Nineteenth Century Philosophy

John Stuart Mill

What are John Stuart Mill’s progressive ideas inThe Subjection of Women?

Mill begins The Subjection of Women (1869) by saying that it is more difficult to argue against a position that is held on irrational grounds than one based on reasoning. (René Descartes [1596–1650] made a similar claim at the beginning of his Meditations.) Those who hold irrational views will not be persuaded to change them by rational argument but will just look for a more “profound” basis of their opinion, even to the point of claiming it is the result of instinct.

This set the stage for Mill’s claim that the condition of women at the time he wrote was the result of a long historical tradition of “might makes right,” combined with the power enjoyed by all men “simply by being born male.” He compared this condition to slavery on a number of counts: women were completely dependent on men for their livelihood, being deprived of education and means for productive employment; women did not have control over their own bodies or children in marriage; women lacked civil rights, such as the right to vote or own property; and women were subject to violence and rape within marriage, without legal recourse.

Mill also claimed that women were trained to display the traits of mind and character (or lack thereof) that would make them desirable subordinates to men: stupidity, preoccupation with appearance, and adoration of and submission to men. Men assumed that all women wanted to be wives and mothers, which made their exclusion of them from education and the professions ironic, to say the least. But although marriage appeared to be a contractual relationship, women did not have any real freedom to withhold their consent because they could not earn a living on their own.

Against existing arguments that women were not the equals of men, Mill claimed that insofar as women had been so suppressed by their circumstances in marriage and lack of education, men knew very little about what their true capabilities were. He claimed that “the highest masculine and the highest feminine characters” were clearly equal.


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