Rousseau, Tolstoy and Tagore on the Education of Women and the Woman Question

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on


Beginning even before the eighteenth century and extending beyond the twentieth century an ideological divide has always been observed on the question of women’s education and on the woman question itself.  While there have been voices demanding education, liberation and equal rights for women and men, there have also been groups opposing the emancipation of women.

For instance, in eighteenth century France, though women of nobility had always been visible members of the French society, that too with considerable influence over the policy makers and rulers, they existed without legal rights and were mostly left to the mercy of their fathers and husbands. Women were associated with the life of the home. The world outside was painted as a dangerous place where she always had to be on guard and be cautious of conniving men who ironically would also serve as potential husbands.

As opportunities for formal education for French women were scarce, their mothers became their primary educators, educating them on morality and the social graces of the time. Women were discouraged from furthering their education and rather encouraged to grow but only within acceptable limits. Eighteenth century conduct books stepped in to commoditise women, guiding mothers as well as girls on ways to protect them, during adolescence – a phase seen as a slippery slope for women. They had to be kept safe in order to be eventually passed on from under the temporary authority of the mother and the father to the authority of a husband. The trials continued upon entering matrimony and motherhood. Childrearing was considered ill suitable for aristocratic women and hence they were forced them to handover the nursing of their children to governesses.

But following the norms did save them from criticism. There were factions in the French society that severely criticised women who handed over their children to nurses and declared them negligent. Thus, women constantly found themselves suspended between opposing beliefs held by the men of their society.

A similar situation existed for women in Russia. It was only under Peter the Great (1672-1725) that women -who contrary to French women had hitherto led secluded lives- came out in public. The goal was not to emancipate them but to make them models of modesty and silence.

It was Catherine the Great (1729-1796), who brought in the idea of “creating rational citizens” to Russia, influenced by Enlightenment ideas (Wood 353). Nevertheless, Russia continued to remain a patriarchal culture, where women were barred from the halls of power and politics. While some critics argue that the “traditional Russian patriarchy was not…[extremely] inimical to women’s interests” (Waltner 796), women remained enmeshed within the structure of the family and often had to juggle several demanding responsibilities (Bokowski 283). Even though, with the The Great Russian Reform (1861-1874), nineteenth century Russia saw a transition from a traditional society to “a period of…social and political change” (Bokowski 283), nonetheless, women’s education still remained concerned with creating “good Russian wives, caring mothers, and zealous homemakers” (Wood 354).

Thus, whether it was the late eighteenth century France or the nineteenth century Russia, the woman question has always been “socio-political” as it merged the boundaries between the private life and the public life by making the social issues of women a matter of political debate. This was true even in nineteenth century colonial India.

The British colonisers unimpressed by the superstitious practices of the Hindus, sought the aid of the evangelicals to reform Indian women. Whereas educated Indian men, in order to gain favour with the colonisers, tried to champion women’s education but only as a means to further their own interests (Kosambi 431-33). However, the intervention of the evangelicals prompted the orthodox Hindu revivalists to oppose women’s education and liberation as they felt it would lead women away from traditional Hinduism.

Eventually, the argument that a western education made Indian women adopt “the manners…customs [and vices] of European females”, transformed the woman question in India in to a question of nationalism (Kosambi 439). Kosambi’s observation of the situation in India is similar to that of Offen on the woman question in France, which she felt was an attempt by men to legally and institutionally “control, dominate, and subordinate women as a group” (2). Similarly, Wood is of the opinion that in nineteenth century Russia the woman question, “perpetuated deeply misogynist notions of women’s backwardness” on the pretext of supporting women’s education (353).

Against this backdrop, works by Rousseau, Tolstoy and Tagore can be seen as a reflection of society’s deeply entrenched beliefs on the woman question, as well as attempt by these authors to subvert the status quo.

In Emile or On Education (1762), Rousseau tried to formulate a system of education that would address the growing concern in French society about women neglecting their duties as mothers and wives to prefer a life of social frivolities. Similarly, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, published in 1867, draws inspiration from Rousseau’s views on women and responds to the bleak situation of women in Russia. On the other hand, Tagore’s Gora, published in 1910, draws inspiration from Plato and Rousseau, while trying to address the struggle experienced by women in India because of tensions arising out of caste, religion, colonisation and patriarchal domination.

In bringing together and comparatively analysing the works of Rousseau, Tolstoy and Tagore one gets an opportunity to discuss the interaction of ideas between the East and the West and observe the change in the approach and response towards the education of women and the woman question, from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, across Europe, Russia and Asia.

Works Cited

  • Bokowski, Debrah. Review of Russia’s Women: Accomodations, Resistance, Transformation, by Barbara Evans Clements et al. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, vol. 34, no. 3-4, 1993, pp. 283-84. BRILL, Accessed 20 Aug 2020.
  • Kosambi, Meera. “A Window in the Prison-House: Women’s Education and the Politics of Social Reform in Nineteenth Century Western India.” History of Education, vol. 29, no. 5, 2000, pp. 429–442. Taylor & Francis Online, Accessed 2 Aug 2020.
  • Offen, Karen. The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870. Cambridge University Press, 2017. Cambridge Core, Accessed 23 Aug 2020.
  • Waltner, Ann. Review of Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945 by Gail Lee Bernstein, Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation by Barbara Evans Clements et al. The University of Chicago Press Journals, vol. 19, no. 3, 1994, pp. 795–798. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.
  • Wood, Elizabeth A. “The Woman Question in Russia: Contradictions and Ambivalence.” A Companion to Russian History, edited by Abbott Gleason, Wiley‐Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 2009, pp. 353–367. Wiley Online Library, Accessed 23 Aug 2020
%d bloggers like this: