Straight, White And Male: How J. S. Mill Challenged The Subjection Of Women

Posted on March 17, 2016 in Books, Cake, Upside-Down

Two centuries before the debate about “male feminists” began brewing, English philosopher John Stuart Mill penned one of the Western tradition’s most important essays on women’s rights. Oh, and he did it with the help of both his wife Harriet, and daughter Helen.

From a very early age, J S Mill was taught to think critically, under the tutelage of his father (a historian and economist), and Jeremy Bentham, a leading eighteenth century English social. Mill’s upbringing was a strange one. To encourage intellectual rigour, he was deliberately separated from other children his own age, and raised on a stern classical education (Greek, Latin, Algebra and all that other fun stuff). Things didn’t pan out pretty well though. He suffered a nervous breakdown at 20, and had to deal with depression for a considerable time. But the ordeal helped him develop his ideas about social organization.

Mill’s 1859 work ‘On Liberty’ introduced the concept of the “harm principle” as fundamental to a politics of real, practicable equality. In 1866, he was the first Parliamentarian to ask for women’s right to vote, and he took forth both arguments in ‘The Subjection of Women’, when he said:

But so long as the right of the strong to have power over the weak rules in the very heart of society, the attempt to get people’s conduct to be guided by the principle of equal rights for the weak will always be an uphill struggle.”

Victorian England Was Seriously Stifling For The ‘Fairer Sex’

The ‘modern period,’ which had its beginnings in the 1500s – and during which the gender-binary was formulated – also included Queen Victoria’s rule. Gender roles had become as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, and the measures in place to ensure conformity were more stringent than ever before. The division meant hierarchies, and hierarchies of course meant the subjection of women. And just because Mill personally benefited from the patriarchy, didn’t mean he allowed it to rot his reason entirely.

In fact, he uses the system’s own measured style of debate to critique its gross neglect of one half of humanity. And here’s what he had to say:

1: In Which He Compares The Institutions Of Marriage And Slavery

Mill is given to analogy, and it’s not merely for dramatic effect. He brings up slavery, a system that had then been newly abolished, to show how woman’s subordination to man was as inhuman as a slave’s subordination to the master, and to those who remained stubborn, he asked: “was there ever any domination that didn’t appear natural to those who possessed it?” Without dissing people’s desire to become life-partners (he talks a lot about sentiment, and socio-economic considerations), he argues that marriage is an arrangement between unequals. “This relic of the past,” he says of the system that upholds inequality, “is out of tune with the future and must necessarily disappear.”

2: In Which He Says Equal Rights Must Begin With Equal Opportunities

He is fully aware of how men and women are socialized into their roles, and their relationships with each other, and recognizes the impact this division has on the laws of the land. Because of this, a married woman has even fewer rights than a slave. “Hardly any slave,” he writes, “is a slave at all hours and all minutes; in general he has his fixed task, and when it is done he disposes up to a point of his own time and has a family life into which the master rarely intrudes […] but it can’t be so with the wife.” As if picking up on Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments, Mill talks about the winning combination of ‘women’s duties’ (self-sacrifice and obedience) and a lack of property and succession rights, makes women entirely reliant on men.

3: In Which He Takes A Few Steps Backward, But Believes Women Should Be Part Of The ‘Brain Pool’

Yes, he actually said “brain pool” and no, it isn’t some proto-Matrix project to make milch cows of humans. He advocated for women’s integration into all fields, at every level of society. Talking about multiple great women from Sappho to England’s own Queen as exceptions to the rule, Mill questions the appropriateness of the ‘rule’ itself. Like Wollstonecraft, he too stresses the need for a sound education, and a life of productivity for women, but unlike her, he believes in setting limits. Mill didn’t advocate for women’s right to paid employment outside the home, because he felt husbands would exploit their earnings. He also disappoints with his displays of class-prejudice, and his belief that ‘women’s intuition’ is an actual, factual thing. Oh, and he mourns the death of chivalry (the original ‘Bro Code’) because women could find favour under it – hugely problematic.

4: In Which Mill’s Own #HeForShe Campaign Becomes Apparent

Let’s face it, if Emma Watson tried to hold a conference on feminism in 1869, she would probably be put in an attic for some considerable amount of time. Heck, even today, she gets a lot of flak for it. But that’s male-privilege for you, something Mill knew he had, and intended to put it to good use. He doesn’t write four chapter’s on the subjection of women just for documentation’s sake. “Women can’t be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women until considerable numbers of men are prepared to join with them in the undertaking.” His reasons for why men should join in appear a little under-developed, but that he recognizes men’s role in all of this is admirable.

To readers now, some slight irritations may arise – like watching the skewed and mainsplained feminism of that rogue Sherlock episode. Even his comments on the public and private natures of men and women relies more on his observation of conventions than any actual proof. But all in all, it’s lovely to see the essay as evidence of early feminism.

When the most privileged of the privileged – an older white guy in the greatest Empire of the modern period – took the time to examine structural oppression, there’s no excuse for us today not to engage with the same.

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