Feb 17, 2011

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor

The object of this essay is to explain as clearly as I am able grounds of an opinion which I have held from the very earliest period when I had formed any opinions at all on social political matters, and which, instead of being weakened or modified, has been constantly growing stronger by the progress reflection and the experience of life. That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
The above excerpt pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Originally published in 1861, “The Subjection of Women” is a detailed and very accessible essay arguing for gender equality, and it’s one of the central texts of Victorian feminism. It was written at a time when women were barred from most professions and had no legal or political rights – especially if they were married, which made them and their husbands a single person in the eyes of the law (that is, of course, the origin of the plot of countless Victorian sensation novels). Most of Mill’s arguments address these points, but though we have made much progress in these areas, there’s a lot about “The Subjection of Women” that remains contemporary.

One of my favourite things about “The Subjection of Women” is the fact that Mill is no essentialist. He doesn’t believe that men and women are entirely different sort of beings that might as well belong to different species. He freely admits that he doesn’t know enough about the functioning of the brain or how much nature and the environment contribute to shaping individuals to prove his belief – but neither do his opponents. However, because the belief in essential gender differences is ingrained in tradition, it’s not those who claim that women are inferior who are expected to prove it, but the reverse. The pressure to produce solid evidence is on those departing from the norm, no matter how sensible their arguments. He says:
In every respect the burden is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion. They must be very fortunate well as unusually capable if they obtain a hearing at all. They have more difficulty in obtaining a trial, than any other litigants have in getting a verdict. If they do extort a hearing, they are subjected to a set of logical requirements totally different from those exacted from other people. In all other cases, burden of proof is supposed to lie with the affirmative.
Sadly I don’t think we’re done with these kinds of “it has always been known that it is so” explanations even a hundred and fifty years later, nor with just-so stories that are meant to explain inequality. They exist now as they did then, as a quick glance through Delusions of Gender will reveal.

Mill’s view of marriage as a true partnership of equals was also very refreshing. He finds the Victorian legal system’s treatment of women absolutely horrifying, and expresses this in no uncertain terms. One of his rhetoric strategies is comparing the status of women in marriage to slavery, which, as Iris pointed out, is a problematic analogy. This is especially the case when he says:
Above all, a female slave has (in Christian countries) an admitted right, and is considered under a moral obligation, to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to — though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him — he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations.
Unfortunately, it’s not as if female slaves weren’t constantly raped – no “right” or “moral obligation to refuse the last familiarity” ever put a stop to that. As Trisha said, Mill was writing at the beginning of the American Civil War, and it’s possible that he very deliberately considered the weight such arguments would have on an audience that might have been largely made of supporters of the abolitionist movement. But I’m still not sure how I feel about his use of this argument. I don’t think he was dismissing the rape of female slaves as much as he was naively ignorant of it, but that doesn’t change things all that much. I don’t want to make this about who “had it worse”, as I find that kind of discussion unproductive, but suffice to say I’d take being a Victorian married woman over being a slave any day (as I’m sure would Mill himself).

Another interesting aspect of “The Subjection of Women” is its discussion of women and art, particularly literature. This is a point I promised to return to back when I read Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, as I didn’t feel I was in a position to form an opinion on Mill’s thoughts before reading them in context. As it turns out, the context does make a lot of difference. Here’s the crux of Mill’s argument:
If we turn from pure speculation to literature in the narrow sense of the term, and the fine arts, there is a very obvious reason why women's literature is, in its general conception and in its main features, an imitation of men’s. Why is the Roman literature, as critics proclaim to satiety, not original, but an imitation of the Greek? Simply because the Greeks came first. If women lived in a different country from men, and had never read any of their writings, they would have had a literature of their own. As it is, they have not created one, because they found a highly advanced literature already created. If there had been no suspension of the knowledge of antiquity, or if the Renaissance had occurred before the Gothic cathedrals were built, they never would have been built. We see that, in France and Italy, imitation of the ancient literature stopped the original development even after it had commenced. All women who write are pupils of the great male writers. A painter’s early pictures, even if he be a Raffaello, are undistinguishable in style from those of his master. Even a Mozart does not display his powerful originality in his earliest pieces.

What years are to a gifted individual, generations are to a mass. If women’s literature is destined to have a different collective character from that of men, depending on any difference of natural tendencies, much longer time is necessary than has yet elapsed, before it can emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses. But if, as I believe, there will not prove to be any natural tendencies common to women, and distinguishing their genius from that of men, yet every individual writer among them has her individual tendencies, which at present are still subdued by the influence of precedent and example: and it will require generations more, before their individuality is sufficiently developed to make head against that influence.
Being a non-essentialist, Mill doesn’t believe that women’s literature will turn out to be all that different from men’s, but the problem is that in the cultural climate in which he was writing, they would be accused of unoriginality and imitation on such grounds. Of course, in 1861 novels like Jane Eyre or the works of Jane Austen had already been written, so it’s not really fair to say there were no great literary works by women. But then again, that isn’t quite what Mill is saying. He’s saying that women’s writing was discouraged; that a great majority of women writers felt obliged to follow the models set by men because those were the dominant models, and were then collectively compared to them and not really judged for their individuality. It’s the old idea of a woman writer being perceived as a woman first and a writer second.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Fay Weldon’s introduction to my edition of the essay. Her point that we ought to keep the benefit of hindsight in mind is certainly a good one, but I want to clarify that don’t think the essay will only make sense if we keep the past in mind. There’s so much here that still applies – especially the extent to which differences between men and women continue to be naturalised.
Today’s reader will see Mill’s argument as self-evident truths. Then, of course, it was far from the case. Women existed only in relation to men: they were mothers, sisters, wives, homemakers. Their very definition was “people who have babies”. Men were fiercely protective of a status quo which suited them well enough; women were barred from the professions, while to be unmarried was a social disgrace. Mill risked opprobrium in the writing of the essay, and met it. He was seeking to interfere with the natural order, as Darwin had done with The Origin of Species in 1859.
“The Subjection of Women” is the February choice for the Year of Feminist Classics. So instead of linking to other reviews I’ll just point you to our group blog, where I’ll be doing a link round-up at the end of the month.


  1. I agree with you about slavery. I think the South was very successful in its "disinformation" campaign at portraying slaves as happy, loyal, faithful, etc. (Except, in an unwitting nod to the future and the book Delirium, in 1851 a prominent doctor in the South announced his discovery - in the scientific literature - of drapetomania, "the disease causing Negroes to run away.")

  2. Ha - drapetomania. That has to be one of the best examples ever of society's tendency to pathologise behaviours that don't fit the rules laid out by the Powers That Be.

  3. Excellent post. I have to get moving on my reading this month. It's both refreshing and pleasantly shocking that a man 150 years ago both held these views and had the audacity to publish them! I think the women's movement today would greatly benefit from more men's voices speaking up for equality, and not just passively agreeing that it's important.

  4. Nymeth, Amazing review. This sounds like a fascinating read. I agree with Zeteticat - it's amazing that a man had these opinions so long ago, even more amazing that they were published.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Oh my, Ana! You really got to the crux of the book with your review, and the quotes you used to illustrate your points were beyond helpful in making me realize that this is a book I need to read, and not be intimidated by. It seems that these issues are dealt with in the book with a lot of eloquence and respect, and that alone makes me want to seek it out. Wonderful thoughts on this book, thanks for sharing them with us!

  6. Wow, I feel so cool being quoted - especially since you make me sound more insightful than I really am. :)

    About a month after reading this, I'm still remembering it; in part, I think because of how accessible it is (as you say). I found the clarity of the writing really refreshing.

  7. I still have to put my review up, but like Ms Trisha said, I was really pleasantly surprised at just how clear and incisive his reasoning is. As for the slavery comparison... it is troubling, but I can see why he would have written it that way. I don't think it was so much a way to belittle the suffering of slaves - Mill was an ardent abolitionist and elsewhere wrote pretty eloquently on the subject, I believe - as much as it is a way of pointing out the essential nature of the marriage relationship in his time. It was, after all, essentially a relationship of being owned by someone else.

  8. Zeteticat: Thank you! And I agree about men speaking up.

    Brenna: He did get a lot of flack for publishing them, but I'm so glad he wasn't the kind of person who'd let that stop him.

    Zibilee: This one is definitely much more accessible than the Wollstonecraft - nothing to fear here! I'm going to see if I can convince you to join us one of these months ;)

    Trisha: Well, you WERE insightful :P

    Jason: I agree it wasn't belittling. It's the kind of analogy that takes me aback, especially knowing what we do know about rape and slavery, but Jill's point about misinformation is a good one. And I think that even in this text it shows that he's writing about slavery with compassion.

  9. I think I've come to realize that I have no faith in myself whatsoever--that even when people say something is accessible, I'm sure it doesn't actually apply to me. Yet in reading your review and in reading the passages from the essay itself, I'm thinking that I could really read this. Still not sure I have the guts to try, especially after having tried and failed miserably at reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but maybe...

  10. I loved this essay and think you did a brilliant job writing about it. You really nailed the major points well.

    I want to whine a little about how lucky you were to have the copy of the book you had with the introduction to it that you had. My version completely dismissed the essay and wrote one paragraph on it and the paragraph mostly talked about how his writings were discounted by the general populace of the time. I think it is a shame how when paired with his other essays this essay can be left in the dark, as I think it is a brilliant piece of work and extremely important to society.

  11. Excellent post Nymeth! I wonder if on the slave rape issue, Mill might not have been considering that married women were supposed to be willingly submissive no matter what and give themselves to their husbands even if they didn't want to so they could not even refuse to be raped. But a slave, even though she could not refuse either, isn't technically required by society and the law to willingly submit to being raped. I hope that makes sense and I'm not coming across as being a clueless idiot!

  12. I love Mill! He was something of my hero back in undergrad. I'll be looking forward to the round up and am checking out the linkage. Good points.

    I always find it interesting to see how people perceive differences between sexes.

  13. Debi: Yes it does so apply to you >:( Rest assured that Mill's style is far less convoluted than Wollstonecraf's!

    Dragonfly419: Oh no! That's very unfortunate about your edition's introduction :\ Fay Weldon's in mine was short, but it made some great points.

    Stefanie, your certainly do NOT sound like a clueless idiot! I can see your point, and it's certainly a huge deal that Mill acknowledges the existence of marital rape at all, considering how recently it was criminalised at all (not to mention the parts of the world where it still hasn't been). But I guess the requirement of a slave to submit or not would depend on perspective. Abolitionists like Mill would say she isn't, but those on the side of slavery would likely argue otherwise :\

    TopherGL: It's a fascinating topic, isn't it? I could read about it forever.

  14. Oh he was very ahead of his time wasn't he? He makes a very interesting argument that I'm sure has been taught and quoted ever since. Bet he got a lot of flack for it in his day though.

  15. How fabulous! That is very interseting. I had never heard of that essay before, and I love Mill.

  16. Wonderful review, Ana! I liked the fact that you quoted Mill's passage on literature by women in context, because I remember when you said you read it in Elaine Showalter's book, it sounded so different out of context. On Mill's observation on Female Slaves Vs Wives, I think he has a point (I think this is the first time I am disagreeing with you on something :)) I feel that though the slave's life is not comfortable or free, she might have certain protection that the lady of the house might not have. Though the lady of the house might have a more comfortable life, in the perspective that Mill has pointed out, her life may not be good. If someone asks me to choose between a Victorian wife's life and a Victorian female slave's life, I might choose the Victorian wife's life, because of its comforts and for the status it carries in society and ignore painful situations that might occur (as mentioned by Mill), but that doesn't change the fact that in some areas I don't have any freedom and have to submit to my husband's will.

  17. I forgot to add one more thing :) It is amazing that John Stuart Mill has written this essay 150 years back! Hats off to him! I want to read this essay now :)

  18. Great review! I had to read (parts of) The Subjection of Women during my studies, but your post made me want to revisit the book.

  19. Ladytink: He was indeed! I love coming across people like Mill - they're such good reminders that there are exceptions to what we have defined as the dominant mindset of a time.

    Sarah Norman: It's certainly worth reading!

    Vishy: Ha - it would indeed be a first :P But you know, I don't actually think I completely disagree. For the most part I couldn't sort out my feelings about his use of slavery as an analogy, and I was hoping you guys would help me out in the comments - as always, you haven't disappointed! The whole scales of suffering path is one I tend to avoid as it doesn't really lead anywhere useful. That's in part exactly what makes this such a thorny analogy, but I do see why Mill used it. And yes, it is amazing that he wrote this 150 ago!

    Tiina: I had studied it in college as well, but it's well worth reading in its entirety for leisure!

  20. I liked very much your comment - "The whole scales of suffering path is one I tend to avoid as it doesn't really lead anywhere useful." I agree with you that this makes the analogy a bit controversial and thorny.

    I want to read this essay now! I also went to the bookstore and got 'A Doll's House' by Henrik Ibsen, so that I can be ready for next month's Feminist Classics discussion :)

  21. Love your review Ana! I finished the book a few days ago and am still working on getting my thoughts in order but really enjoyed it. Well, found it dry and stuffy of course but still interesting ;)

  22. Great review. I was especially struck by Mill's placement of women's struggles in a greater historical narrative. His comparison of marriage to slavery is a great example. He also does a great job making women's liberation relevant not just on practical grounds but on moral ones too. While I had my criticisms as well, I think the best thing Mill did, as you point out, was to place the burden of proof on his opponents and then made it harder for them by pointing out that we know virtually nothing about the human brain. That actually makes the pro-patriarch crowd look rather silly.

  23. I've enjoyed reading your take on John Stuart Mill and his work.

    I am a direct descendant of JSM (my grandmother is Jean Mill, and she is still alive at the lovely age of 90!), and have recently decided to research this amazing man...so many facets to him, it's hard to know where to begin!

    I'm just beginning to learn, and thank you for your insight into his work. Very appreciative.

    Laurie Sperling


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.