Motherhood, Pablo Picasso (1901) c. NG
Motherhood by Pablo Picasso, 1901, © National Gallery


Always justify the tasks you set for young girls, but keep giving them tasks. Idleness and disobedience are the two most dangerous faults for them, and the hardest to cure once contracted. Girls should be attentive and diligent. But that is not all; they ought to be kept in check from an early age. This misfortune, if they consider it one, is inherent in their sex, and they will never escape it except to suffer even more cruelly. Their whole life they will have to submit to the strictest and most enduring restraints, those of decorum. They must be trained early in this, so they can master their whims with ease, submitting themselves to the will of others.

[Rousseau, Emile, or, On Education, in The Essential Writings, Vintage, 2013, p280]

Rousseau’s treatise concerning education is easily dismissed for its sexism over two and half centuries later. He was far from unusual in the history of western intellectual thinking in believing that women were fundamentally weaker than men and should be idealised as modest, devoted and restrained. I recently read Emile, or, On Education and tried to swallow it without grimacing. He genuinely desired men and women to lead happier and more fulfilling lives by being true to their ‘nature’ and finding companionship. Yet, his version of perfect womanhood, as personified in Sophy, didn’t feel as alien as I expected. 

jean-jacques-rousseau (1712-1778)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. His views were often seen to be progressive, particularly concerning education, nature and community. Emile was published in 1762 and it mainly concerns the best way to guide males into adulthood, based on his experience as a tutor for two young boys. The first two sections were about Emile’s young life until the age of twelve – “Age of Nature” – and the second two books were on his adolescence and the importance of following his own interests and inclinations. The fifth section – “Wisdom” – introduces Sophy as the ideal wife for this ideal young man. She balances him perfectly. She is modest and restrained where he is passionate; gentle and devoted where he is “often vicious and always faulty”. She grew up “as much of a recluse as a nun in a convent”. Girls need restraint and should not be given too much freedom, or “extreme in everything, they abandon themselves to their games with even more enthusiasm than boys do.” Sophy doesn’t desire the excitements, frivolity and extravagance of society. She is a perfect mother for his children and their health and the health of society depends upon it. Rousseau believed that good conduct and modest bearing sprung naturally from a healthy mind and a woman should be cultivated “in such things as are suitable” for her role as companion and mother. “A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man”. 

Heaven did not make women ingenious and persuasive so they might become shrews, nor weak so they might be imperious; it did not give them such soft voices to utter harsh words, such delicate features so that frowns might disfigure them with anger. When women become angry they forget themselves. They often have cause to complain, but they are always wrong to scold. One should keep the tone that befits ones sex; a husband who is too gentle can render a wife impertinent, but unless a man is a monster, the gentleness of a woman will, sooner or later, win him over, and she will ultimately triumph over him.

[Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, in The Essential Writings, Vintage, 2013, p282]

The influence of Emile at the time cannot be underestimated; it was an immensely popular book. Sophy herself was, in some ways, a reaction to the cosseting, spoiling and encouraging of vanity in young girls that Rousseau abhorred. “Beauty’s real Triumph is to shine alone.” A few decades later, Wollstonecraft would criticise Rousseau’s attitude to women, amongst other things. Yet, if I were an 18th century man, the idea of a gentle and devoted wife who’d quietly put up with all manner of bad behaviour would sound ideal. Where could I find my own Sophy? Hidden in the purity of the countryside away from the rampant vice and vanity of the city? In 1769, Thomas Day, a socially-awkward, single, wealthy Gentleman of the Enlightenment adopted two orphan girls as a Rousseau-like, social experiment. This true story is written about in Wendy Moore’s fascinating, How to Create the Perfect Wife. Day re-named them Sabrina and Lucretia and took them to France to be educated (by himself) in the countryside. The plan was to choose one for a wife when they came of age. Of course, it all went wrong as they could never be modest, devoted and retiring enough for him. 

Women are now in politics – as a minority – and even in the army. Women are able to choose when to breed; they, crucially, can manage their own money; they can work and be educated in the same establishments as men and, thankfully, our virtuous reputations are no longer our thrones. However, the echo of Sophy still exists; the ideal wife and mother; the compliment to a man. It takes a long time for perceptions to change – be that of race or sex or nationality. A promiscuous woman is still more worthy of comment than a promiscuous man. As girls, we are still encouraged in subtle womanly behaviour. My beloved grandmother used to tell me not to wave my hands around when I spoke and not to raise my voice because it wasn’t lady-like. I’ve often been told, in the nicest ways, that I’m unusually argumentative. Forceful women are displaying masculine virtues. Women may be employed in the same professions as men, but 89 per cent work in companies with a pay gap that favours men. Appearance is still the foremost female attribute to comment upon. Whenever there is a woman in the public eye, be she an academic, a doctor or the Prime Minister, her clothing and style are judged as if such things were relevant.

I’m relieved that I wasn’t born into a world that expected modesty and restraint from me, but we haven’t quite, not quite, shaken off the expectations of poor Sophy.

c. Lawyer Monthly
©Lawyer Monthly magazine

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Trans. Peter Constantine, The Essential Writings, Vintage, London, 2013

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2013