The Subjection of Women – John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor
As published by Oxford World’s Classics in: On Liberty – John Stuart Mill (2008, originally published: 1869)
This post is about my thoughts while reading part I of this 4 part treatise on the subjection of women, written by John Stuart Mill in cooperation with his wife, Harriet Taylor (though she is not acknowledged as such in any of the published editions, as Ana remarked in her introductory post).
Just think about the fact that John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women in 1861, 69 years after Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Mill still felt the need to plead for the education of women, of their right to be educated. Progress, much?
Mill’s argument in part I centres around the idea that in history, men have cast aside all forms of inequality: there has come an end to white men’s slavery, to the inequality between classes (or at least, there has been a start) and the slavery of Africans. According to Mill, one form of slavery still exists: that of women’s submission to men. This is the hardest form of slavery to break, because it is seen as the most “natural” one.
Accordingly, Mill proceeds to reflect on the idea that women are naturally inferior to men, and states that:
Neither does it avail anything to say that the nature of the two sexes adapts them to their present functions and position, and renders these appropriate to them. Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.
It is nice to see this argument, which we have seen in A Vindication, further developed. What I find most surprising in reading all these classic texts, is how old this idea actually is. Most of the time, it is one of the first things you get taught when you start learning about gender. Yet, it is something that we still feel the need to explain and underline all the time, it has not become commonly accepted that the differences between men and women are not natural, but socially conditioned.
He goes on to say that, the fact that we hear so little about the experiences of women, or their political or social ideas, is because they have had little chance to develop them, let alone express them:
It is but of yesterday that women have either been qualified by literary accomplishments or permitted by society, to tell anything to the general public. As yet very few of them dare tell anything, which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear. Let us remember in what manner, up to a very recent time, the expression, even by a male author, of uncustomary opinions, or what are deemed eccentric feelings, usually was, and in some degree still is, received; and we may form some faint conception under what impediments a woman, who is brought up to think custom and opinion her sovereign rule, attempts to express in books anything drawn from the depths of her own nature.
Ah, but then Mill does something that might work against the emancipation of women. He denies the existence of women writers as a group to be reckoned with, and furthermore states that many of the works written by women were only written to enhance their chances of a good marriage, etcetera.
The greater part of what women write about women is mere sycophancy to men. In the case of unmarried women, much of it seems only intended to increase their chance of a husband. Many, both married and unmarried, overstep the mark, and inculcate a servility beyond what is desired or relished by any man, except the very vulgarest. But this is not so often the case as, even at a quite late period, it still was. Literary women are becoming more free-spoken, and more willing to express their real sentiments. Unfortunately, in this country especially, they are themselves such artificial products, that their sentiments are compounded of a small element of individual observation and consciousness, and a very large one of acquired associations. This will be less and less the case, but it will remain true to a great extent, as long as social institutions do not admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men.
How often have women’s voices been written out of history, consciously or unconsciously, I wonder? Here, Mill certainly tries to make a point for women’s rights, and yet, he does not acknowledge the work done by women in his time or before him. Nor does he seem to point to earlier texts written on the subject of women’s right, at least not in the first part of his treatise.
There is one more paragraph I would like to remark upon, and that is the paragraph in which he compares the lot of women to that of slaves or sailors, saying that in all cases, the argument has always been that (white, upper-class) men, have to force their inferiors to do a certain job, because otherwise it would not happen. Instead, Mill argues, we should pay every person what their job is worth, and oppression would not be necessary anymore. Mary Wollstonecraft uses the same comparisons, sailors and slaves. It makes you wonder.. Certainly, the time at which these texts were written made these comparisons work, they were recent examples of inequality, the abolitionist movement was well-known at the time, etcetera. But I cannot shake the feeling that part of the comparison is unfair, somehow? However, I am not certain yet why I feel that way. Maybe it is because it feels wrong to lump every form of oppression together under one category, to compare them as if there is no difference in circumstances, needs, cruelty, etcetera? And yet, dividing such issues from each other, keeping them completely separate, seems wrong too. That happened during the feminist waves in the twentieth century, in which class and ethnicity were often forgotten. So I don’t know what to think, really.
So far, The Subjection of Women is an easier read than Vindication was. It is more to the point, less rambly, written in a style that feels more contemporary. I am not sure if I am enjoying it better, it is simply that it is easier to reflect upon, since it is a faster read.
This post was written for A Year of Feminist Classics. Interested? Please consider joining us..