I am developing a thesis to link John Stuart Mill to Sarah Stickney Ellis.
I have gathered a lot of information on the theories presented by Mill and Ellis in their texts The Subjection of Women (Mill) and The Daughters of England (Ellis). I am writing a comparative essay but cannot find a strong basis for comparison of the two. I am mostly struggling to find a thesis strong enough to link both texts. The paragraph below basically sums up my findings. Based on this and any other information out there, what kind of a thesis can be forged?
I have found that they both address power and the nature of each sex:
- Mill believes in "the law of power" where everyone wants power and the strongest will always subject the weaker. He suggests this law is a social construct and not natural as some suggest, because we perceive what is customary as natural and eventually stop questioning its reason for being. The same can be said about slavery, absolute monarchy and a parent's authority over a child.
- Ellis believes that the inequality between men and women is natural and good. She says in The Daughters of England that women should be content with this intellectual and physical inferiority because they can exert their power through influence as opposed to through intelligence and physical strength, like men.
And so it can be argued that Ellis, being a woman, has grown up in a very oppressive environment, to the point of believing and fully embodying the values conveyed in society and preaching them to other women through her conduct books. She has accepted that it is natural because it is so customary at the time she writes. It is also easier for her and other women to accept this inferiority since it is near impossible for the whole female sex to "overthrow" men and their power, seeing as the latter have such power and that women, at this point in history, were still extremely dependent on their husbands.
You have a good start here with contrasting the different situations of the two writers. At the point that John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, he had just finished a term as a Member of Parliament, was already considered one of England's leading philosophical thinkers, and was working out the details of a systematic philosophy he had developed in several other works. By contrast, Sarah Stickney Ellis was a teacher and popular writer; The Daughters of England was addressing a readership that looked to her for practical advice.
Since a comparison can emphasize points of difference as well as points of similarity, one issue you might want to tackle is audience. Mill was addressing a primarily male audience concerned with the question of whether to vote in favor of bills in Parliament allowing women to own property and vote. Ellis was addressing female readers who wanted to know how to live their lives as individuals. Mill takes the long view of what is best for society as a whole and for humans as ethical beings. Ellis' followers read her works for more immediate self help. While Mill wants to shape the future, Ellis' advice would help young women succeed in the immediate present.
While Ellis and other women authors of conduct manuals are sometimes criticized for being complicit with patriarchy rather than subversive like Mill, you could argue that Mill is in fact speaking from a position of privilege (something he acknowledges) and does not really need to address the issues of how a middle class woman could live her life in Victorian Britain, while Ellis as a teacher and writer of self-help books thinks very practically about what women needed to do to support themselves and make places for themselves in society.