Monday, September 13, 2010

The Subjection of Women by J.S. Mill (1869)

While Mill's relationship with Harriet Taylor here seems to need foregrounding, Mill's belief in the equality of the sexes certainly preceded the relationship, and is consistent with his larger arguments on individual liberty. The Subjection of Women was written two years after Harriet's death in the winter of 1860-61, and Mill acknowledged the help of his step-daughter, Helen Taylor.

The work was not published, however, until 1869, a more favorable time, he felt, for the receipt of his ideas.

Chapter 1: The first chapter doesn't so much get into the argument against the subjection of women, but rather seems to clear a space for the argument. Mill begins by enumerating the difficulties of undertaking on such an argument, primarily because the subordination of women's interests is such a "universal custom." Mill goes on to argue that the basis for this "custom" is theory and certainly not experience, and its only source is the "law of the strongest"--a law, he points out, which modern society has generally repudiated in other cases like slavery. Additionally, modern society has generally accepted that a person's birth should not determine his station in life, but Mill points out that the subordination of women because of their gender is a sad exception. Finally, Mill refutes arguments that it is natural for women to prefer the station of wife/mother, since it's really impossible, at the present time, for men to "know" the truly natural differences between men and women: women have been socialized and educated in such a way as to subordinate their own interests to those of men. The only solution is to allow the "free play" of women's nature and extend to women the individual liberty to choose what they might think and do.

Chapter 2: In this chapter Mill argues that the legal subordination of women makes wives (in a legal sense) occupy a lower situation than slaves. Women's inability to control the fate of her own property or children, and lack of recourse when under a tyrannical husband practically mean they have no rights. Mill points out that while individual relations between men and women might "mitigate" the effects of such unfair legal subordination, wives under "bad men" must suffer under the absolute control of their husbands. At the end of the chapter, Mill expands the argument by saying that equality and "cultivated sympathy" in marriage would be beneficial to both parties, as well as for society's progress more generally.

Chapter 3: Here Mill makes the case for women as being fit for a number of professions traditionally reserved for men only including political roles, scientific pursuits, literary pursuits, and the arts and music beyond fulfilling the requirements of domestic grace. Mill concedes that at present, it is actually impossible to tell what differences there may be between men and women with respect to their natural abilities and propensities, because of the great disparity between the ways in which men and women are educated and socialized. Nevertheless, Mill writes that "doubt does not forbid conjecture," and ventures, in this chapter, many speculations about men and women's respective capacities and propensities. For example, Mill contends that women are better at a "rapid and correct insight into present fact," which he then links up with the pragmatic, the consideration of individuals, and depth of thinking, and men are better at speculation of a more theoretical nature, the consideration of the general, and breadth of thinking. Both of these tendencies are forces that ought to balance each other out. With respect to temperament, Mill seems to concede that women might be hereditarily more "nervous" but then he goes on to defend the "nervous temperament" as one which possesses much energy--energy that might be directed towards "the leadership of mankind." Near the end of the chapter, Mill again expands the notion of allowing women to partake equally in professional and public life as good for all of humanity, and concludes with the thought that the fight for female emancipation must be undertaken by both men and women.

Chapter 4: In the final chapter, Mill enumerates the many ways that the liberation of women would benefit both men and women, and hence society as a whole. He argues that men's own minds are perverted by pride when boys are falsely taught that they are superior merely because of their sex. Mill further argues that the education of women would also double "the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity." Additionally, even in the current time in which subjection of women continues to be practiced, Mill points to women's involvement in religion and charity as evidence that women would be a tempering moral force in society, though he is critical of philanthropic involvement which does not take into account the "bigger picture" and which tends to make individuals dependent--this, however, is not the fault of women who try to do good, but the fault of society for not allowing women to be educated about the ways of the world. Finally, Mill ends with some thoughts about the improved relations and specifically, marriages, that would result from more similar upbringings between men and women: in the ideal marriage, men and women would be partners in the higher service of humanity. 


One of the most interesting tensions in Mill's The Subjection of Women is between his strong conjectures over ostensibly natural differences between men and women, and his equally strong disavowal of men's capacity to know anything about women due to society disallowing women the liberty to express their true natures. Mill doesn't spend much time trying to resolve these tensions; except, perhaps with the several brief statements as to how "doubt does not forbid conjecture."As we know from On Liberty, however, feeling any degree of certainty (where absolute certainty is not possible) requires an extremely assiduous critical process of checking one's opinions against opposing ones. It seems that one must assume that Mill's claims have already gone through this vigorous process, but then one wonders, on the ground of Mill's own principles, as to how any kind of certainty can be arrived at when there is so little information at all--since the half of the population that might know best can't express themselves.

Of course, practically speaking, if this premise of Mill's were fully embraced, he would have very little to write about in The Subjection of Women. Unlike On Liberty, The Subjection of Women seems to be more "embroiled" in that it seems to insist upon the usefulness of taking a stand (even while knowing that the stand is based on very little information and might be wrong). In a way then, Mill (knowingly, and to a lesser degree) commits the same act as those who would base their stand on women's inferiority on little to no factual information, but perhaps only to provide the opposing opinion in a critical dialogue in order that society might come closer to the truth. 

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