Well-known 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, near the end of his life, a book in which he distinguished himself as a male feminist par excellence in his demand that women be given all the opportunities and privileges of men with none of their responsibilities or burdens—and he called that equality.
As barrister Ernest Belfort Bax would later claim, Mill’s feminist treatise was an “eloquent wail” that was all the more influential because it was “the reverse of legal truth” (Bax, The Legal Subjection of Men, p. 1).
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is best known today for his essay On Liberty and for his championing of individual rights. The cause that was perhaps closest to his heart was the emancipation of women, a subject that received its fullest expression in his treatise The Subjection of Women.
First published in 1869, when Mill was 63 years old, the book has been called, according to biographer Richard Reeves, a “bible of the women’s movement” and one that established Mill as “the first great radical feminist in the western
|John Stuart Mill
In the treatise, Mill argued that society as a whole as well as individual men and women would be positively affected when women were “equal” to men in politics, marriage, higher education, and the professions. Like many liberal progressives, he imagined that only good could result from the transformation of society in a manner he admitted (The Subjection of Women, p. 1) had never been tried before.
Possessed of an unshakable contempt for the social arrangements of the past, he refused to acknowledge that these had any proven utility or basis in nature. Rather, he asserted, they arose from the simple fact “that from the dawn of human society every woman was in a state of bondage to some man” (p. 3) and that such bondage eventually became their legalized subordination.
Mill then outlined what the next stage of human progress should entail. Marriage would cease to be the abusive tyranny he believed it was at present, a tyranny in which, he claimed, “the woman’s position is worse than that of most slaves” (p. 17).
All professions would benefit from the expansion of the eligible pool of participants, which would “double the supply of abilities available for the higher service of humanity. Where there is now one person qualified to benefit mankind […] as a public teacher or an administrator of some branch of public or social affairs, there would then be a chance of two” (p. 49).
He was serenely confident that free competition without favouritism would guarantee that only the best person for a position would ever be selected. “If there’s something [women] can do but not as well as the men who are their competitors, competition will exclude them from it; because what is being asked for is not protective duties and tariffs in favour of women, but only that the present tariffs and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled” (p. 15).
Individual women would necessarily benefit from self-reliance, independence, and the opportunity to exercise their “rational freedom” (p. 57) for the good of all. He rejoiced in the vision of women “working out their own destiny under their own moral responsibility” (p. 57).
Even individual men would benefit from the removal of their male privilege. Mill did not use this term, but his description of the male condition of unearned benefit is identical to the modern feminist usage: “Think what it does to a boy to grow up to manhood in the belief that—without any merit or any exertion of his own, though he may be the most frivolous and empty or the most ignorant and stolid of mankind—by the mere fact of being born a male he is by right the superior of every one of half the human race” (48).
the idea, he deplored that “Anyone who grows up from childhood with
unearned distinctions is bound to become conceited and
self-congratulatory about them, this being the worst sort of pride”
(48). It was far better for boys to be educated into a recognition of
female “equality”—though, as we will see, “equality” was
emphatically not what he was imagining.
Harriet Taylor Mill
had been a champion of women all his life, and the influence of his
feminist companion Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), two years his junior,
had, in his biographer’s words, “infused him with additional
zeal” (Reeves, p. 415). In fact, Mill’s lifelong devotion to
Harriet, the married woman he fell in love with when he was 24 and
eventually married after her husband’s death 20 years later, has
been the subject of
much speculation by biographers, and might be termed the “subjection” of John Stuart Mill.
From this young age, Mill entered into an irregular love affair with Harriet, living and traveling with her while her husband, from whom she did not wish or attempt to separate, endured many years of humiliating gossip. She was described by an acquaintance as a beautiful and vivacious young woman, “tired of [her husband] and caring for clever people,” who ultimately “fascinated [Mill] and entangled him” (quoted in Reeves, p. 81). Jane Carlyle, wife of the eminent cultural critic Thomas Carlyle, wrote to her brother-in-law that “a young Mrs. Taylor, tho’ encumbered with a husband and children, had ogled John Mill so successfully that he was desperately in love” (quoted in Reeves, p. 90).
Harriet Taylor’s husband John was gentlemanly under the enormous public insult, leaving his house when Mill came to dinner, and eventually buying his wife a country house where she spent most of her time with Mill (Reeves, p. 83-84). Harriet’s husband’s inability to do anything much but endure his wife’s decades-long public dalliance, as he continued to hope for a reconciliation, rather complicates Mill’s emphasis on the absolute tyranny husbands exercised over their wives. Not many so-called slaves were able to keep two masters doing their bidding.
As for Mill, he was smitten by Harriet and convinced of her genius as a writer and thinker, calling her a “consummate artist” and “great orator” (quoted in Reeves, p. 154). Friends and acquaintances speculated that Harriet fed Mill many of his lines, and Mill himself gushed about her influence, claiming that much of what he had written really belonged to her. In his Autobiography, he wrote that what he owed to her intellectually was “almost infinite,” confessing that he had “often received praise, which in my own right I only partially deserve” because his writings “were not the work of one mind, but of the fusion of two” (Mill, An Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, p. 78). Because the affair was always discreetly maintained, with both Mill and Harriet protecting their reputations, much remains unknown about both their sexual and intellectual intimacy. But it seems fair to say that Mill takes his place in a long line of men in thrall to a feminist companion even while declaiming against the absolute power of men.
The Subjection of Women, written years after Harriet’s death, is at least partially based on an earlier essay that appeared in The Westminster Review in 1851 called “The Enfranchisement of Women,” published under Harriet’s name, almost certainly based on her ideas but possibly written mainly or entirely by Mill—and demonstrating the difficulty of determining authorship and influence.
But it can be said for certain that Mill’s thesis in his own work, The Subjection of Women, is entirely female-centered, expressing unqualified sympathy for women’s oppression and unqualified moral outrage at any man not as eager as Mill to be women’s champion. The treatise makes some unexceptionable points, as for example when Mill argues that no one should be held back from achievement by a condition of birth such as being born female. But in other respects, the argument failed the test of logic.
Mill refused to acknowledge any manner in which women benefited from traditional social arrangements or had successfully resisted them, going so far as to claim that no other dependent or subjugated class in history—not even actual slaves—were so badly off. “All but the most brutish of men want to have […] not a forced slave but a willing one [….] So they have done everything they could to enslave women’s minds” (The Subjection of Women, p. 9), he alleged. Here Mill established two contemptible classes of men: those who liked their slaves willing, and those who didn’t care. These were held to be the majority.
Mill was personally acquainted with many unconventional intellectual women, including the feminist sociologist, philosopher, and essayist Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) and the most revered novelist of the period, George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880); such women, and many more whom he knew or knew of, had not only not had their minds enslaved but had lived in open opposition to social norms and been able to do work of acknowledged significance. So deeply impressed was Mill by the idea of women’s enslavement that he could admit no qualifications to his anti-male thesis, which anticipates much modern feminist theorizing in its illogic and its damning omissions. I will touch on the most striking examples of such illogic in the writer reputed to have been one of the most cogent of philosophers.
Throughout The Subjection of Women, Mill made the now-standard social constructionist argument, claiming that essentially nothing could be asserted about the nature of women because that nature had been perverted by social conditioning. As we will see, Mill’s arguments about the “nature of women” are rhetorically dazzling but fundamentally unserious and self-contradictory.
“What is now called ‘the nature of women’ is an artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others [….] A hot-house and stove cultivation has always been provided for some of women’s capabilities, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters. These sprout luxuriantly in this heated atmosphere and with active cultivation and watering; while other shoots from the same root, left outside in the wintry air with ice purposely heaped all around them, have a stunted growth, and some are burnt off with fire and disappear; and men—with that inability to recognise their own work that distinguishes the unanalytic mind—lazily believe that the tree grows of itself in the way they have made it grow, and that it would die if one half of it weren’t kept in a vapour bath and the other half in the snow” (p. 12).
Many pages later, he repeated, without the extended metaphor, that “It would be presumptuous to make claims about what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by their natural constitution. They have always been kept in such an unnatural state (as regards spontaneous development) that their natures must have been greatly distorted and disguised; and no-one can safely assert that any significant difference would show up between men’s and women’s characters and capacities if women’s nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men’s [….] Even the most undeniable differences that now exist between the sexes may have been produced merely by circumstances, without any difference of natural capacity” (p. 33).
Yet at the very same time as he made these allegations, dismissing centuries of observations about women’s innate capacities or natural tendencies, he included his own observations to show women’s equality and even superiority to men—outlines of which occupy many pages of his treatise. Women had greater intuition than men, and also a more practical bent (p. 34), he alleged. Moreover, a woman’s mind tended to deal with people as individuals rather than abstractly as groups (p. 35). He dismissed claims made against women (that they were nervous, changeable, less persevering than men, too much under the influence of present feelings) by saying that these were the result of circumstances and training, and would cease once women had adequate occupations or were raised differently (p. 36).
The logical contradiction here didn’t seem to occur to him. If nothing could be truly observed of women apart from their oppressive socialization, then how could anything be observed of their alleged superiority? If socialization had created all women’s disabilities, did it also create the abilities? And in light of such observed abilities, was it really the case that social conditions had been as repressive as he claimed?
Mill’s pattern of argument is familiar now from 150 years of feminist theorizing: anything weak in women or inferior to the general male was held to be the result of their socialization and oppressive circumstances—certain to fade away once women were finally liberated; but anything good was the result of their nature as women, and could only increase—never decrease--under greater freedom. Mill continually excused women’s lack of achievement, even in areas that were equally open to them, arguing at one point quite ludicrously that women had not rivaled men in artistic production because they had less time (p. 43) and because they, unlike men, were not encouraged to seek fame as artists (p. 45).
He even forecast a present-day feminist tendency when he celebrated women’s alleged ability to multi-task (though he didn’t call it that), taking what was a generally accepted criticism of women—that they were less apt to concentrate on a single task in the way men of great ability did—and claiming that it was a mark of superior mental fitness: “I am firmly convinced, the mind achieves more by frequently returning to a difficult problem than by sticking to it without interruption” (p. 38). This and other pieces of special pleading rather undermine Mill’s claim to dispassionate argumentative rigor.
Few today would disagree with Mill’s contention that it was unjust to disadvantage a human being merely because of a condition of birth such as being born female (p. 11). Yet Mill did not object to the special privileges granted women because of their condition of birth. On the contrary, he wrote as if such privileges did not even exist.He made no mention, for example, of women’s exemption from military service—a point of undeniable significance in relation to voting rights. He made no mention of the special deference granted women in social life on account of their physical weakness. Neither did he mention the chivalric sacrifices made by men for women, graphically illustrated, for instance, in disasters at sea or other crises in which women’s lives were held to matter more than men’s. Would it be a principle of equality for women to be sent out as frontline soldiers at times of war, or left to fend for themselves during a disaster? Mill did not say.
He made no mention of women’s privileges under the law, privileges exempting them from prosecution for certain crimes, making them more likely than men to be exonerated if they were charged with a crime, more likely to be given mercy or granted pardon if convicted, and guaranteed more lenient treatment in prison. None of these aspects of chivalry were mentioned by Mill as sex inequalities needing to be done away with (they would await Ernest Belfort Bax’s exposure decades later in The Legal Subjection of Men (1908). On the contrary, Mill was firm in his belief that social supports for women, recognition of their vulnerability, and concern for their various injuries should be increased—not because they were equal but because they were not. Mill thus established the now firmly entrenched feminist habit of arguing that all disabilities due to being born female should be abolished in the interests of fairness, while none of the privileges due to being born female should be renounced. The man widely considered to be the greatest British philosopher of his age could not reason adequately about the moral meaning of equality.
Mill wrote his tribute to oppressed womanhood ten years after the death of his beloved wife Harriet, so it cannot be said that he wrote it to please her. But her lasting influence is evident in every male-condemnatory line. In that sense, Mill is a supreme example of a man so entirely absorbed by the ideology of female victimization as it was represented to him by a woman he loved—even as her own life contradicted the ideology—that he could not or would not objectively assess its validity. Defaming other men as selfish slavers, he seemed intent on proving that he was nothing like them, that he was morally pure enough to merit the love of a woman who, for most of their lives, convinced him to share her with another man.