Thoughts on The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill
The Subjection of Women was written by John Stuart Mill in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill (though she was not attributed in the text — see information here) in the year 1861.
This persuasive essay seemed almost scientific in its style. There is a lot of detail and care put into the attempt to provide as much evidence to base his argument on as possible. What was he arguing for? Equal rights for women in government, occupation, and marriage. What was he arguing against? The notion that women are naturally the weaker sex both in mind and body.
The overwhelming basis of Mill’s argument could be brought down to an idea of nature vs nurture. Much of what is believed at the time is ingrained in society. As he states here :
“I do not therfore quarrel with them for having too little faith in argument, but for having too much faith in custom and the general feeling.”
He spends much of his essay calling for a change in the education of women to allow them to show their true nature and not what they are taught to be.
“I have said that it cannot now be known how much of the existing mental differences between men and women is natural, and how much artificial; whether there are any natural differences at all; or, supposing all artificial causes of difference to be withdrawn, what natural character would be revealed.”
The nurturing aspect of the home life and the female and male being taught to follow the current status quo is something he argues adamantly against. That if social strictures and teachings were allowed to change the nature of the female and male would both change.
“I believe that equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character, and that a good woman would not be more self-sacrificing than the best man: but on the other hand, men would be much more unselfish and self-sacrificing than at present, because they would no longer be taught to worship their own will as such a grand thing that it is actually the law for another rational being. There is nothing which men so easily learn as this self-worship: all privileged persons, and all privileged classes, have had it.”
Here I’d like to stop and step aside from the essay and remark on a more current event in history: the 2005 remarks of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers that innate differences between men and women might be the reason why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. This is something John Stuart Mill argues against and that I too argue against. I am a woman with a degree in both math and science and have taken offense to the argument that women are of a weaker mind then men. This I believe is a misnomer.
John Stuart Mill argues that there are no natural differences between the male and female brain, at least so far as intelligence is concerned.
“But (it is said) there is anatomical evidence of the superior mental capacity of men compared with women: they have a larger brain. I reply, that in the first place the fact itself is doubtful. It is by no means established that the brain of a woman is smaller than that of a man. If it is inferred merely because a woman’s bodily frame generally is of less dimensions than a man’s, this criterion would lead to strange consequences. A tall and large-boned man must on this showing be wonderfully superior in intelligence to a small man, and an elephant or a whale must prodigiously excel mankind. The size of the brain in human beings, anatomists say, varies much less than the size of the body, or even of the head, and the one cannot be at all inferred from the other.”
What differences in the intellect of a woman, he infers, may result from the way she is raised and educated by society. And from the fact that “Stupidity is much the same all the world over” and that there are going to be unfit men and women, not just women.
He cites examples from history to account for the highly intelligent nature of women and their already numerous contributions to society by the 1860s.
“We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods.”
He goes on to wonder how these women can be so influential in rulership and yet the common woman cannot vote or run for public office. He very simply and resolutely refutes the argument that women are unfit for office. I absolutely love his remark here:
“And in the case of public offices, if the political system of the country is such as to exclude unfit men, it will equally exclude unfit women: while if it is not, there is no additional evil in the fact that the unfit persons whom it admits may be either women or men.”
What a brilliant argument!!
Mill also discusses female contribution to the arts and in particular literature. He makes an important statement saying that we don’t know what great pieces of literature and other works women may have had a hand in contributing to that men have taken credit for. Case and point this essay itself was never attributed to his wife, but it was assumed that she collaborated with him on it.
“Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers, belong to a woman by suggestion, to themselves only by verifying and working out? If I may judge by my own case, a very large proportion indeed”
He also acknowledged women writers who had worked hard to make their voices heard and their dissatisfaction known. Here I wonder, does he think of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which pleads for much the same things as this essay does?
“Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition …”
There is also a discussion in this essay of the marriage contract: What it meant at the time the essay was written and what the ideal contract should be. I honestly loved Mill’s discussion of the ideal marriage, but had a hard time reading his comparisons of a woman’s marriage of the time to that of a slave. I know this was a persuasive essay and at a time when abolitionism was still ripe a comparison to slavery would draw at the heart strings of many, but it does worry me. Here is a sample of his view of the common marriage of the time:
“All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one; not a slave merely, but a favourite.”
But my favorite views, which I do find relevant to today’s society is how an ideal marriage should be. Personally, I think John Stuart Mill nailed the idea or at least got it pretty close to right. He discusses an ideal marriage twice and I’d like to talk about each separately as they are in two different parts of the book.
First Mill discusses the financial and domestic aspect of the marriage. Contrary to the popular belief of the time, where the man should be the head of the house in all the things and woman subordinate, Mill felt marriage should be entered into as a business partnership.
” It is not true that in all voluntary association 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 case 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.”
If marriage is entered in as a business partnership no one is head, but the power is shared between the two and each takes control of the areas they are strongest in. It makes perfect sense in the modern era for a household to be run this way, with shared control and responsibilities, but imagine what a novel idea it was in 1861!
His second opinion on marriage is that it should be between two equals on all facets. This should not have been such a novel concept, but we know it must have. What he is describing here is a true love, where you are friends and on the same level with one another. I felt when he wrote this last passage, he must have known what he was talking about and had found this kind of marriage and love himself.
“What marriage may be in the case of two persons of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and purpose, between whom there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities with reciprocal superiority in them — so that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can havce alternately the pleasure of leading and of being led in the path of development — I will not attempt to describe. To those who can conceive it, there is no need; to those who cannot, it would appear the dream of an enthusiast. But I maintain, with the profoundest conviction, that this, and this only, is the ideal marriage …”
The goal of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Mill’s persuasive essay was to plead the cause of liberty and freedom for one half of the population of humanity. I believe they succeeded in writing a very detailed but straightforward essay.
“After the primary necessities of food and raiment, freedom is the first and strongest want of human nature.”