The Subjection of Women Themes

The main themes in The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill include the power of social conditioning and women’s unexplored potential.

  • The power of social conditioning: Mill shows how the current norm, in which women are subservient to men, is dependent on institutions that condition women from an early age to accept limited roles.
  • Women’s unexplored potential: Mill criticizes those who consider women less capable than men, arguing that with greater opportunities, women will prove themselves to have at least as much potential as men.

Themes

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Last Updated on November 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

The Power of Social Conditioning 

In his essay The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill states that women’s subjugation is a paradox: it is rooted in the “law of the strongest,” which has been deemed outdated by much of Western society. Slavery, which is also based on this law, had...

(The entire section contains 542 words.)

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The Power of Social Conditioning 

In his essay The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill states that women’s subjugation is a paradox: it is rooted in the “law of the strongest,” which has been deemed outdated by much of Western society. Slavery, which is also based on this law, had been abolished in most of the British Empire. Mill believes that the reason women have remained subjugated as long as they have is due to social conditioning. In the first chapter, he writes:

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.

To achieve this, men have “turned the whole force of [female] education to effect their purpose”: to condition women to submit to them not just out of duty, but out of desire. From a very young age, girls are taught that their “ideal of character” is submission and self-sacrifice. On the contrary, Mill writes in the final chapter of the essay that boys are taught that they are, by nature, “superior to . . . an entire half of the human race,” and they naturally learn “self-worship” and “unjust self-preference” as a result. As they grow up, girls learn that submissiveness and resignation are an “essential part of sexual attractiveness,” and thus, their possibility of marrying hinges on their total submission to men. This, Mill asserts, is the reason that prejudiced laws and ideologies against women have persisted as long as they have.


Women’s Unexplored Potential

Throughout his essay, Mill asserts that any argument for disqualifying women from certain activities or rights on the basis of their “nature” is invalid because women’s true nature and capabilities are not known. Furthermore, they cannot be known until women are allowed to prove themselves. Mill believes that women may be equally as capable as men in science, language, literature, art, and even government, but as they have been subjugated in all of these areas historically, their capabilities are unknown. Mill cites several historical figures, such as Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, as examples of women who have proven themselves extremely qualified in occupations traditionally held by men. 

Removing laws barring women from certain activities and occupations would allow women to demonstrate their true potential. If women are truly inferior, Mill assures that their lack of success in these areas will naturally exclude them. If they are equally as capable as men, however, society will be improved, because “one-half of the whole sum of human intellect” will be free to contribute to its progress. 

Additionally, allowing women access to professions outside the home would, according to Mill, encourage competition. If women are as capable as Mill suspects them to be, they could replace unqualified men in various positions and professions and raise the overall standard of services. In Mill’s mind, excluding women from professions in medicine, law, politics, and other areas 

is to injure not them only, but all who employ physicians or advocates, or elect members of parliament, and who are deprived of the stimulating effect of greater competition on the exertions of the competitors, as well as restricted to a narrower range of individual choice.
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