Last Updated on November 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006
The Subjection of Women is an essay published in 1869 by English philosopher, parliamentarian, and political economist John Stuart Mill. Mill credits many of the essay’s ideas to his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, who had herself published a radical essay, “The Enfranchisement of Women,” in 1851.
The first chapter analyzes the laws subjecting women: they are rooted in “the law of the strongest,” which places the strongest members of society at the top. This law has been rejected by many countries, and “nobody is permitted to practise it” anymore—except in the case of the subjection of women. Mill compares inequality between the sexes to slavery, which had been outlawed in England several decades earlier. If slavery has been deemed immoral and unjust, then Mill asserts that society should not
ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white . . . shall decide the person’s position through all life.
Mill next counters the argument that the societal system subjugating women is validated by historical evidence. It is founded on mere theory, and any other theory—such as one that promotes equality—might be a better one on which to base society. He asserts that societal improvement has always been “accompanied by a step made in raising the social position of women.” While acknowledging that there may be physical differences between men and women, Mill rejects the notion that women’s nature makes them inherently inferior to men. Moreover, the scope of women’s true natures cannot be known until they are able to “[tell] all that they have to tell.”
In chapter two, Mill examines the injustices women face under marriage contracts. In marriage, a woman needs her husband’s approval for all her actions. She relinquishes all her property to her husband upon marriage and has no legal rights over her own children. While it is said that “whatever is hers is his,” the opposite is almost never true; yet, spouses are considered “one person in law.” Fortunately, most husbands do not abuse their wives in the ways that the laws of England would permit them to. Still, the laws must be altered with the possibility of cruel husbands in mind.
Mill next addresses the argument that “in a family . . . some one person must be the ultimate ruler.” He evokes the nature of the business partnership, in which partners operate equally by reaching agreements. One partner does not exert absolute authority over the other, and executive decisions are not always made by a single person. Mill believes the marital relationship should resemble a business partnership in these ways. He advocates for a “division of powers” between husband and wife, with each being “absolute in the executive branch of their own department.” This division should be made on a case-by-case basis and arranged by the couple, not the state.
Though he maintains that women, upon marriage, choose the occupation of a wife and mother, Mill argues that women should not be legally prevented from working outside the home and that professions traditionally held by men must be opened to them. Anticipating protest, Mill argues in chapter 3 that laws prohibiting women from certain occupations are not only “a tyranny to them” but also “a detriment to society”: many men hold positions that Mill believes many women would be better qualified for “in any fair field of competition.” He also argues that women must be allowed to vote, to protect their own self-interests, and even to hold public office. If women are truly unfit to hold public office, the political system will exclude them, just as it “exclude[s] unfit men.” Laws against them assuming these roles are therefore unnecessary.
A common argument at this time against women...
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