The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor*
This was the February pick for the Year of Feminist Classics read-a-long.
Sometimes it’s hard to really get into an essay like this one, because so much of what made it original and startling when published is now largely taken for granted. We don’t usually feel the need to justify our assertions that men and women should have equal access to the workplace, or that equal partnership in marriage is a good thing. Well, sometimes we are pushed to, but we don’t need to work as hard to make our point as Mill did in the mid-19th century.
Mills argues for women’s liberation from subjugation through politics, education, marriage, and family. He does so clearly, cleverly and, in my opinion, with a fine sense of humor. He tackles the claim that Victorian-era ideas about women and their roles in society follow simply what has been proven by “nature”. Claiming that we can not truly understand the nature of either men or women in any meaningful sense as long as the binary system through which they are related is one which unfairly favors men, he assures his contemporaries that there is no reason to fear allowing women more freedom of opportunity in the workplace. If his detractors are correct, he says, and women are naturally not as good as men at certain jobs, then the competition of the free market will ensure that a more qualified man is hired anyway. If women prove capable of the same jobs, then the idea that they are naturally inferior at certain tasks will be debunked and knowledge will be furthered. Heavily influenced by the thinking of the Enlightenment, he makes the point impersonally (which it is his privilege to be), stressing that reason alone can determine truth, and that assumptions about the way society works and has always worked are completely unreasonable: they have not been properly challenged as no large-scale experimentation has been allowed.
Furthermore, he makes examples of women like Joan of Arc and English queens who have excelled in non-traditional roles, whom more women could emulate if given the chance. Let them prove themselves at writing, music, leadership, etc. Why intentionally limit the possibility of greatness?
He notes that most prejudicial complaints about women–their neediness, their emotionality, their frivolity–stem from socialization, and that equal education of the sexes would result in a greater sense of self and bearing for women. Not only would this be to the benefit of women, but it would also benefit men to be able to relate intellectually to the women in their lives, and would contribute to a greater culture of intellect in society in general. Shared responsibility in both the private and public spheres would relieve the specific burdens placed on both parties and would lead to happier marriages.
Finally, he breaches the subject of suffrage. Though absent from politics, he says, women are by no means unaffected and should be able to vote for their own interests.
So, okay. I yawned myself while typing this and hope no one reading has fallen asleep. I did a terrible job at backing up my claim that Mill is actually pretty funny. He is! I promise! He makes jokes and employs sarcastic witticisms! Even so, though, it’s true: The Subjection of Women is not particularly riveting. If it wasn’t for my commitment to the Feminist Classics project, I probably would have tossed it aside after twenty pages and taken for granted that I agree with all of Mill’s contentions and that he had nothing new to say to me. However, once I got into the swing of things, I found Mill pleasant company enough and am satisfied with being able to comfortably use his essay as a reference for more complicated arguments in the future, if need be.
*You won’t likely find her officially credited as author anywhere, but after our discussion at the Feminist Classics blog about how she’s been widely demonized and written out of history, I wanted to both make a point and pay her respect.