the lump he constantly endeavoured to degrade the sex. And why was he
thus anxious? Truly to justify to himself the affection which weakness
and virtue had made him cherish for that fool Theresa. He could not
raise her to the common level of her sex; and therefore he labored to
bring woman down to hers. He found her a convenient humble companion,
and pride made him determine to find some superiour virtues in the
being whom he chose to live with; but did not her conduct during his
life, and after his death, clearly show how grossly he was mistaken who
called her a celestial innocent.15
She treats his description of Sophie with smug indignation, as when
Rousseau describes Sophie's garb, "simple as it seems, was only put in
its proper order to be taken to pieces by the imagination." To this
she retorts, "Is this modesty? Is this a preparation for
immortality?"16 She correctly accuses Rousseau of depicting not a wife
and sensible mother, but a pleasing mistress.
Getting to the heart of Rousseau's error, she determines:
Men have superior strength of body, but were it not for mistaken
notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to
earn their own subsistence, the true definition of independence". Let
us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only
during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of boys, that we may
know how far the natural superiority of man extends.17
She cautions that she has no desire to breed a generation of
independent and unattached women like herself, but that she seeks to
develop wiser and more virtuous mothers. She believes that children's
characters are formed before the age of seven, shuddering to think of
the damage done by addle-headed mothers. Without stressing
independence she believes that once women gain intellectual equality,
they should be given political and economic equality as well.
In Chapter XII, "On National Education," Wollstonecraft develops her
proposal. She feels that private education is confined to the ˇlite,
and that school-children need the company of other children. She has
an aversion to boarding schools because of the interruptions of
vacations. She suggests day schools where children may spend time with
other children. These need to be national establishments, so that
school-matters are not left to the "caprice of the parents."18 Like
Rousseau, she emphasizes that children must be allowed to play freely.
What is so radical about Wollstonecraft's idea is that girls are not
educated relative to boys, but with them. She states:
If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated
after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never
deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the
peculiar duties of their sex". Nay, marriage will never be held sacred
till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their
companions rather than their mistresses.19
After the age of nine, girls and boys intended for domestic employments
or mechanical trades will be removed to other schools. The two sexes
will still study together in the mornings, and in the afternoons girls
will learn millinery, mantua-making, and other fitting pursuits.
Girls and boys still together? I hear some readers ask: yes. And I
should not fear any other consequence than that some early attachment
might take place". Besides, this would be a sure way to promote early
marriages, and from early marriages the most salutary physical and
moral effects naturally flow.20
Women should be taught anatomy and medicine to make them rational
nurses of their infants, parents, and husbands.
At the time of its publication in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of
Women was considered radical and revolutionary. By the end of the year
Joseph Johnson published a second edition. An American edition
appeared in Boston and Philadelphia, and a French translation appeared
in Paris and Lyons. Aaron Burr admired it and attempted to raise his
own daughter according to its principles, although he complained in
1793 that he had "not yet met a single person who had discovered or
would allow the merit of this book."21 Contemporary reactions ranged
from shock to amusement to enthusiasm. Despite a number of
mean-spirited parodies, including A Sketch of the Rights of Boys and
Girls and A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, there is no doubt her
book had a tremendous impact on British and American feminism. Her
argument that one must educate mothers so they may better raise their
children would be echoed by the advocates of "Republican Motherhood" in
the first years of the new American republic.22
Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas were savagely attacked after her death,
when the horrors of the French Revolution had convinced most Englishmen
that all revolutionary theories were dangerous. However, there is
little doubt that her ideas live on, and like Rousseau's, still have an
impact on education. Public education, teaching by the exploitation of
natural curiosity, practical applications, are all ideas descended from
Rousseau and Wollstonecraft. Most distinctive of these is
Wollstonecraft's radical notion that women and men be educated
1As cited in Ralph M. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical
Biography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1951), p. 143.
2Helen Evans Misenheimer, Rousseau on the Education of Women
(Washington, DC: University Press of America, Inc., 1981), p. 64.
3Confessions, I as cited by Misenheimer, p. 21.
4Ibid., p. 24.
5Claude Fervel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et les femmes, as cited by
Misenheimer, p. 26.
6Misenheimer, p. 19.
7Rousseau, pp. 322, 325.
8Rousseau, as cited by Wollstonecraft, p. 176.
9Rousseau, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 39.
10Francis Gribble, Rousseau and the Women he Loved, as cited by
Misenheimer, p. 4.
11William Boyd, The Minor Educational Writings of Jean Jacques
Rousseau, as cited by Misenheimer, p. 8.
12Wardle, p. 178.
13Wollstonecraft, p. 22.
14Wollstonecraft, pp. 173-174.
15Ibid., pp. 403-404.
17Ibid., p. 189.
18Ibid., p. 379.
19Ibid., pp. 380, 381.
20Ibid., p. 389.
21Matthew L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, as cited by Wardle, p.158.
22Linda K. Kerber, "The Republican Mother," Women's America (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 87-95.