J.S. Mill and Gender Equality
Kristian Thomson asks, To what extent was J.S. Mill revolutionary in developing the notion of gender equality?
John Stuart Mill’s views on gender equality are expressed in The Subjection of Women. The essay is regarded as one of the most fundamental texts to the formation of modern day feminism influencing the likes of Betty Friedan who was in-part responsible for ‘second-wave’ feminism in the 1960’s.
Mill was an acclaimed liberal philosopher, publicist, politician and scientist who championed the march for an egalitarian society. He is more commonly known for writing the text On Liberty in which he promoted central principles for building a liberal democratic society during the Enlightenment in Europe, but also progressed the utilitarian ideology founded by Jeremy Bentham. On Liberty was extremely important in identifying the balance between authority of the government and individuality of the citizen; these two themes are significant in The Subjection of Women as Mill argues for a less authoritarian government to allow for more individuality of women which would subsequently enhance happiness for higher numbers of people.
In The Subjection of Women, Mill argues for the emancipation of women and female suffrage in Britain by exploring the social factors which prevent women from being equal to men. Mill’s overarching thesis, which is based on a combination of liberal and utilitarian assumptions, is that: the inequality of men and women is unjust as well as harmful, both for individuals and for the progression of society. This has been similarly stated by Elizabeth Day who says that “Mill argues that more people existing alongside one another on an equal footing means increased competition, with an advantageous effect on human moral and intellectual development, both individual and social”. Although Mill’s beliefs were heavily influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor Mill, we can regard him as revolutionary as he was the first male to advocate feminism in a time where feminism in the political discourse was discouraged.
Modern critics, such as Jenifer Ball and Moira Gatens, argue that Mill tends to focus on the socio-legal aspects of the subordination of women and not on the cultural aspects which subjugate women. They criticise Mill’s argument that solely striking down legal barriers against women will create equality between the sexes – but fails to mention that women are subjugated not only by the law, but also by customs and general feelings. Despite some controversial points, this essay intends to argue that Mill’s The Subjection of Women was revolutionary and fundamentally influential to modern feminism.
In The Subjection of Women, Mill considered the principle of equality to be a moral imperative. Mill opens the essay with:
“the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it 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, 1869).
Mill here bases the inequality of men and women on the legal aspects of society. He says that the law confines women to undertake domestic roles and being excluded from decision making parts of society, such as politics and business. Mill understands that the central reason for this oppression comes from the male’s physical strength. Men are physically bigger than women, and it was common to think at the time that the male’s brain was larger than that of a women. This was stated by Charles Sowerwine when he said “Since women are generally smaller than men, their brains are smaller” (Sowerwine, 2003). Mill subsequently debunks this myth saying that “any of the mental differences supposed to exist between women and men are but the natural effect of the differences in their education and circumstances and indicate no radical difference, far less radical inferiority, of nature” (Mill, 1869). Mill assumes that the more influence reason has in society, the less importance physical strength will have – “in this state, women will no longer be disadvantaged, as physical strength becomes less important as civilisation advances” (Szapuová, 2006).
By stating that the subordination of women is one of the “chief hinderances to human improvement”, Mill is outlining that the oppression of women poses negative consequences on the lives of women, but of men as well – hence preventing the progression of society. Mill argues that for society to progress, women must be able to be treated as an equal. This is because any inequality represents a barrier to the advancement of an entire society, and is also an obstacle to progress on an individual level. This is aligned with Mill’s liberal and utilitarian views. Mill justifies the need of the emancipation of women to develop their personal talents so as to realise the maximum of their personal happiness, and as a result, contribute to the development of society. This argumentation is based on liberal principles of equal opportunities and individual free choice, but also utilitarian principles of the well-being of the maximum number of people. In this way, Mill transcended his own time – in the 1860s, there was no female suffrage, women could not own property (it was given to their husbands) and women did not have equal access to education. To think of a woman as an equal was only really acknowledged by most men half a century later, when some women were allowed to vote. From this, we can really understand how advanced Mill’s liberal feminist thought was.
To contrast, several contemporary feminists, such as Moira Gatens, have criticized this argument suggesting that Mill is not in fact interested in the emancipation of women on its own, but rather the benefits which it would bring to society and therefore, for men. Gatens stresses that Mill’s central argument for the emancipation of women is based on the need of intellectual progress among men which cannot occur unless women also progress – therefore, Mill favours women’s emancipation because the progress of the human race depends on it (Gatens, 1991). From this many feminists take Mill’s liberal feminism to be ‘masculinist’ and perhaps not so revolutionary.
What impact did Mill’s work have on the law today?
Although we cannot discount Mill’s influence, his impact of lobbying politicians and changing the law was limited, however he did inspire many feminists who would later change the law themselves. During Mill’s time as a Liberal MP, he supported the Married Women’s Property Bill in 1868 in which he was critical of the idea that husbands, through their right to vote, served as their protectors of their wives. He states in parliament with intense imagery:
"Now, by the common law of England, all that a wife has, belongs absolutely to the husband; he may tear it all from her, squander every penny of it in debauchery, leave her to support by her labour herself and her children, and if by heroic exertion and self-sacrifice she is able to put by something for their future wants, unless she is judicially separated from him he can pounce down upon her savings, and leave her penniless.” (Deb, 1867)
In 1870, this monumental Bill passed as the Married Woman’s Property Act which allowed women to own their own income and property in marriage. This was the first radical step toward the emancipation of women. Although he contributed to the passing of the bill, he was overshadowed by the work of Barbara Bodichon, a women’s right activist, who had a more central role of promoting women’s rights. She contributed by writing several essays, one being Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and using political activism by creating small pressure groups which would lobby the government. It also important to note that a majority of MP’s is needed to pass a bill. Therefore, we can understand that a large number of MP’s (who were all male) voted for this bill. This undermines Mill’s role as a revolutionary, as it can be argued that public opinion wanted this bill to be passed, therefore we can say that Mill acted conventionally.
Mill had a role in passing this bill, however, his role was limited in using political action to get women’s suffrage. Some women were given the right to vote in 1918, which has been argued to be sped up by female involvement in society after the First World War and by feminist activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst, and not by Mill’s work.
And so, Mill’s essay on The Subjection of Women perhaps influenced some men to change their view on women, however, it did not have enough substance to change the law.
Mill’s ultimate solution for ending the oppression of women was not equal opportunity, but spousal friendship. Mill emphasized the need for the end of “marital slavery” and to establish a friendship within marriage. Mill states:
“The equality of married persons before the law, is not only the sole mode in which that particular relation can be made consistent with justice to both sides, and conductive to the happiness of both, but it is the only means of rendering the daily life of mankind, in any high sense, a school or moral cultivation.” (Mill, 1869)
Through Mill’s relationship with Harriet Taylor, he explored the situations in which intelligent women were confined by patriarchal institutions and customs that deny their individuality. He understood that the relationship between the husband and the wife had to be grounded in legal as well as real equality for the moral improvement of mankind. Mill claims that apart from customs, it is in the interest of men to keep women in their enslaved position. Mill states that men seek to exclude women from society “because the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal” (Mill, 1869). Mill describes the way in which the woman is a “slave” within marriage by saying a wife is “the actual bondservant of her husband: no less so, as far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called” (Mill, 1869). Mill underlines that the intrinsic reason why women are degraded to slaves in marriage is systemic discrimination in society. He states that women are not free to marry and are not free within marriage. This comes as a result of economic pressure to marry – women cannot acquire education or earn money in public life and must resort to marriage to have income. This constrains women into a cyclical sphere of slavery within marriage as women are forced to become dependent on men for basic needs. Mill therefore outlines a vision of marital friendship of cooperation which would seep into public life. He understands that the equality of a marital relationship would change views on equality on society as a whole. Mill ultimately states therefore, equality before the law will lead to justice in all spheres of social and political life.
Mill goes onto to say that since humans are equal, the fact that someone is born a woman shouldn’t determine her position in society and customs should not “ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life” (Mill, 1869). We can label Mill as revolutionary in this context as he was one of the first men to outline that women had to surrender their liberty, rights and property within marriage. Mill based his feminist views on the harm principle, the idea that individuals should be free to do anything except harm other individuals. Female oppression is an example of harming individuality and prohibiting freedom, therefore, Mill has undertaken the liberal feminist view of universal female suffrage and the emancipation of women in society. Although liberal views were not revolutionary at the time, no other liberal philosopher had yet outlined the fact that female oppression contradicts liberal principles of individuality and freedom, perhaps because they didn’t want females to advance in society. Mill was the first liberal male to outline this negation and to understand the relationship that feminism and liberalism share. In this way, we can say Mill is a revolutionary.
Some feminists have denounced Mill’s arguments on marriage to not go far enough. Although Mill condemns the injustice of marital slavery, he assumes that equality before the law will eliminate the oppression of women and guarantee their equality, even if traditional gender roles remain in place. It is the failure of Mill to address the problem of traditional gender roles which has caused some feminists to berate Mill’s work. Mill does not attack the traditional assumptions regarding the different responsibilities that men and women have in the household, and accepts that when women marry they should be responsible for taking care of the home and children while men provide income. Mill states, “when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household and the upbringing of a family” (Mill, 1869). Mill’s naivety proves dangerous as he believes even the most liberated woman would continue to choose family over other activities. This ignorance has led many to believe that Mill should not be labelled as a revolutionary as his beliefs are still old-fashioned.
What impact did Mill’s work have on marriage today?
Undoubtably, Mill’s essay on The Subjection of Women had a large role in defining the nature of marital relationships. However, It is difficult to quantify the impact that Mill’s work. One measure you could look at is the number of domestic abuse homicides in the UK. From 1885-1905, a study found that 50% of all homicides were domestically related, i.e. a husband killing a wife, and from that less than 1% were committed by women. From 1972-1982, 25% of homicides were domestically related, and of that 25%, less than 3% were committed by women (HO, 1989). Although on the surface these statistics seem like they do not hold much relevance, however, they actually show the extent to which men are less likely to abuse their wives (and so not killing them). This could perhaps be interpreted as over the century, the male’s view of women in marriage and in society has gradually changed as men are now less likely to induce violence on their partner. This could be down to the fact that men hold greater respect for women now and see them as a human being with equal worth rather than a domestic animal.
To what extent was this change as a result of Mill? One could argue quite significantly. Mill laid out the principles of a reformed relationship in marriage. He descripted the perfect utopia in marriage, where two equal friends come together in cohabitation. He first did this by using his political power to pass the Married Women’s Property Bill 1868, aforementioned. This was the first step of seeing a woman as an equal. Property was fundamental to liberal belief – “life, liberty and property” were the three principles of liberalism – and now women were on path to be getting liberty. Mill also redefined the way men should think about their partners, revolutionising marriage, as it were. His essay on The Subjection of Women came as a surprise to many, but ultimately changed the way men behaved towards women. As women became more equal in marriage, views on women in society started to change.
Mill is regarded as one of the most interesting liberal feminists. No other feminist saw the solution to gender inequality through the male/female relationship in marriage. Mill regarded equal opportunity as a means whereby spousal friendship could be encountered. Gender equality was the ends.
Mill had revolutionised the discourse among men about women. Society had advanced a long way since Aristotle gave his description of the female as a deformed male. Mill’s feminist philosophy brought about change in society unlike any other male who proceeded him; this is why Mill is a revolutionary.
Throughout this essay we have discussed the impact of Mill on society today. Mill’s impact on changing the legal status of women was significant as it restructured society in a way that would not just benefit men, but society as a whole. The transformation was kickstarted by Mill in his essay The Subjection of Women in which he imagined a progressed society where men and women were equal under the law. But are women actually equal today? Women do not proportionately make up the decision making parts of society – to which Mill argued for aggressively. For example, 51% of the UK population are women and only make up 29% of the MP’s. Perhaps this could be down to some women opting for a domestic career, or more likely, some women not being able to have the same opportunities as men due to discrimination. So, did Mill actually go far enough in moving away from a patriarchal society?
It can be argued, however, that Mill had a greater impact as a revolutionary in changing the concept of marriage which in turn revolutionised society and established equality in the UK. He changed the way husbands could think of their wives in marriage – they had the potential to be equal. Mill’s influence changed the way that husbands think about their wives, from slaves to equals. It defined a new way of affection towards your spouse. Mill ultimately shaped the relationships of today and through that, created a more equal society.
Although Mill had a limited role in shaping the legal aspects of society which hinder and cage women to inequality his influence cannot be discounted. Mill ultimately endorsed the debate of equality within the political sphere and kickstarted a campaign which would later lead to universal suffrage and gender equality. Mill had a much larger role in creating a ‘new’ relationship in marriage by creating ‘marital friendships’. He transformed the way men think about women, and from that, we can understand that Mill was a revolutionary in bringing about gender equality.
Deb, H., 1867. Hansard. [Online]
Available at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1867-05-20/debates/c38e8bdb-704c-4952-9375-e33d7967a5a4/Clauses34ProgressMay17?highlight=married%20women%27s%20property%20bill#contribution-b39e743f-6b70-45e4-82c4-8ac642f8fd18
[Accessed 16 June 2020].
Gatens, M., 1991. Feminism and Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
HO, H. O., 1989. Domestic Violence. Home Office Reasearch Study 107, Volume 107.
Mill, J., 1869. The Subjection of Women. London: s.n.
Sowerwine, C., 2003. Woman's brain, man's brain: feminism and anthropology in late nineteenth-century France. Women's History Review, 12(2), pp. 289-308.
Szapuová, M., 2006. Mill's Liberal Feminism: Its Legacy and Current Criticism. Prolegomena , pp. 182-183.