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Friday, July 10, 2009

Jean-Jacques and the women


They only want you when you’re seventeen
When you’re twenty one, you’re no fun…


Marie d’Agoult, in her summation of the struggle for equal rights for women in France, felt she had to dispell a myth about where Rousseau stood in this history:

“It is to Condorcet and not to Jean-Jacques, as is generally believed, who deserves credit for the initiative of reforms proposed in the education and condition of women. The first man posed the principle of the entire equality of the sexes. Jean-Jacques, who had spoken to women with an incomparable eloquence and tenderness, showed himself, however, less liberal and less serious to them than Fenelon. In his plan of education, which was applicable neither to the women of the people, who did not occupy him, a man sprung from the people, nor even to the women of the middle class, but only to wealthy girls, he established as a principle that women ought to be exercised in constraint; that dependence is their natural state. He wanted to see developed in them not reason, which would render still more painful this blind submission to the will of others, but the talents of agreeableness, on the condition, however, that this be in the frivolous and subaltern manner. M. de Stael, more rational and firmer in her judgments, removed the prejudices of Jean Jacques. Her strong but proud soul was open to all the grand presentiments of modern times. She declared that, in the actually existing state of affairs, women are neither in the order of nature nor in the order of society.”

I’m going to be doing a series of posts on Rousseau, women, money, strangers and the lateral. I thought d’Agoult’s text is a good place to start, both as a statement of the prosecutor’s case against Rousseau and because of the strange intimacy of the denunciation – one made about a man she calls “Jean-Jacques” throughout. A man who spoke to women, and thereby gained a deceptive reputation among them – for though he strirred them up, he meant, all the time, to bring them down. This is, of course, a voice that is very familiar – it is the serpent’s voice; it is the voice of the seducer.

There is something brilliant and momentous about the conjunction, at the end of this passage, between a Rousseau who addresses the daughters of the rich and the more historically informed de Stael. Indeed, it is impossible to talk of Jean Jacques and women without running into the ambivalence of the place of women, played out against a background in which the old order of dependence was dissolving.

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