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.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.
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.
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.