Rousseau and Mill on Gender
Rousseau and Mill on Gender
Whereas Rousseau takes both the stand of a feminist and a sexist in his work, Mill is quite protective about women in arguing that men do not know what women are capable of because they have never been given a chance to develop and prove it. Mill lived in a time when women were generally subject to oppression and humiliation coming from their husbands and fathers due to the socially preconceived ideas that women were both physically and mentally less able than men.
Rousseau on the other side has a very bilateral perspective on gender when promoting the patriarchal family where men are superior to women in contrast to providing women with some sort of agency and acknowledging that females have certain talents that men do not and they are able to make males dependent on them. Mill starts off his “Subjection of Women” by contrasting the situation of women in a patriarchal culture to that of slaves.
Due to the use of physical power that men exercise over women, their relationship reminds nothing more that the situation of slavery and marriage is one of the only remaining examples of slavery in a Christian Europe where “slavery, has been at length abolished” (5). Mill strongly believes that violence should not be tolerated in the matter of domination over women and he points out that the fact that patriarchy and women’s oppression have been known through history is not a good enough explanation of why this should continue.
He believes women have been oppressed because they have not been allowed any alternative. Men claim that women are not able of doing anything, which is why they are trying to stop them. However, according to Mill, in reality we do not know what the nature of women is, since they live in subjection and did not have a chance for self-development. Mill denies that “anyone knows, or can know the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (22).
He claims that “if men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men[…] something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each”(22). The belief that women are naturally weak and docile and that they “are brought up […] in the belief that their ideal of character is […] submission, and yielding to the control of others”(15-16) is an “eminently artificial thing” (22). Mill stated that when it comes to marriage, many women are limited by social expectations of their traditional behavior.
But he believed that only if creating a free market for women’s talents and activities they perform, we would be able to discover their true nature and this would actually be beneficial for both men and women. Mill was an advocate for equality between men and women and he claimed that the reason why males fear women emancipation is because they are afraid that in such means of living “there will be not enough of them who will be willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them [wives and mothers]” (28).
Comparing to Mill, who is very clear on his view on women, Rousseau takes two stands on gender relations. As a sexist, Rousseau promotes the patriarchal family as the only natural society and he states that there are particular tasks prescribed to women that they should be trained for. He believes that tasks such as “sewing, embroidery and lacemaking come by themselves” and are natural to women, but when it comes to education, “all little girls learn to read and write with repugnance” (543). Rousseau assumes that learning beyond what traditional roles involve, is actually detrimental for the woman.
He claims that “to cultivate man’s qualities in women and to neglect those which are proper to them is obviously to work to their detriment” (539). As a sexist, he believes that the duty of a girl’s family is to “make a decent woman of her, and be sure that as a result she will be worth more for herself and for us [men]” (539). Rousseau claims that men are strong and active, exercising power and will, whereas females are weak and passive and their duties are to please, attract, counsel and console her husband in order to make his life pleasant and happy (“ it is not enough for them to be pretty, they must please”) (539).
From his feminist stand, Rousseau provides women with the agency that he neglects above. He states that “those who regard women as an imperfect man are doubtless wrong” and that actually the roles described above are only socially constructed. In the state of nature, men and women have the same faculties, and only when they enter society, inequality amongst them appears. Even when portraying females weaker, he claims that actually “the stronger [men] appears to be master but actually depends on the weaker” (534) and this is because women have sexual control over men.
Therefore, men are portrayed as very dependent on sex, for which only women have power and this allows them to exercise some sort of agency. Rousseau’s argument seems too ambiguous to me and although he allows women some agency, this is limited only to sexual control, which does not seem to reflect the modern reality. I am more of an advocate for Mill’ view on gender, who argues for equal opportunities for women which will allow them to prove their capacities. Nevertheless I disagree that marriage in the contemporary society is some sort of imprisonment.
Evidence suggests that although we live in a society where women have more agency and power than ever before, there are many who still choose to marry and undertake the role of wives and mothers. I believe it is too one-sided to argue that when given the faculty to change life styles and be equal to men, women will not marry, because such a narrow perspective excludes women who marry for their own satisfaction and pleasure and males who do not oppress their women. I believe there exists a third category which includes marriages with equality between partners.