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As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at Guenther Roth’s “Durkheim and the Principles of 1789: The Issue of Gender Equality,” from Telos 82 (Winter 1989).

Guenther Roth positively establishes that the principles of 1789—liberté, egalité, fraternité—have been overridden by Émile Durkheim’s essentializing gender prescriptions in the service of social stability. He shows that mutually exclusive and unequal gender roles were central to Durkheim’s theory of organic solidarity. But Roth’s examination does more than just explain theoretical contradictions present in Durkheim’s work. His inquiry invites new investigations into Durkheim’s gender politics, the most intriguing one provoked by his comparative treatment of Durkheim’s and Marianne Weber’s perspectives on marriage and divorce. These contemporaries shared a political outlook yet diverged greatly in their ultimate directives for society. Roth describes the two thinkers’ common ideas thus:

Durkheim declared “free, unregulated union . . . an immoral society. And that is why children reared in such environments show so many moral defects.” Moreover, since the family is regulated by the state, “free union undermines public order.” In his review, Durkheim lauded Marianne Weber for being “prudently conservative in outlook,” since she rejected free unions and purely contractual marriage. They also agreed on the desirability of scientific sex education for both sexes, as long as morality dictated hygiene. Both vigorously opposed the naturalistic approach, mostly advocated by freethinking medical doctors, for whom sexual intercourse was “on par with digestion and circulation.” Durkheim appealed again to history arguing that sexual intercourse always had been, and therefore always should remain a mysterium, whereas Marianne Weber considered birth control a “sin against the cosmic meaning of sexual love,” albeit unavoidable in some circumstances (86).

This, however, is where Durkheim’s and Weber’s agreement ends. While Durkheim mandated one-time, monogamous marriage and held that simple moral will was sufficient to prevent young men from indulging in premarital affairs (86), Weber took a more practical approach. She advocated the possibility of divorce by mutual consent to encourage early marriage, as professional men were observed postponing matrimony and the potential for young bachelors to visit prostitutes was seen as quite problematic (87). For Weber, “Divorce by mutual consent could remedy mistakes in the choice of a partner that were due to youthful inexperience” (87).

Not so for Durkheim. Despite his support for the new secular “religion”—universalist humanism (as supported by the principles of 1789), which presumably permitted such choices to remain under the individual’s control—walking down the aisle was never a potential mistake in that it seemed to function as deterrent for that malignant social ill, suicide. For Durkheim, conjugal bonds were the foundation of social and moral order—the order that ought to protect husbands from themselves (80). Underpinning this agenda was Durkheim’s celebration of unequal gender difference, which defined women’s roles as reciprocal of men’s roles, whatever those might be at a given cultural moment. This dependent reciprocity, or unequal complementarity, contingent upon difference, is what rendered conjugal solidarity the bedrock of society for Durkheim. He therefore opposed the liberalization of divorce laws (80).

Alternately, Durkheim’s formulation of conjugal solidarity is the bedrock of patriarchy (or neo-patriarchy, as Roth frames it, in contrast to the authentic, Roman variety). It is here that Weber’s perspective rescues the conservative stance that ethico-legal love is the correct love from sexism, as she advocates that divorce should treat the genders equally. Weber notes that marriage laws were rooted in patriarchalism, and suggests that if enforced, rendered wives little better than slaves, given husbands’ authority over wives’ persons and property (87). Although Weber disapproved of sexual liberation, she urged equality within the marital contract. But Durkheim appears obstinately sexist in his defense of patriarchy; he attributes “the respect shown woman” and “feminine grandeur” to it, and insists that equal rights would result in significant losses for woman (88).

At a time of waning evolutionism and emergent challenges to the West’s overall political hegemony, Durkheim’s thought appears somewhat reactionary despite his commitment (albeit ambiguous) to the principles of 1789. He seems to invoke his own formulation that differentiated gender roles are the mark of an advanced society in order to affirm Western cultural (and his own) superiority. Yet Roth’s analysis implies that Durkheim’s thought was not simply stained by the mores of his time, as are all philosophers’, since other morally conservative stances were known and available to him. The philosophy and policy advocated by Weber presents itself as a possibility, yet Durkheim remained hostile to it. Roth’s point that “Durkheim saw no way to reconcile the antinomies of universalism and particularism in modernity, and to extend the principles of 1789 to ‘the female half of humanity,'” doesn’t just highlight Durkheim’s deficient treatment of gender, it also suggests more fundamental inconsistencies in Durkheim’s philosophy. In the final analysis, Roth suggests that Durkheim’s sociology remains tangled and fails to treat gender critically or entertain gender equality.

Roth cites Elisabeth Badinter who reminds us that it is only today that liberté, egalité, fraternité may be enacted. Roth casts an interesting combination of female characters in his work: one represents a sensible, conservative alternative to Durkheim, while the other is arguably quite radical. Roth’s comparison is all the more powerful given his choice of feminists, namely Weber, as he presents Durkheim’s views side-by-side with a fellow “ethical [rigorist] with deep roots in Kantian philosophy” (85). When it comes to current narratives and concerns, the question of whether the principles of 1789 would be best served by Weberian or Badinterian feminism remains open and Roth’s discussion may lead to new understandings of the feminist sex wars. Would the personne humaine, as representative of the highest value (76), be free to engage in sexuality without terms or free from engagement in sexuality without terms?

If cohesion is the social goal as it was for Durkheim, the answer depends in part on the level of socialization of the consequences of sexuality, namely gender power dynamics, children, public health, and demographic concerns. Roth argues that “Durkheim’s theory of evolution denied the possibility of gender equality in modern society, whereas Marianne Weber’s developmental theory affirmed it” (73). Thus it appears that whichever approach—sex-positive or anti-pornography feminism—best serves gender equality may be favored by proponents of the principles of 1789. Yet in this case as in most others, freedom and equality are at odds and empower different aspects of the humanist project. Roth exposes Durkheim’s ultimate ambivalence toward the principles of 1789 and his incomplete acceptance of both freedom and equality as its ideals. In the process he intimates that Weber’s gender theory, as analog of anti-pornography feminism, may empower freedom in its own way, rather than curb it in the service of equality.

Read the full version of Guenther Roth’s “Durkheim and the Principles of 1789: The Issue of Gender Equality” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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