The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

J. S. Mill (and Harriet Taylor Mill), The Subjection of Women

This was drafted in 1860-61, after Harriet Mill's death in 1858, and based, in Mill's words, on "the fund of thought which had been made common to us both, by our innumerable conversations and discussions on a topic which filled so large a place in our minds" (Autobiography). It was a work of their maturity, published when Mill was 63, though the two seem to have been originally drawn to each other by kindred views of the issue of gender equality. When they married in later life, he signed a pre-marital document divesting himself of all control granted him by law (45-46).

Mill's views were unusual for his time, and they differed markedly from those of his father, raising the question of what prompted him to strong convictions on this issue at an early age. In a passage of his Autobiography expunged before publication, he notes the unhappiness caused by his parents' unequal marriage, his father's condescension to his wife, and the negative effect this had upon his children in teaching them to disrespect their mother.

The page numbers below are from Alice Rossi, ed. Essays on Sex Equality, U Chicago, 1970. Her introduction provides an illustrative study in scholarly biases, as earlier commentators were in general repelled by the thought that the great logician was influenced by -- or at least shared -- his wife's notions on social issues. Rossi ignores, however, the role of early century socialists and co-operators, among them Robert Owen and William Thompson, in shaping Mill's thought.

What is Rossi's thesis about the anti-Harriet bias of earlier commentators on Mill? Which political lines did it follow? (36, 38) What works did he claim were their joint productions? Would this have been plausible, based on her other writings? (Political Economy, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women)

"The Enfranchisement of Women," by Harriet Mill, 1851

1. What new movement does Harriet Taylor Mill announce to her readers? Where has this movement found its strongest expression, and what demands has it made? (93-95)

2. Which parts of British society should have been sympathetic to this movement? Have they been? On what grounds does Taylor-Mill fault those who draw back from granting women the right to vote? ("he is one of those levellers who would level only down to themselves," 97)

3. In what ways are women denied representation in nineteenth-century Britain? (97) Why should the fact that women are at present barred from all desirable occupations suggest that they should be granted equal rights?

4. What effect does inequality have on society at large? (98)

5. What are features of Harriet Mill's style? Is it effective for its purpose here?

6. What does she believe is the root cause of inequality? (99) Does this seem likely?

7. What does she believe is the general tendency of society? (99) With which other now-debunked views does she compare notions of female subordination? (108, divine right of kings)

8. How does she answer those who say that women are unfit for certain occupations? (101) How does she answer the argument that women cannot participate in politics because they are mothers? As a mother of three, does she express a high regard for the maternal function? (104, "There is no inherent reason or necessity that all women should voluntarily choose to devote their lives to one animal function and its consequences").

9. How does she answer the argument that women should not be permitted to compete with men? (105) What arguments have been given in favor of women's subordination? (108) What does she think of the notion that women should be better educated to be the companions of men? (111) What kind of education would she wish for women instead? (112-13, "High mental powers in women will be but an exceptional accident, until every career is open to them, and until they, as well as men, are educated for themselves and for the world--not one sex for the other").

10. What does inequality do to the marriage relation? (115, adds deceit, woman concerned for material goals) What effect would women's improvement have on society? In what context is the example of Asia introduced?

11. How does she answer the argument that women do not desire equality? (118) What disappoints her in the hitherto expressed opinions of most literary women? What is wrong with notions of "the angel in the house"? (a "sentimental priesthood")

12. How does she end her essay? Who has presented a petition to Parliament in favor of women's suffrage? Can you see any significance to the fact that the petitioners were from Sheffield (in the industrial north)? How long would it take until women received the vote?

In their early essays, how do the styles and opinions of J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor differ?

--She favors married women working, and maintaining their own children; he feels married women will take care of the home, and beautify life (75, 77). She directly attacks a superficial education for women and the falsity of gender roles, calling their alleged separate status a "sentimental priesthood."

--In the early essays, she's more sarcastic and brief, and undercuts by parodying; he is fond of lengthy analogical arguments.

The Subjection of Women, 1869

This was published the same year as Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, though written about 1861. 1869 was also the year Mill introduced the first women's suffrage bill into Parliament, forty-nine years before the women's suffrage act of 1918 granted the vote to women over thirty.

Chapter 1

1. How does Mill begin his argument? Is this an effective beginning? What kind of difficulties does he feel the need of clearing away at the onset? (appeals to alleged "feeling," "instinct" and custom)

According to Mill, what difficulties are presented to those who would argue for change? (129, "there never has been trial made of any other [system]")

2. What does he see as historical sources of female inequality? (131) Why are women still unequal now? What is the purpose of comparing women's legal position with that of negro slaves? (130; other evil traditions once seemed equally plausible)

In what ways does Mill believe that public opinion has changed? (132) Do you think he was correct in his hope for progress? Which historical practices does he bring forth in support of his views? (135)

3. What reason does he give for the greater continuance of sexual inequality than slavery or absolute monarchy? (135-36) How does he answer the claim that female inequality is "natural" (137)? That women accept their subordinate role? (139) What prevents more women, in his opinion, from registering their complaints? (140, 151)

4. How does the subordination of women differ from that to other masters? (141, "Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments.") What is the effect of cultural training on gendered behavior? (141-42)

5. According to Mill, why is female inequality inconsistent with the spirit of modern times? (142-43) What harm comes to society from its interdiction of opportunities for women? (145) How does he respond to the argument that women might perform these new roles incompetently? ("There are always plenty of [unfit persons] to choose from," 145, "no one asks for protective duties and bounties in favor of women," 154--a statement which might later be questioned)

6. How does he respond to the argument that the notion that equality will improve matters is based solely on theory? (147) Why can we not make reliable statements on the nature of women? (148-49, 151) Why can men not understand the thoughts of women in present-day Victorian society? (151-53)

What seems to be Mill's attitude toward science in this context? (friendlier than that of Arnold, desires a more analytical approach to the topic of sexual character and its possible causes)

Why are literary women an incomplete source concerning women's character and desires? (153) In your view, are his observations here plausible?

7. How does Mill answer the argument that women don't desire a range of new occupations and/or have lower abilities for performing them? (154)

8. The sole occupations open to middle-class women at the time were governessing, teaching at the lowest levels, and under some circumstances nursing. Single women could become Anglican deaconesses or Catholic nuns.

Why, according to Mill, may men fear to permit women occupations? (155, that women will no longer desire marriage) What is his answer to this claim? (marriage must be made equal, 156) What is inconsistent between the desire for women's subordination and the advances which they have been permitted to make?

How would his audience have responded to his allusions to Eastern odalesques?

9. Is the closing effective? What are some features of Mill's style in this essay? To what audience might these words have been addressed?

10. To what extent to his arguments in chapter 1 parallel those of Harriet Mill in "The Enfranchisement of Women"?

11. Can you comment on Mill's style and method of adducing evidence? What are some instances of his use of metaphor or sarcasm?

--sense of a vast forum where the grounds of evidence for each hypothesis are weighed against a great background of history and assumed moral principles;

--clarity and comprehensiveness, use of exact parallelism, diction, periodic sentences

--use of metaphors--e. g. 149, "Men . . . indolently believe that the tree grows of itself . . . and that it would die if one half of it were not kept in a vapour bath and the other half in the snow." (also bottom of 149)

--use of sarcasm--astounding statements offered calmly (e. g. 140), gives effect of good-tempered undercutting, keeps contempt in check (the number of incompetent persons is always sufficient, 145; feelings gain from their illogicality, 126); matter-of-fact negative analysis (149, 153)

--argument by assertion (131-32, 137, 140), often sad or tragic; near aphorisms

--boldness of reversals (126, 130)

--a master of debating the plausibility of various kinds of evidence

12. How does Mill's interpretation of the movement of history differ from that of Arnold? Carlyle? (appeal to 18th century faith in reason; believes that in general we have progressed from earlier times)

Chapter 2

Like William Thompson in An Appeal to One Half of the Human Race, Mill argues that contemporary marriage was based on the past assumption that women were property, and that the position of wife was analogous to that of the slave, a view later to be taken up by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

1. What is the focus of chapter 2? (the coercion of the marriage relation) Have any modern feminists shared this view? (e. g. Adrienne Rich)

2. What were women's property rights at the time? What were the laws regarding consensual marital sex? (160, very bold to mention the issue of forced sex) Their rights to child custody? The right to free choice of partner? (161)

3. What is his response to the argument that not all husbands are tyrants? (162)

--He argues that laws should be changed, even if under the present system some marriages managed to be happy. "Meanwhile, laws and institutions require to be adapted, not to good men, but to bad." (163)

What were the laws regarding domestic abuse? (164-65)

4. Why do you think he mentions the fact that female influence can be bad? (168) How does he answer the argument that in any relationship one person must make the decisions? (168-70; notes that business partnerships are equal)

5. How does he react to the claim that women are morally superior? (171-72) To the claim that some couples already live in equality? (176, the worse the husband, the more his assertion of dominance)

How may unequal relationships alter character? ("the only school of genuine moral sentiment is society between equals," 173)

In what way is the Victorian family a school for male egotism? (165, 174) Are there other Victorian writers who would have agreed with this view? (George Meredith, The Egoist)

6. How does he answer the influential claim that Christianity requires wifely submission? (176-77)

7. What abuse is caused by the refusal to permit women to own money? (178) What does he believe should be the husband's contribution to income? (178)

8. Are his views on the employment of women identical to Harriet's in her 1851 essay? Why should mothers not work? (179) May his views be class-based? What should be the role of law in the choice of occupations for married women? (180)

Chapter 3

What are Mill's views on the possible differences between the sexes? How does Mill respond to the arguments that women may show differences in brains and temperament? (188-95)

According to Mill, what functions have women historically shown themselves especially suited? (186)

How are these alleged possible differences nonetheless reasons for granting women political rights and access to all occupations?

Do you believe the suggestions in this chapter are consistent with the arguments in chapter 1? May Mill be falling into some of the fallacies he had identified in other husbands?

Chapter 4

1. What good does Mill argue would come from the equality of women in marriage? (serious cases of suffering reduced, 216)

What advantages would accrue to women? To men? (218) To all of society? (217-223)

--elimination of sole case of arbitrary legally imposed servitude, 217;

--most basic of human relations would be regulated by justice, 217-18;

--would eliminate the corruption of male character in such a situation, 218-220;

-- society would move toward judging persons by merit not birth, 220.

Equality would encourage the exertions of both men and women, opening the way for the use of additional human talent.

--it would double the mental faculties for improving humankind (221-22)

--provide a more expansive life for women

2. Does his view that women will have a beneficial influence on society if granted the vote contradict his view that women are not morally superior? (women have had a softening influence on history, have inspired men to military feats [223], and have inspired chivalry)

3. Why do you think that Mill agues that chivalry alone will not restrain unfair or abusive behavior? (Those who deny the need for changes in the laws argued that chivalry had a restraining effect on male behavior, obviating the need for equality.)

4. What is his view of the general effect of chivalry on morality? (In its care for the weaker, this has been the best ethic produced thus far, though partial and in need of correction.)

5. Are his views ones generally held at the time? (Victorians took chivalry seriously! 223-224) Why according to Mill do the notions of chivalry no longer prevail in modern society?

6. Why do you think Mill discusses the nature of female influence? (Those who opposed granting women more opportunities argued that women already had power through their influence on men.)

7. How does he wish to see female influence on society improved? (225--"In these points of character, their standard is higher than that of men; in the quality of justice, somewhat lower"--compare the views of Carol Gilligan)

8. How does he react to the argument that women's present position encourages their exercise of charity? (227-28) Have these criticisms been echoed by modern historians? Are some of his arguments double-edged?

9. What according to Mill encourages "that mediocrity of respectability" which in his view "is becoming a marked characteristic of modern times" (231)? (fear of social exclusion)

10. What effect do women's disabilities have upon the hope of an intimate and loving union between husband and wife? (231, "Intimate society between people radically dissimilar to one another, is an idle dream").

11. What are the features of an ideal union? (233, "a real enriching of the two natures," "solid friendship of an enduring character";"similarity of powers and capacities," 235)

12. In what tone does he describe his conception of an ideal union? (235-36) To what will it lead? ("the regeneration of humanity," 236)

13. Would Mill's descriptions apply equally to same-sex unions?

14. What effect would such unions have upon men?

15. According to Mill, what bad effects may occur when one party is inferior in mental traits or opportunities to the other? (234, "Any society which is not improving is deteriorating.")

16. Why is independence necessary for mutuality and happiness? (236-37, exchange of life of subjection to others to one of rational freedom, 236; women share inherent love of freedom, 237)

17. On which issue do people most often judge differently for themselves and for others? (236-38, issue of need for self-determination)

18. What does Mill believe to be the relationship between liberty and power (over others)? (238, "the love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism."

19. What does he feel would be the advantage for women of a worthy outlet for their faculties? (239) Under what conditions might they enter politics? (240)

20. What tasks are women expected to perform without the necessary training to do them well? (240, education of children, philanthropy)

21. On what does he base his final appeal? (241, unhappiness of life prevented congenial occupation) Does this make an effective conclusion to his argument?

22. Can Mill's argument for women's equality be viewed as a special instance of the principles advocated in "On Liberty"? What are some special features of women's position which alters the focus of his argument?

23. Who seems to be Mill's imagined audience throughout the essay? Do you think his essays would have accomplished their purpose in gaining their assent?

24. Which of Mill's assumptions do you think were particularly Victorian? (e. g., about the relative vaue of European and other cultures; about the existence of chivalry as an ideal in certain social settings)

25. Do you think Mill would have altered his arguments were he writing in 1950 rather than c. 1860?

26. Which of his arguments are least successful or persuasive? Most persuasive?

 


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