(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Written in 1860-1861, The Subjection of Women first appeared as a pamphlet in 1869, shortly after John Stuart Mill finished a three-year term as a member of the British parliament. While a member of Parliament, Mill presented a petition for woman’s suffrage (1866) and sponsored the Married Women’s Property Bill (1868). After losing his seat in Parliament in the 1868 election, Mill revised his early draft of the essay and published it. Mill’s primary activity in Parliament was aimed at the enfranchisement of women—their right to vote—and The Subjection of Women makes clear Mill’s liberal feminism and his commitment to gender equality.

The Subjection of Women is divided into four chapters, each chapter presenting and supporting an aspect of Mill’s argument. In chapter 1, Mill states his general aim explicitly. He challenges the common notion that women are by nature unequal to men. He explains that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and one of the chief hindrances to human improvement,” and the systematic subordination of women by men “ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” Mill acknowledges that his views challenge accepted views and practices, but he counters by pointing out the historical foundations of subjection, that is, the conversion of “mere physical fact into a legal right.” The subjection of women, then, is based on a premodern law of force, not on the modern use of reason. Since no other system has been tried, the then-present system of subjugation of the “weaker” female sex to the “stronger” male sex rests upon unproven theory, says Mill. Mill hoped to pave the way for a new system of equality, based on theory, as no practice of gender equality had as yet been allowed.

Using an analogy that angered many of his readers, Mill compares women’s subordination to men to that of the slave to his master and speaks of a kind of domestic slavery to the family. Unlike the slave, however, the woman’s master not only wants her labor but also her sentiments, and he conspires to bind nature and education to accomplish his desire for the loving, submissive, domestic slave over whom he, as husband, has absolute control. The relationship between men and women is merely the customary relationship, and whatever is customary appears natural. To those with power over others, their domination appears natural, perhaps even good, and appears owing to the nature of the dominated. Women’s true natures cannot be verified, however, for they are repressed in some areas and unnaturally stimulated in others, according to Mill. Furthermore, women have seldom been allowed to testify to their own natures; rather, they have been described by the men who exercise power over them. Since women have never been allowed to develop naturally without the repression, stimulation, or guidance of men, a system of subordination founded on women’s “natural” sensitivity and lack of more “masculine” qualities is not inherently more valid than any other system based on theory alone.

In chapter 2, Mill attacks women’s status in the marriage contract, which he sees as a kind of legal bondage. All property and any income derived from marriage belonged to the husband, even if the wife had brought the property to the marriage. Additionally, only the father had legal rights over his children. A woman who left her husband could take nothing with her, not even her children. Any action she might take must have her husband’s tacit approval. Indeed, Mill sees the bondage of marriage as a more profound slavery than slavery itself, not because a woman might be treated as badly as any slave—though he does not neglect the physical power the husband has over his wife and the potential for physical abuse—but because “hardly any slave . . . is a slave at all hours and all minutes.” A wife and mother, on the other hand, is available at all times to all people. No activity a wife does is considered important enough to protect her from being interrupted to meet the needs of others.

Mill argues for a marriage contract based on equality before the law and the division of powers in the home. Though in chapter 3 he makes the case for women’s admission to all “functions and...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)