Nineteenth Century Philosophy

John Stuart Mill

How were John Stuart Mill’s views on women influential?

Mill expressed these views at a time when it was fashionable for educated men to sentimentalize the traditional role of women. Such sentimentalization, for example, can be seen in social thinker and critic John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lillies, or English writer and critic Coventry Patmore’s poem “The Angel in the House.” Many religious authorities and political leaders were outraged and shocked by Mill’s opinions on this matter. On the other hand, the suffragist movement had already begun in both England and the United States, and the support of a famous philosopher and public figure was perceived to be a great help in the cause.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until about 50 years after The Subjection of Women (1869) was published that women got the vote in both countries. Although the rights Mill advocated for women are now largely taken for granted, some feminists believe that Mill’s failure to address the issue of the division of labor within the family rendered his arguments for the liberation of women incomplete, as did his basic assumption that, even once liberated, the vast majority of women would still choose to be wives and mothers. And although Mill stressed the personal development of women, he did so more within the context of their traditional roles than in terms of their autonomy as human beings.


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