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A Feminist Analysis of Selected Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a seminal legal and political philosopher whose work on social contract theory is widely celebrated. However, scholars of feminism and feminist jurisprudence have criticised his work for containing sexist elements throughout.

Here, Paul Sanders examines his work. His analysis reveals that their concerns are not unfounded as three key works of Rousseau's suggest he endorses dominance of man at the expense of women.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a legal and political philosopher who wrote extensively on property, social contract theory, and individual development during the 18th century. Although his work is seminal, it is apparent in his writings that his perspective of history and the world around him is shaped by his status as a man, and this has attracted criticism from a range of feminist legal scholars. Feminist jurisprudence encourages legal scholars to “articulate the ways in which dominance and patriarchy are embedded in our legal system… [and] wrest the language of law from its patriarchal origins”[1], and in this article, I intend to show the ways in which three of Rousseau’s notable works contain ideas and concepts that promote dominance and patriarchy and stand in opposition to both early protofeminist scholars and the modern feminist movement. Although female scholars such as Mary Trouile and Lydia Lange have shown that some women have shown Rousseau “admiration, even gratitude”[2] for his work, the regressive attitudes towards women shown throughout have attracted criticism from many more. The first of these works, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (herein referred to as the Second Discourse), is a descriptive account of the development of the institution of private property, containing clearly patriarchal societal structures. A later work, Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (herein referred to as The Social Contract), details his account of social contract theory, which has been criticised by numerous feminist writers as being exclusionary of women. Finally, Emile, or On Education (herein referred to as Emile), a treatise on the ideal education system for boys, was criticised at the time of its publication and today for its comments on women and Rousseau’s ideas for their education.


The Second Discourse, published in 1755, is a descriptive account of the rise of inequality on the basis of the institution of private property, charting humanity’s progression from a state of nature to the initial form of society and then to civil society and the state. Rousseau posits that humans were happier when they were “noble savages”, before the introduction of large-scale societal institutions, which led them to the damaging institutions of property, commodified labour, and slavery. In this initial stage of society, between the lawless state of nature and the civil state, the traditional family unit formed for the first time. This stage “united husbands and wives...under one roof…The sexes, whose manner of life had been hitherto the same, began now to adopt different ways of living. The women became more sedentary, and accustomed themselves to mind the hut and their children”[3].


This is a rudimentary description of basic gender roles[4], in that the women have “adopt[ed]” a manner of living that keeps them in a domestic setting while men labour and hunt. Gender roles are often considered by feminists to be the antithesis of true gender equality. In her book Theorizing Patriarchy, Sylvia Walby writes that the family "is conventionally considered to be central to women's lives and to the determination of gender inequality"[5]. It is clear that Rousseau considers this stage in the progression to civil society to be the ideal state for mankind, by making note of “the paucity of his wants”[6] at this time and that “so long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish...they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives”[7]. Although the connection between the development of gender roles and the optimum happiness of mankind is not explicitly linked within the Second Discourse, it does not seem to be a coincidence that Rousseau implies this, especially in light of later statements discussed below. While this isn’t exactly an endorsement of a patriarchal system of government, as can be found in Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of King, it still promotes a system of patriarchy as would be recognised by the early feminist movement: a society in which power is wielded by the men as heads of individual households, as defined by Weber in the mid-twentieth century[8]. He is implicitly condoning patriarchal power structures by writing about how the ideal time in human development was a time in which men did as they pleased while women were confined to the home to carry out domestic tasks. The patriarchy in its modern sense is a concept that arose with criticism from the feminist movement, and its appearance here is one of the first instance of a legal and political concept in Rousseau’s writing that is opposed by feminist jurisprudence.


The Social Contract is, thematically, a mirror image of the Second Discourse - The Social Contract is a normative description of the progression from the state of nature to civil society, which contrasts with the Second Discourse’s descriptive approach. It describes the optimal way for a group of people to come together to form a sovereign state, through a philosophical concept called the social contract. Rousseau’s social contract theory builds on the earlier theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. At its core, it states that the social contract is needed because “since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men”[9]. This means that all men must come together and enter into a social contract, after which everyone will be free as they all have the same rights and duties. They form a sovereign that represents the general will of the population, on which the sovereign acts to make laws which are enforced by a separate government. This sovereign seemingly includes women, as implied by Rousseau’s use of “people”[10] when referring to the members of the sovereign, as contrasted with his use of “men” elsewhere in the theory.


However, despite this lip service to gender equality and the inclusion of women, the social contract theory in general has been attacked as exclusionary - a “social order based on reason and justice, a contract between masculine equals which is constantly threatened by [feminine qualities of] passion, love and the ‘disorder of women’”[11]. Carole Pateman writes in The Sexual Contract that the social contract is a contract between men to share power at the expense of women. She writes that social contract theory "is about political right as patriarchal right or sex-right, the power that men exercise over women...the story tells how a specifically modern form of patriarchy is established"[12]. Later, she notes that despite his criticisms of his predecessors’ justification of a slave contract, "Rousseau did not extend his attack on his predecessors to their arguments about women and the marriage contract [which] was placed outside of the reach of the analogy with the illegitimate...slave contract"[13], echoing my earlier analysis of his justification of marriage contracts and gender roles. Pateman writes about three types of sexual contract which support men’s patriarchal rights: the marriage contract, the pregnancy contract, and the prostitution contract. Pateman frames these contracts as structures that allow men sexual access to women at all times, proving that contracts based on the freedom given by the social contract are the principal tool used to dominate and oppress women. I believe, however, that the latter two forms of contract can be analysed in a different way as well. Social contract theory is based on the principle of freedom of contract: that parties may consent to whichever contractual terms they mutually agree on, with no limit. The strict legal limits placed on women’s reproductive rights and gainful surrogacy options (as opposed to altruistic surrogacy), and the criminalisation of prostitution in many nations worldwide, mean that women attempting to exercise freedom of contract in a way that directly relates to their sex are not allowed to do so without facing legal sanctions in many jurisdictions. Just as women are excluded from this exercise of freedom of contract (specifically in matters to do with sex and sexuality), they were excluded from the sharing of power in the social contract, which is based on this freedom of contract principle. The social contract had the effect of changing the way men exercise their power in relation to one another, but it did not change the way in which men’s power affects women.


Rousseau’s repeated use of “man” instead of “people” when dealing with his social contract theory is also problematic in other ways. Although she does not deal with Rousseau specifically, Christine Di Stefano’s Configurations of Masculinity: A Feminist Perspective on Modern Political Theory[14] criticises numerous different social contract and property theories for gendering their central figures, which would be the “noble savage” in Rousseau’s theory. While she addresses her criticisms toward Hobbes and his social contract theory, they could equally apply to Rousseau’s Social Contract, due to its gendered language and the suggestion in the Second Discourse that men should go about the business of dealing with the community while women attend to domestic chores. Ultimately, although Rousseau attempts to communicate his acceptance of women being part of the sovereign in The Social Contract by referring to its inclusion of “people”, his use of “men” elsewhere in the theory undermines this. In light of the underlying power dynamics of social contract theory and its historical context, the contract he describes fails to imbue women with the same power that it does men.


The final text I intend to examine, Rousseau’s Emile, was published in the same year as The Social Contract. Emile is an account of the ideal method of education for children, focusing principally on a young man called Emile, and it helps to shed light on aspects of The Social Contract and Rousseau’s attitudes towards women. In Emile, Rousseau tries to invent a system to provide “the education of one man and one woman so that they will be able to form a harmonious nuclear family within a political community”[15]. This is the text in which Rousseau draws a distinction between masculine ideals like reason and knowledge, and feminine qualities of emotion and passion, as mentioned earlier in the discussion of The Social Contract, which is most clearly exemplified when he writes “the aim of physical training for boys and girls is not the same; in the one case it is the development of strength, in the other of grace”[16].


Although Rousseau describes a marriage as like a partnership, this is (again) superficial and disingenuous when examined in light of his other statements, such as this quotation in which he makes it clear that women are always to be subordinate to their husbands: “[they are] formed to obey a creature so imperfect [sic] as man, a creature often vicious and always faulty. She should early learn to submit to injustice and to the wrongs inflicted on her by her husband without complaint”[17]. This creates an unfair disparity for the Emile’s invented wife, and all women who found themselves living in a Rousseau-esque marriage dynamic, as they had to promote the idea of marriage as a partnership while constantly deferring to their husbands - "[i]t is Sophie who obeys Emile, and it is Emile who is master. Sophie may exert some control in the manipulation of emotions, in the seductiveness of her sexuality...but these are the designs of the oppressed...She is supposed to run the household in an authoritative way, while at the same time upholding the public status of her husband as the real authority"[18]. This use of sexual manipulation despite oppression is known in contemporary academia as a “patriarchal bargain”[19], a concept that describes how women in patriarchal societies submit to certain constraints on their lives in order to gain what little power they can from the situation. Here, Sophie is submitting to her status as a subservient wife who is necessary only for reproduction by using this sexual power to control her husband whenever she is able to. Sophie, and women in general in Rousseau’s theory, submit to this marriage dynamic in order to "protect themselves and their children, by enlisting the support of men inside civil society"[20], adding credence to the theory that the social contract is a pact between men that excludes women altogether, leading them to submit to extraneous contracts to protect themselves. This dichotomy shows much more explicitly that Rousseau cares little for the equality of women, and uses alleged natural differences in the natures of the sexes as a justification for doing so.


Feminist opposition to Rousseau’s treatment of Sophie in Emile is nothing new. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, published in 1792, she dedicates Chapter 5 (“Animadversions on some of the writers who have rendered women objects of pity, bordering on contempt”) to critiques of Rousseau and others. This text is considered one of the first works of feminist philosophy, and many later feminists echo Wollstonecraft’s criticisms. Her main issues with Rousseau’s theory in Emile is that he believes a girl’s education should be designed to make her weak and passive, and this is justified as girls naturally gravitate towards passive childhood games like “dolls”[21] which clearly indicates they are not supposed to be educated in a way that will make them strong-willed and able to govern themselves. Wollstonecraft vehemently disagrees, writing that she “will venture to affirm, that a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp…Girls and boys, in short, would play harmlessly together, if the distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference”[22]. This is Wollstonecraft’s way of saying that girls only choose to play with dolls because they are directed so by their parents and by society around them, and that without such an influence they would choose to play in the same manner as boys would. She asserts earlier in the text that she is a better source of knowledge on the mentality of young girls than Rousseau, having been one herself, and I would be inclined to agree with her statement. In Emile, Rousseau writes that “Girls…should early be accustomed to restraint. This misfortune, if such it be, is inherent in their sex, and they will never escape from it, unless to endure more cruel sufferings. All their life long, they will have to submit to the strictest and most enduring restraints.”[23]. This seems to sum up his position on the matter, and at the end of Chapter 5 Wollstonecraft sums up hers: “There have been many women in the world who, instead of being supported by the reason and virtue of their fathers and brothers, have strengthened their own minds by struggling with their vices and follies; yet have never met...a husband”[24].


In conclusion, several of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s key works contain themes and concepts that have been opposed by feminist philosophers and jurisprudential scholars since Rousseau’s time until the present day. In the Second Discourse, Rousseau tacitly endorses patriarchal gender roles and power structures, and elevates a society that forms them to the ideal form of human interaction. The Social Contract sees the use of gendered language to describe Rousseau’s version of an androcentric theory that has been attacked as exclusionary of women. Finally, Emile is the most overtly discriminatory text of the three, explicitly advocating for women to be educated in such a manner that they will submit to their husbands.


[1] S. Patterson, 'Chasing justice, challenging power: legal consciousness and the mobilization of sexual harassment law' (2008) Graduate School - New Brunswick Electronic Theses and Dissertations

[2] C. Blum, ‘Rousseau and Feminist Revision’, 34 Eighteenth Century Life 3 51-54

[3] J. Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (ed.) E. Rhys, (London, 1913 (first published 1762)), 211

[4] A gender role is defined as “the role or behaviour learned by a person as appropriate to their gender, determined by the prevailing cultural norms” by Oxford Dictionaries, at

[5] S. Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (Cambridge, 1990), 61

[6] Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 211

[7] Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 214

[8] M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation (New York, 1947)

[9] Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 9

[10] Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, eg. 16 and others

[11] K. Green, ‘Rousseau’s women’ (1996) 4 International Journal of Philosophical Studies 1, 91

[12] C. Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, 1988), 1

[13] Pateman, The Sexual Contract, 76

[14] C. Di Stefano, Configurations of Masculinity: A Feminist Perspective on Modern Political Theory (Ithaca, 1991)

[15] L. Bradshaw, 'Rousseau on Civic Virtue, Male Autonomy, and the Construction of the Divided Female' in L. Lange (ed), Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Pennsylvania, 2002), 71

[16] J. Rousseau, Emile or Education by J.J. Rousseau, (ed.) Barbara Foxley (London, 1911 (first published 1762)), 329

[17] Rousseau, Emile or Education by J.J. Rousseau, 333

[18] Bradshaw, 'Rousseau on Civic Virtue, Male Autonomy, and the Construction of the Divided Female', 79

[19] D. Kandiyoti, ’Bargaining with patriarchy’, (1988) 2 Gender & Society 3

[20] Bradshaw, 'Rousseau on Civic Virtue, Male Autonomy, and the Construction of the Divided Female', 79

[21] Rousseau, Emile or Education by J.J. Rousseau, 330

[22] M. Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (London, 1792), 38

[23] Rousseau, Emile or Education by J.J. Rousseau, 332

[24] Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 76

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