Last Updated on November 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
I believe they are afraid, not lest women should be unwilling to marry . . . but lest they should insist that marriage should be on equal conditions.
In The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill advocates for equality for women, and he devotes a significant portion of his essay to examining gender roles in marriage. Mill believes that wives should be their husbands’ partners and companions, but that under current marriage laws they are more like servants. At the end of his essay’s first chapter, Mill addresses the fear that women would be unwilling to marry and bear children if they were granted equal rights. Mill responds that this concern implies that men do not “render the married condition so desirable to women” that women will seek it without being compelled. However, as he states in this quote, Mill believes that men do not fear that women will stop desiring marriage. Rather, men fear that women will stop desiring marriage in its current prejudiced state and will demand change.
All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite.
On numerous occasions, Mill compares the state of women to that of slaves. While slavery had been outlawed several decates prior to this essay in England, the “law of the strongest” that subjugated slaves to their masters continues to subjugate women to men. By conditioning women from a young age to view submissiveness as the principal female trait, men have succeeded in oppressing women in a way they never oppressed slaves: women were expected to not only endure their subjection but also to view it as ideal.
I believe that equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character, and that a good woman would not be more self-sacrificing than the best man: but on the other hand, men would be much more unselfish and self-sacrificing than at present, because they would no longer be taught to worship their own will as such a grand thing that it is actually the law for another rational being. There is nothing which men so easily learn as this self-worship: all privileged persons, and all privileged classes, have had it.
Girls are conditioned from childhood to view themselves as inferior to boys because of their gender; likewise, boys learn from a young age to view themselves as superior. While some fear that granting equal rights to women would discourage or diminish the degree of unselfishness found in women, Mill assures readers that this would not be the case. He views the level of self-sacrifice women are expected to exhibit as excessive and believes that granting them equal rights would make this expectation more reasonable. Additionally, men would be taught to exhibit these qualities too, which would lead to more humility and unselfishness in society in general.
I have said that it cannot now be known how much of the existing mental differences between men and women is natural, and how much artificial; whether there are any natural differences at all; or, supposing all artificial causes of difference to be withdrawn, what natural character would be revealed.
Many of the arguments for the subjection of women in Mill’s time cited a specific view of female nature as evidence. According to Mill, however, any argument involving female nature is invalid because men can, at present, only speculate as to what women’s true nature is. Due to lack of access to education and to most occupations in society, women have not yet had the chance to prove themselves; in advocating for women’s rights, Mill is proposing that women be given the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. The worst that could happen is that women would be unsuccessful and would therefore be excluded from certain professions, just as they are now. But Mill believes that with access to traditionally male occupations, women will be proven to be every bit as capable— and valuable—as men.