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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

With The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill joined other English scholars and writers in advocating for women’s equality. Works such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice showcase the agency and intelligence of women in defiance of common stereotypes....

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With The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill joined other English scholars and writers in advocating for women’s equality. Works such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice showcase the agency and intelligence of women in defiance of common stereotypes. In nonfiction prose, proto-feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft present the societal benefits of higher-quality education for women. Mill takes these arguments a step forward: women should be given not only better education and opportunities, but also the rights to vote, own property, engage in traditionally male occupations, and hold public office. 

At the time Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, husbands and wives were considered to be “one” under the law. In practice, this meant that a wife ceded any rights to property and self-governance to her husband upon marriage. Mill believed that marriage in his day was often only “mutual toleration,” since men’s and women’s tastes, preferences, and mindsets varied so greatly because of differences in their education and life experiences. Mary Wollstonecraft addressed this issue in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman nearly eighty years prior, calling for higher-quality education for women so that they could better instruct their children and be better “companions” for men in marriage. Mill, however, calls for a reformation of the very nature of marriage itself. In The Subjection of Women, Mill frequently compares the current relationship between husband and wife to that of master and slave. He feels that the relationship between husband and wife should more closely resemble that of business partners: in a partnership, one person isn’t expected to obey the other, and decisions are reached through compromise. 

In a society where women were expected to submit to men and to willingly accept the role of wife and mother as their sole purpose in life, Mill’s advocacy for marriage reform and gender equality was radical. Acknowledging this and anticipating criticism, Mill uses the majority of his essay to rebut common arguments for the subjugation of women. While English society cited history and tradition as proof that women were unsuitable for many occupations, maintained that women’s “nervous susceptibility” disqualified them from professions outside the home, and insisted that their small stature meant their brains were smaller and their intellects inferior, Mill contends that women’s true potential cannot be known. Unless women are given the chance to prove themselves, the ideologies for their subjection will continue to rest on unproven theory. In the “unnatural” state of inferiority and oppression to which women have been subjected, 

their nature cannot but have been greatly distorted and disguised; and no one can safely pronounce that if women’s nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men’s . . . there would be any material difference, or perhaps any difference at all, in the character and capacities which would unfold themselves.

Mill presents the subjection of women as not only an injustice and a detriment to society, but also a paradox: it is based upon the “law of the strongest,” which places people in authority according to physical qualities or family lineage and legacy. This law, which began to lose hold with the social reforms of the Enlightenment, had also served as the basis for slavery. At the time The Subjection of Women was published, slavery had been illegal in most of the British Empire for nearly forty years, yet women were still bound by the same “law” that bound slaves. 

In Mill’s mind, the subjugation of women is unjust, illogical, and a “relic of the past.” He nevertheless comprehends the reason it has endured: men have conditioned women to view submissiveness and self-sacrifice as their nature. Mill is convinced that until boys are taught to view girls as their equals and women are granted the same rights as men, the outdated “law of the strongest” will continue to reign.

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