Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau

Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau

Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau

Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau

Synopsis

Explores the way seven women writers of the eighteenth century responded to Rousseau, and traces his crucial influence on their literary careers.

Excerpt

Rousseau's eighteenth-century women readers often reacted with tremendous enthusiasm to his writings -- and particularly to the ideals of domesticity and sensibility set forth in Julie and Emile. Yet, for some of his admirers, the limited role he prescribed for women posed a very real dilemma. Although they may have wholeheartedly supported Rousseau's ideal of domesticity, some women found it difficult to follow his teachings, either because they were unable to marry (for lack of a dowry, physical appeal, or a suitable husband) or because, once married, they found marriage and motherhood unfulfilling. Despite genuine efforts to conform to Rousseau's feminine ideals of modesty and self-effacement, some women -- married and unmarried alike -- ultimately found these ideals stifling and felt inwardly torn by the powerful urgings of their talents and aspirations. It is indeed paradoxical that the women writers to whom Rousseau appealed most strongly were often those who, because of their superior gifts and idealistic expectations, were least able to content themselves with the limited role he prescribed for them.

To explore the contradictions in Rousseau's sexual politics -- and, more specifically, the ambivalent response of women themselves to these contradictions -- this chapter examines his little-known correspondence with Henriette, a bluestocking and aspiring writer unable to marry for lack of a dowry. Henriette's letters give eloquent expression to the plight of the single woman and femme savante in eighteenthcentury French society. Through her frustrated attempt to reconcile . . .

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