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Thoughts on The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill

February 8, 2011

The Subjection of Women (Goodreads)

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artificial; whether there are any natural differences at all; or, supposing all artificial causes of difference to be withdrawn, what natural character would be revealed.”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.”

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 1:58 pm

    I LOVE how you brought up Lawrence Summers – the very same thing crossed my mind when I was reading. Funny how so many years later we still have not settled these debates.

    • February 8, 2011 2:06 pm

      I could have gone on forever on that specific topic but I just knew I had to mention it because it came to mind while reading this book. I have a very strong stance on it, being a woman who excelled in both science and math and who worked in careers in both fields. It is amazing that this argument still comes up in modern society, but it does …

    • November 19, 2012 4:55 am

      The reason that these debates are not settled so many years later is because they are built upon a false premise. There are differences between the sexes. This is documented not only in modern science with differences in gray and white matter in the brain, but also by common sense. For example, women are more nurturing than men and better able to bear and raise children, and guide the household. Men tend to be more aggressive and better able to be the breadwinner. The sad fruit of John Stuart Mill’s arguments is a loss of gender diversity and the loss of celebrating the differences between the sexes. This has led us to much higher incidence of divorce and now to homosexual marriage which ultimately will put the final nails in the coffin of marriage. Young people no longer understand the reason for marriage in the first place, as a way for men and women to be complete by coming together in a complementary way. Gender diversity is a good thing, not a bad thing.

      • November 15, 2013 3:26 pm

        That’s silly. Its only because we are told as women to give up our jobs when married. men love their kids too this is why men have paternity leave which MEN wanted and more access of children if they divorce. How can you say if both the same people are divorcing. I don’t know anyone that has divorced to be honest. That’s a sexist remark saying just because we have a smaller brain. So you some what saying women should be dominated by the man. Would a man like it being dominated by his friend. Its only has he said its been drummed into us. All people are all different and no one is perfect either. If a man is strong and decent man he should not dominate a lady within the household.

      • January 29, 2014 12:06 pm

        I don’t think you’ve read the book…

  2. February 9, 2011 3:34 am

    Great review of the book! I am hoping to read my own copy of it very soon 🙂 It sounds like they make a lot of really great arguments… and I’m with you on the math thing – I took a math minor in university just for fun 😉

    • February 9, 2011 6:07 am

      I got my math minor just for fun too … crazy the coincidences we have on here … now I use my math more than I use my science background.

  3. February 11, 2011 2:11 pm

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful review. I was interested in the chapter on marriage because I have read so many 19th century novels in which the woman’s status in marriage was an important issue. Mill brushes aside all the “women’s nature” counter-arguments very effectively. We can’t know women’s nature so long as they are suppressed and if something is really not their nature, then by definition they can’t/won’t do it.
    My post:

    • February 11, 2011 3:26 pm

      I agree with you that in many of the 19th century novels marriage status is a huge issue — I hadn’t thought of this at the time — but that is an interesting point. I loved Mill’s perspective on marriage. Thank you for reading my rather long post. I’m off to read yours now.

  4. February 23, 2011 1:16 pm

    Hi dragonfly419. I also liked Mill’s debunking of the belief that women are naturally inferior to men and think he made some really eloquent and interesting points, particularly when he talks about the positive aspects of those qualities society has encouraged in women but which are deemed natural to their sex e.g. intuition being a good counter-balance to men’s propensity to deal with things in the broad abstract, and how being more emotional and susceptible to changes in mood shouldn’t be viewed as a problem, particularly when those passionate feelings are channelled into the pursuit of something in particular, in which case expressing emotion can be of benefit.

    I think his equation of the woman’s position in marriage to that of a slave seems more problematic when read today than maybe it would have done at the time of publication. I think we’d rightly hestitate to draw that analogy today, even if talking about the situation of (white) women in the 19th-century. Though I did like his discussion about how women tend to be more enslaved to their masters (men) than serfs were to their lords, for instance, because whilst the serf could clock off at the end of the day and go home to his own family and escape the tyranny of his master for a while, the woman has a much more intimate relationship with her oppressor which makes her oppression more total. I think there’s something in that argument.

    • February 23, 2011 4:24 pm

      Good point about Mill’s discussion of the positive aspects of the qualities society encouraged in women deemed natural to the sex, I had forgotten about that.

      I agree with you about the comparison of a woman’s position in marriage to slavery as being more of a problem in reading it in today’s society than it would have been when the article was first written. I still think he was using it as a method to produce further sympathy in his audience and I would imagine it would have worked. I too remember his discussion about married women versus serfs and how they are further enslaved because their job is never ending and that is quite a poignant point he makes.

  5. sheetal chaudhary permalink
    September 14, 2012 9:05 am

    i just love the way in which the essay and views of john strut mill are summerized…

    • Laurie Gibson permalink
      December 4, 2013 10:15 am

      Let me start by saying that I agree with much of what Mill and modern feminists have to say. However I would like to pick you up on one small point. You remark:

      “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”

      The question here that you actually sidestep is whether there are some innate differences between men and women. There are some obvious physical ones. On average men can lift heavier weights than women. Of course this is an average, there are lots of strong women, ditto weak men, but 100 randomly selected men will lift more than a comparable 100 random women. Nor would this justify us banning women from coal mining say, just that we would not expect, even in a just society, for there to be equal numbers of male and female coal miners.

      Are there mental characteristics where there are differences too? Mill is right, it is hard to know if differences are down to socialisation. A natural thought is that, leaving aside socialisation, there may be some differences. After all men and women do have physical differences some of which might impinge on their mental characteristics and, to some extent, men and women might have evolved differently. Finally there appear to be differences in the way their brains are wired.

      None of this justifies discrimination in any way. As Mill remarks it is illogical to say that women are not up to some task and at the same time ban them from doing it! And, we do not know for sure, what these possible differences might be.

      With best wishes

      Laurie Gibson

  6. Brightwings permalink
    April 22, 2014 5:08 am

    This was really interesting! I have also written about The Subjection of Women but in comparison to Ruskin’s Of Queen’s gardens. Please take a look and tell me what you think!


  1. The Subjection of Women – Discussion Post « A Year of Feminist Classics
  2. Wrap-Up: The Subjection of Women « A Year of Feminist Classics

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