Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment

Women Writers Read Rousseau

By Mary Seidman Trouille

Subjects: French Studies
Series: SUNY series, The Margins of Literature
Paperback : 9780791434901, 422 pages, August 1997
Hardcover : 9780791434895, 422 pages, August 1997

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Table of contents


Introduction: Rousseau and His Women Readers

1 Rousseau's Views on Women

Rousseau's Views on Women's Nature, Role, and Destiny

The Rousseauian Ideals of Motherhood and Enlightened Domesticity

Women's Education: Rousseau and les femmes savantes

Discontinuities in Rousseau's Portrayal of Women: The Paradox of Sophie and Julie

Rousseau's Sexual Politics in the Context of His Period: Traditionalist Undercurrents in His Works

Feminist and Reformist Undercurrents in Julie

Women's Response to Feminist and Reformist Undercurrents in Julie

Pseudo-Feminist and Misogynic Aspects of Rousseau's Writings on Women

Conflicting Interpretations of Rousseau during the Revolutionary Era

2 The Failings of Rousseau's Ideals of Domesticity and Sensibility: The Plight of Henriette

Henriette's First Letter to Rousseau

Henriette's Challenge to Emile

Rousseau's Stern Reply: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Henriette's Contradictory Protest

Rousseau's Blindness to Henriette's Dilemma

Rousseau's Repression of Henriette's Vocation as a Writer

Going Public: Henriette's Ironic Tribute to Her Mentor

3 La Femme Mal Marine: Madame d'Epinay's Challenge to Julie and Emile

The Life behind the Works

Madame d'Epinay and Rousseau: Les Affaires del'Ermitage

Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant as a Literary Response and Challenge to Julie

Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant as an Ideological Challenge to Julie

D'Epinay's Response to Rousseau's View of the Ideal Mother

Emilie vs. Emile: d'Epinay's Views on Women's Education

Rousseau's Response to d'Epinay

An Eagle in a Cage of Gauze: d'Epinay's View of Herself as a Writer

Breaking out of the Cage: The Emergence of a Feminine Voice in Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant

4 Revolution in the Boudoir: Madame Roland's Subversion of Rousseau's Feminine Ideals

A Passionate Disciple of Rousseau

Roland's Early Writings: The Specter of Emile and the Proper Lady

The Revolution's Impact: Breaking out of the Domestic Mold

Madame Roland's Revolutionary Salon: The Fusion of Public and Private Spheres

The Virtuous Martyr: Reliving Julie's Passion

Roland's Subversion of Rousseau's Feminine Ideals

On Trial: Misogynic Attacks by the Press and Revolutionary Leaders

Roland's Memoirs: The Influence of Rousseau's Confessions

Critical Response to Roland's Memoirs: Sainte-Beuve's Ambivalence

Rousseau's Paradoxical Influence on Roland's Life and Writings

5 Toward a Bold New Vision of Womanhood: Stall and Wollstonecraft Respond to Rousseau

Staël's Lettres sur Rousseau: A Self-Serving Encomium to Genius?

Conflicting Images of Rousseau in Staël's Lettres

Staël's Response to the Two Discourses and the Lettre à d'Alembert

Staël's Response to Julie

Staël's Response to Emile and Les Solitaires

Staël's Ambivalence toward Rousseau

The Second Preface of 1814

Wollstonecraft's Review of Staeël's Lettres sur Rousseau

Wollstonecraft's Attack on the Sexual Politics in Emile

Wollstonecraft's Second Response to Stall

Ironic Parallels

6 The Influence of Class and Politics on Women's Response to Rousseau: Steéphanie de Genlis and Olympe de Gouges

Gouges's Paradoxical Tributes to Rousseau

Genlis's Challenge to Rousseau's Views on Female Education

Genlis's Ambivalence toward Rousseau and His Works

Genlis's Unlikely Friendship with Rousseau

Genlis's Later Writings on Rousseau

Genlis's and Gouges's Insecurity as Writers

The Challenge to Rousseau in Gouges's Déclaration des droits de la femme

Women's Role in the Public Sphere through the Eyes of Genlis and Gouges

Genlis's Ambivalence toward Literary Women

Reluctant Admirer and Unlikely Disciple

Conclusion Engendering a Self: Rousseau's Influence on Women and Their Writing

Differences in Outlook: The Impact of Upbringing and Class

Rousseau's Influence on Women's Writing

The Stumbling Block of Sensibility

Strategies of Self-Representation: The Influence of Rousseau's Confessions and the Woman Autobiographer's Double Bind

Toward an Ecriture Féminine

From Passionate Disciples to Resisting Readers



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


Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment constitutes the first book-length feminist study of Rousseau's sexual politics and the reception of his works by women readers. By today's standards, Rousseau's sexual politics appear reactionary, paternalistic, even blatantly misogynist; yet, among his female contemporaries, his works often met with enthusiastic approval and had tremendous impact on their values and behavior. To probe Rousseau's paradoxical appeal to eighteenth-century readers, Mary Trouille examines how seven women authors responded to his writings and sexual politics and traces his influence on their lives and works. The writers include six Frenchwomen (Roland, d'Epinay, Stael, Genlis, Gouges, and an anonymous woman correspondent who called herself Henriette) and the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

The book constitutes an important contribution to French literature, women's studies, and eighteenth-century cultural studies. While a great deal has already been written on the individual women whom Trouille treats, what distinguishes this book is that it places multiple female subjects directly opposite Rousseau, and succeeds in showing that the relationship between mentor and student(s) is both multi-layered and fascinatingly complex.

Mary Seidman Trouille is Associate Professor of French at Illinois State University. She is translator of The Writing of Melancholy: Modes of Opposition in Early French Modernism and of Les Lieux de Memoire.


"Other studies have discussed the sexual politics of Rousseau's writings, but this is the first book-length work to consider the influence and criticism of Rousseau's ideas specifically among his female readers. Also welcome are Trouille's discussion of the diverse reactions to Rousseau and her explanation of how historical and socio-economical forces helped condition such responses. The author does an admirable job of combining historical context analysis with close textual readings." — Julia Douthwaite, University of Notre Dame

"The author is in total command of her material: she has produced a thoroughly researched and very interesting book. By bringing under one cover the responses of seven exceptional women to one of the greatest and most controversial figures of the eighteenth century, Trouille offers insights into how and why these women—all very strong individuals in their own right—could admire a man considered by most twentieth-century feminists to be a misogynist. In so doing, she offers a straightforward and fascinating story." — Suellen Diaconoff, Colby College