- Gendered Community: Rousseau, Sex, and Politics
As Penny Weiss puts it herself: “The main argument of this book is that Rousseau’s defense of sexual differentiation is based on the contribution he perceives it can make to the establishment of community” (p. 7). She accomplishes this by dividing the work into two parts, the first devoted to an analysis of Rousseau’s Emile and Du Contrat social, the second consisting of two feminist essays inspired by her findings.
After an introduction Weiss moves directly to an analysis of Emile, showing quite conclusively that the education given to Emile and Sophie does not differ in principle although it does differ in practice since the aim in both cases is to produce sex differences that will make each of them useful members of society. Chapter Three argues that, whereas Rousseau uses much of the rhetoric of innate and natural differences between the sexes, he really does not believe in this thesis. To Rousseau human nature, either male or female, is infinitely malleable. Chapter Four outlines the political benefits that Rousseau saw in the creation of a sex-roled affectionate family. The next chapter attempts to show the consistency of Rousseau’s thought, briefly described as nonliberal, anti-feminist, and communitarian. Up to this point Weiss has remained within the tradition of textual exegesis, but in Chapter Six she moves to a feminist critique of Rousseau’s thought. The argument put forward here is that sex-differentiated roles undermine community since it denies equality to the sexes. The eventual result of such a community would be the rampant spread of domination and the inevitable abuses of power this entails.
This reviewer finds many problems with the book. An annoying trait is that the arguments are not given in logical order. For instance, human beings are described as asocial, indolent, and malleable before the author refers to the state of nature where Rousseau develops this idea. At no point does Weiss refer to the so-called Golden Age that intervenes in Rousseau’s scheme between the state of nature and civilization. In many ways this was Rousseau’s real ideal and his construct of an alternative society was only developed because it is impossible to go back to a previous developmental stage. Another, more grievous omission is the total lack of reference to La Nouvelle Héloïse. As William Ray has put it in a recent article, “I consider Julie and Emile as two stages of a single pedagogical project.” Perhaps Weiss, as a political scientist, does not believe that fictional works should be studied in the same way as treatises. Finally, there is an almost complete lack of references to critical works by literary critics (the exception is Jean Starobinski). Had Weiss been aware of Lester Crocker’s important works on Rousseau, she would not have been so surprised at his antifeminism or his recourse to manipulation in both education and society. The tutor or legislator need to arrange things so that individuals can perceive themselves to be free. [End Page 184]
Chapters Two, Three, and Four offer the reader a careful look at Rousseau’s aims and methods. Chapter Five gives possible replies that Rousseau might have given in the face of certain criticisms. Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight are interesting from a feminist perspective. Despite its limitations Weiss’s book contains much that is useful and thought-provoking.