<i>The Subjection of Women</i>: J.S. Mill on Equality of Women

Jimi Wilson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religion, and a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a concentration in journalism, both earned at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in South Asian Religions at the University of Florida at Gainesville, and writes part time for The News-Journal in Raeford, NC.

I wish John Stuart Mill the happiest of birthdays. His contributions toward the furthering of philosophical discourse and human wellbeing are incalculable. (Okay, not entirely incalculable—there is felicitous calculus—but it’s a pretty big project.)

While Mill’s works have, over time, been subject to criticism for the occasional fallacy; the errant empirical misstep; and the just plain wrong-headed, muffin-esque tendencies—observable among the works of the other brilliant thinkers from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein—modern readers will surely note the freshness of many of his ideas and the crispness of his prose. Indeed the very soundness of much of his philosophy, coupled with a genuine humanness in his response to the world around him, lends his work an immediacy and poignancy, uncommon to philosophers of his day, that modern readers can not only appreciate, but from which we can learn from and apply to ethics today. And while many of his proposals seem self-evident to modern readers, this is precisely because so many of his suggestions were successfully applied.

Of course we have Mill to thank for the formalization of the pleasure and harm principles, as well his improvements on the fuzzy and politically impractical Benthamite conception of utilitarianism—created in a historical and sociological vacuum, as it were. Less celebrated are Mill’s writings in favor of women’s emancipation—works which were no doubt largely influenced and/or co-written by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill.

This essay isn’t meant to make a philosophical argument—as Joe Miller does here—so much as it is meant to give credit where I believe it is due.

And save my status as one of Joe’s former students, it might strike readers as odd that a graduate student in South Asian religions should be interested in Mill, much more so that said student should relish the idea of popping the cork—academically, as it were—on the bicentennial of Mill’s birth. After all, as Chew Yong Jack correctly notes, Mill held that

…the Indian populace were at a stage in civilization that was inferior to that of Britain and therefore incapable of a representative system of government practised in Britain.

[Of course it’s obvious that Mill was wrong: neither populace—or any other, for that matter—was (or is) civilized enough to self-govern. But, tongue firmly in cheek, I digress.]

It might also seem strange that I, a Hindu, should in my celebratory mood, choose to highlight The Subjection of Women—a work in which Mill noted the “violent abuse” of women rationalized by “Hindoo writings”—except that, like Mill, it is precisely on utilitarian grounds that I base my case for Hindu reform.

[Indeed, those familiar with Mill’s life know that he and his father, James Mill, were in the employ of the East India Trading Company, that both argued for application of utilitarian principles in the Indian subcontinent, and that the elder Mill was largely successful in his campaign in to eradicate the practice of suttee—however overstated the practice’s popularity was (and is).]

In publishing The Subjection of Women in 1869, Mill was by no means the first to comment on the plight of women in modern societies and to offer remedies to their subjection/subjugation. Notably, Mary Wollenstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman appeared in 1792, before Mill was born. In the U.S., Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had established their newsletter, The Revolution, the year before the SW’s publication although, according to Sue Mansfield, Mill

…delayed the very publication of The Subjection for eight years because, as he explained to Florence Nightingale (when advising her not to publish her feminist tract, Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truth), when the time is not ripe for the favorable reception of certain views, airing them may do the cause more harm than good.

Futhermore, SW was preceded by the incendiary John Stuart Mill-Harriet Taylor-penned article on suffrage, "Enfranchisement of Women," which appeared in Westminster Review in 1851. It was a publishing experience which doubtless colored Mill’s views prior to his advice to Nightingale. (It should be noted, by the way, that although the article was published under Mill’s name, it was written primarily by Taylor.)

In a nutshell, Mill argues in SW three main themes, expressed adroitly enough by Sue Mansfield that I’ll simply borrow her encompassment:

  1. ”The character of women… has been ‘entirely distorted from its natural proportions,’ since ‘a hot house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the pleasure and benefit of their masters.’”
  2. Exposition of ”…the effect of artificial superiority upon the character of men,” which negatively impacts both sexes.
  3. A synthesis of the two previous themes “which treats the relation between the sexes, and therefore the family structure, as both paradigm of, and the seedbed for, the general social and political structure which surrounds it.”

Straightforward enough, and in treating these themes, Mill quite effectively extended many of the assumptions of his day by questioning their grounding on inconsistency with the same logic used to argue for rights for men.

For example, in a passage that will likely resound with many of Catallarchy’s readers, he writes of the non-egalitarian marriages of the day,

It is not true than in all voluntary associations, between two people one of them must be absolute master: still less that the law must determine which of them it shall be. The most frequent ease of voluntary association, next to marriage, is partnership in business: and it is not found or thought necessary to enact that in every partnership one partner shall have entire control over the concern, and the others shall be bound to obey his orders. No one would enter into partnership on terms which would subject him to the responsibilities of a principal, with only the powers and privileges of a clerk or agent.

Then there is this bit of free market logic, ala reduction ad absurdum:

Surely if a woman is denied any lot in life but that of being the personal body-servant of a despot, and is dependent for everything upon the change of finding one who may be disposed to make a favorite of her instead of merely a drudge, it is a very cruel aggravation of her fate that she should be allowed to try this chance only once. The natural sequel and corollary from this state of things would be, that since her all in life depends upon obtaining a good master, she should be allowed to change again and again until she finds one. I am not saying that she ought to be allowed this privilege. That is a totally different consideration. The question of divorce, in the sense involving liberty of remarriage, is one into which it is foreign to my purpose to enter. All I now say is, that to those to whom nothing but servitude is allowed, the free choice of servitude is the only, though a most insufficient, alleviation. It refusal completes the assimilation of the wife to the slave,—and the slave under not the mildest form of slavery; for in some slave codes the slave could, under certain circumstances of ill usage, without adultery superadded, will in England free and wife from her tormentor.

Wollenstonecraft and Mill both emphasized education of women as naturally fomenting desire for emancipation. Both targeted Blackstonian Law as a basis for change—especially where those laws stripped women of all rights in matrimony. (Both compared the status of married women of their day to slavery.) Wollenstonecraft wrote of Blacktone’s Commentaries in VRW,

The laws respecting woman… make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering his as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cipher.

Yet it is Mill’s later activism—perhaps as the “ripe” time, and assuredly due to his dual use of SW’s popularity and his position as Westminster MP—that actually saw legal reform. This is an irony not likely lost of Mill—that he was doubtless able to accomplish this because of his gender, from a position women could not attain under the current laws. Yet he knew that generations of women would not only live better lives through these reforms, but would—and did—eventually serve as MPs themselves. Virtue ethicists might have held their noses to accomplish such a goal, but consequentialists such as Mill plunged ahead knowing the goal was well worth it.

Mill also broke with the thinking characterized by Wollenstonecraft and others in that there was no specific religious appeal. Nor were his appeals based upon virtue or deontological ethics. Mill made his appeal, of course, on utilitarian grounds. Strangely, it is on this basis that critics have dismissed SW’s stature as a bona fide feminist document; but why feminist ethics must be grounded in either virtue or deontological ethics is beyond me. True, these ethical bases naturally lead to different conceptions of feminism, but there is no reason, per se, to exclude consequentialism from the feminist rubric.

As a gift to John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill on the occasion of John’s birthday, I present this case: Mill’s Subjection of Women stands as a testament to utilitarianism’s ability to liberate and to serve the greater good. It also deserves recognition as a groundwork of feminism.

Return to Mill-Fest: The Bicentennial Edition

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