Rousseau about Inequality Among Men

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“In his Second Discourse, Rousseau endeavours to answer the question, “What is the origin of inequality among man; and is it authorized by natural law” (Rousseau pp. 99)? Rousseau attempts to answer this question by discussing the difference between natural and moral inequality. Through her novel, Persuasion, Jane Austen discusses gender roles and the institution of marriage as it relates to gender roles. In discussing these topics, Austen provides evidence in support of Rousseau’s definition of moral inequality and its establishment through the creation of gender roles.

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Rousseau’s definition of moral inequality is supported throughout Persuasion through the social conventions of gender roles and the institution of marriage.

Rousseau’s definition of moral inequality provides a foundation for the establishment of gender inequality. Rousseau defines moral inequality as outlined by convention and the consent of man. Social conventions are arbitrary rules based off of norms that control behavior. Social conventions do not rely on natural inequality but are instead decided upon by man through perceptions of each other. These social conventions can be interpreted as things such as gender roles or a defined behavior, value, or belief that society considers acceptable and appropriate for an individual’s actual or perceived gender. Gender roles are a social convention that establish moral inequality.

According to Rousseau’s definition, the establishment of gender roles is a source of moral inequality. Gender is a characteristic of natural inequality, however, the establishment of gender roles in society make women subservient to men through accepted norms and behaviors. Here, gender roles become a moral inequality. Rousseau makes a significant assumption that women take a naturally subservient role to men after the evolutionary milestone of family cohabitation. The first revolution produced the establishment and differentiation of families where, “women became more sedentary and grew accustomed to tend the hut and the children while man went to seek their common subsistence” (Rousseau pp. 147). This effect of the first revolution was the first step in the establishment of the gender roles of male and female. Women were concerned with raising the children and tending to the home while men were tasked with supplying food and protection. Women became less robust and lost their vigor while men remained in a similar state to that of the savage human. Women depended on men to provide food as well as protection from nature. This was the beginning of women’s seemingly perpetual dependence on men, positioning them as the weaker sex for centuries.

Women in England during the Romantic era are depicted as subservient because of their perpetual dependence on men in a patriarchal society. While discussing with Captain Harville the difference between men and women’s ability and constancy to love, Anne Elliot presents a strong argument for women’s unfortunate dependence on men. Anne suggests that women cannot help themselves because they “live at home, quiet [and] confined,” (Austen pp. 241) to a life of upholding the household, raising the children, and futile socializing. Women cannot participate in nearly anything in society without the help or approval of a man. Anne argues that women “cannot forget [men] as soon as [men] forget [women]” (Austen pp. 241). Women are incapable of owning land, have limited opportunities for employment, and are confined by their inability to improve their social position without marriage. While men “have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other to take [them] back into the world immediately” (Austen pp. 241), women are idle in their position. They are trapped in a rigid gender hierarchy with no ability to save themselves. Desperate for security and useful social status, women must rely on men to provide for them. The gender roles of Romantic Era society are therefore a moral inequality.

Rousseau poses the institution of marriage as as a way for women to establish a position of power. Rousseau asserts conjugal love as one of the sweetest sentiments known to man. However, he also claims that conjugal love is a tool used by women in society to establish dominance over man. Stating that conjugal love, “is an artificial sentiment born of the usage of society” that women use “to establish their ascendancy and make dominant the sex that ought to obey” (Rousseau pp. 147), Rousseau argues that women achieve power and dominance through the artificial means of love. Only in this way can women have any means of control or power over men. In stating that women are the “sex that ought to obey”(Rousseau pp. 147), Rousseau is postulating that women are the inferior, subservient gender who can only accumulate power through artificial love bound by the institution of marriage.

The institution of marriage during the Romantic Era provided women with the means to establish status and security within society. In a patriarchal society, women were confined by the class system. Their position within society was extremely tenuous because of their ability to rise and fall in society through social station acquired by marriage. A woman’s social status depended entirely on their husband’s rank and birth. A man’s position in society was moreover stagnant because he could not increase his rank by marrying a well-born woman, the woman’s status would instead fall to his. The importance of finding a suitable husband was the sole intention and purpose of a woman. In Austen’s England, there was an extreme double standard within the institution of marriage. We see this double standard exemplified by the opposing situations of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. After Anne’s refusal of Wentworth’s proposal, he is able to build his fortune, improve his reputation, and increase his marital prospects all the while retaining a respectable position in the Navy. Anne’s marriage status, however, declines because of the passage of time and the increase in her age though she is of noble birth. The initial lack of emotion displayed by Captain Wentworth upon his return exemplifies the difference that eight years has on the two characters, lowering Anne’s marital prospects and increasing his. The unequal impact that the prospect of marriage has on the two characters’ is a product of gender inequality. Through this rigid class system and gender hierarchy, women can only gain social status and power through the bond of marriage, once again dependent on man. Through this, the institution of marriage becomes a source of moral inequality.

Gender roles such as women being subservient to and dependent on men for protection, survival, security, and status are a social convention that controls behavior based off of accepted norms. Women are depicted as subservient because of their dependence on men, are trapped in a rigid gender hierarchy, and confined to marriage for social mobility. Social conventions such as these establish moral inequality through the consent of man.”

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Rousseau About Inequality Among Men. (2021, Feb 24). Retrieved from