The Subjection of Women

by John Stuart Mill

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The Subjection of Women Summary

The Subjection of Women is an 1869 essay by John Stuart Mill that argues for greater freedoms and opportunities for women in Victorian society.

  • Mill criticizes the logic of the prevailing social order, in which men control and limit the lives of women.
  • Mill analyzes the institution of marriage, which fails to protect women from physical harm and financial ruin, and he argues for greater professional opportunities for women.
  • Mill concludes that greater freedoms and choices for women will enrich all of society, including men.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

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...

(This entire section contains 1007 words.)

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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 participating in politics and holding professions outside the home is that women are by nature mentally inferior to men. To this, Mill responds that any perceived differences are the result of inferior education and opportunities. Though he believes that men and women have different ways of thinking, they are equally valuable to society. Mill next refutes two additional arguments used to exclude women: that they are too emotional and that their smaller brains prove them to be mentally inferior. Concerning the former, Mill writes that any excessive emotion women display is encouraged by their upbringing and merely the “overflow of nervous energy run to waste” that “would cease when the energy was directed to a definite end.” Concerning the latter, the fact that men are generally larger than women does not mean that they are smarter—if that were the case, whales would be far smarter than humans. Mill again asserts that any “deficiencies” perceived in women in the fields of literature, math, science, history, language, or fine arts are likely the result of their lack of education or opportunities. 

In the final chapter, Mill presents the various societal benefits of equality for women. He believes that the benefits of marriage equality are self-evident because of the many ways the law permits men to abuse women. Also, if women were given equality in “all that belongs to citizenship,” men would lose their “selfish propensities,” “self-worship,” and “unjust self-preference.” Seeing girls as their equals would allow boys to develop into humble and self-sacrificing men. Equality for women would also allow for societal progress by freeing “one-half of the whole sum of human intellect.” This, in turn, would stimulate men’s intellect through competition. Finally, equality would allow for men and women to better relate to each other. It would give women a “worthy outlet for the active faculties,” especially women whose children have died or grown up. Mill concludes his argument with the warning that continuing to deny women equality will be a great detriment to society:

. . . every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any [human] . . . dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.
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