Revolution in the Boudoir: Mme. Roland's Subversion of Rousseau's Feminine Ideals
The enthusiastic response of eighteenth-century women to Rousseau's sexual politics presents an intriguing paradox. How can one explain the puzzling fact that his views on women's nature, role, and education--views that seem reactionary, paternalistic, even blatantly misogynic today--had such tremendous appeal and influence among women of the revolutionary era? More intriguing still is the passionate admiration for Rousseau and his writings expressed by talented and independent-minded women such as Mme. de Staël, Mme. Roland, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Olympe de Gouges, whose turbulent lives and political and literary activities seem incompatible with the feminine ideals of domesticity and self-effacement set forth in Julie and Emile.
To probe Rousseau's paradoxical appeal to women readers, I will examine how one woman of the revolutionary period--Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, who later became Mme. Roland--responded to his views on women and, specifically, how she interpreted his cult of domesticity as an empowering discourse. Her case is a particularly striking illustration of Rousseau's influence, since of the women mentioned earlier, Mme. Roland was the one who made the greatest effort to conform her outward behavior to the limited role he prescribed. Yet, while seeming to conform to these feminine ideals and norms, she in fact undermined them by blurring the gender dichotomies and the distinction between public and private spheres that lay at the very core of Rousseau's discourse on women. Her subtle transgression of traditional gender barriers did not go unperceived and was capitalized on by the Rolands' political enemies in the campaign of slander and persecution that eventually led her to the guillotine.
Born in 1754, Marie-Jeanne (or Manon as she was affectionately called) was the only child of a Parisian engraver. M. Phlipon's small but thriving trade permitted him to provide his gifted daughter with an education far above that customary for her sex and social rank, as well as excellent marriage prospects. However, M. Phlipon's reckless business speculations after the death of his wife considerably dimmed Manon's hopes for the future. It was