A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Wrap-Up: The Subjection of Women

I can hardly believe the end of February is here already! I wanted to apologise to this month’s participants for not having been more active in comments and etc. I have been reading everyone’s thoughts, but between grad school assignments and having been ill lately time just got away from me. But let us move on to what really matters here, which is what you had to say about the essay.

Dragonfly419 was impressed with the detail of Mill’s arguments and with how carefully he sought to base his assertions on actual evidence, particularly when it comes to the nurture versus nature debate:

Here I’d like to stop and step aside from the essay and remark on a more current event in history:   the 2005 remarks of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers that innate differences between men and women might be the reason why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.  This is something John Stuart Mill argues against and that I too argue against.  I am a woman with a degree in both math and science and have taken offense to the argument that women are of a weaker mind then men.  This I believe is a misnomer.

Well said.

Madame Curie particularly liked

…how Mill created the argument of marriage for a women as her chosen “career,” stating that it is not to be expected that a woman who manages the household and the training of her children should be expected to have a vocation outside the home (this particularly at a time when the full attentions of women were required to keep a household in order). But women may not have the desire to marry, may have other vocations that are better suited or worthwhile for them, or may desire after their children are grown to continue in a vocation. His argument is that all careers that are generally open to all men should be likewise open to women, and that women should be educated in a similar fashion to men to prepare them for what vocation they desire.

In SilverSeason’s opinion,

All too often, when men write about women, they assume the right to define and prescribe. Freud addressed his famous question “what does woman want?” to other men. Wollstonecraft pleaded that women would be “better” if they were only treated differently. Mill knows that what women want and what women are, good or bad, are irrelevant. He writes from a liberal view which assumes the men and women have equal rights, whatever their natures. He states the proposition clearly.

LonerGrrrl liked the fact that Mill argued that women should speak for themselves, but she also felt that, from a contemporary perspective,

Making wives legal equal partners to their husbands has not made marriage the happy-ever-after Mill somewhat romantically envisioned. In modern Western society, women may not be so economically and legally bound to their husbands, but I maintain some psychic bondage still exists in a lot of cases. Even though marriages do exist in which the husband and wife co-exist on an egalitarian basis, society as a whole still holds sexist ideas about ‘wives’ and deems them inferior to their husbands; women are still expected to perform certain duties and be concerned with certain things – whether it’s caring for the kids or doing the Xmas shopping – because they are ‘women’, ‘wives’, and that’s what wives do; and in the worst, but by no means uncommon cases, women still experience physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands often for no other reason than because they are his ‘woman’, his ‘wife’, and he believes he holds power over her.

El Fay linked “The Subjection of Women” to “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” by Joan Scott and pointed out how Mill anticipated the field of Gender History:

Both Joan Scott and John Stuart Mill are interested in the relationship between gender and political history. Mill’s analysis in The Subjection of Women begins with the Enlightenment precept that humanity is ever-progressing toward a state of greater liberty and rationalism. People are ultimately the products of their society, Mill argues, and most societies are founded on force, be it of master over slave, lord over serf, monarch over subjects, and so forth.

Annie preceded her reaction go the book with a post about Harriet Taylor. About the essay itself, she said she particularly liked,

Mill’s desire to raise awareness in an audience who would ignore the outrageous injustice of the situation of women, who were disenfranchised, especially in marriage: “Marriage is the only real slavery recognized by our law. Legally there is no more a slave if the mistress of every house.” Let us not forget that at the time, a woman who married swore obedience to her husband; that her property, even her inheritance, became those of her husband without any reciprocity; and that if she left her marriage, custody of her children was automatically assigned to their father, with no possibility of her seeing them again other than in exceptional circumstances.

(Annie blogs in French, so I apologise in advance for any deficiencies in my adapted translation.)

Iris said:

What I find most surprising in reading all these classic texts, is how old this idea actually is. Most of the time, it is one of the first things you get taught when you start learning about gender. Yet, it is something that we still feel the need to explain and underline all the time, it has not become commonly accepted that the differences between men and women are not natural, but socially conditioned

I must say I’m with Iris here: this is something that will never cease to amaze me.

Trisha was a fan of Mill’s humour, among other things:

Competency, not gender, determines success in any particular field, and so Mill, rightly, asserts that the problem is not a belief that women are incapable, but a fear that they are. I could probably write about three thousand more words on the various arguments Mill proposes, but in the interest of time, I’ll just skip to the funny bits. I really enjoy it when authors of SERIOUS tomes with IMPORTANT topics inject a bit of the snarky into their texts.

And finally, like many of the previous readers, I highlighted Mill’s rebuttal of gender essentialism:

One of my favourite things about “The Subjection of Women” is the fact that Mill is no essentialist. He doesn’t believe that men and women are entirely different sort of beings that might as well belong to different species. He freely admits that he doesn’t know enough about the functioning of the brain or how much nature and the environment contribute to shaping individuals to prove his belief – but neither do his opponents. However, because the belief in essential gender differences is ingrained in tradition, it’s not those who claim that women are inferior who are expected to prove it, but the reverse. The pressure to produce solid evidence is on those departing from the norm, no matter how sensible their arguments.


If you have posted about “The Subjection of Women” too but I have missed your link, please feel free to add it to the InLinkz below.


In the next few days, our host for March, Emily Jane, will be introducing Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I feel very fortunate, because I have tickets to see a production of the play this evening. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, and I can’t wait to discuss it with all of you.

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal – With Giveaway!

Reading Women by Stephanie StaalReading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life is a book with more than a passing resemblance to the Year of Feminist Classics Project.  The author, Stephanie Staal,  writes about how she decided to retake the Feminist Texts class she first took as an undergraduate, and even her reading list is very similar to ours.  For this reasons, we couldn’t say no when we were offered the opportunity to review the book here. Reading Women came out today, and all four of us have posted our thoughts on the book on our blogs. Amy had this to say:

I really enjoyed this book as a look at one women’s discovery through the texts. Staal is clear that it is only her interpretation and ideas and that others will of course find different things in the book. To me this highlighted the best part of feminism and these texts which is how individual it can be and how it can still speak to so many of us in different situations. By coming together and listening to (and respecting) each others stories we can keep the momentum.

Emily Jane was particularly interested in how Staal’s reactions to the texts she reads changed over time. She says:

Ten years later, Staal has wildly different reactions to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler–among many others–than she did upon her first reading of them. Interestingly, she sometimes has wildly different interpretations than do the younger women in her class, as well. This inter-generational exchange of interpretations was one of my favorite parts of the book, and I loved how the conversational tone allowed for so many different perceptions to get their due. Many times, in fact, I was tempted to take a break from reading and talk back to Staal and the girls in her class! But not all of the book is classroom centered. Staal always refocuses on how the things she’s learning from the “great books of feminism” impact her relationships with her friends, family, and everyone else.

To Iris,

What makes Staal’s book interesting for bloggers who are also participating in our feminist reading project is that Staal’s approach to the works of feminism very much reminded me of what we are doing. She does give insight into the central premises of these works of feminism, but she doesn’t describe them in a scholarly fashion alone. Like we have done with Wollstonecraft, Mill and Bâ, she looks at these works both in the light of the historical context as well as in the light of modern concerns. Furthermore, she engages with them through the prism of her own personal life. Something that does, I think, sound very familiar to book bloggers.

And I also felt that the highly personal tone of Reading Women was very fitting:

The practical applications of feminism and the ways in which it can be helpful when it comes to everyday decisions are, after all, the major themes of this book. Another reason why I didn’t mind the highly personal tone was because the author was a pleasure to spend time with: she comes across as sensible and highly intelligent, and it doesn’t hurt that I agreed with her about 90% of the time. It was easy to imagine myself discussing all these books with her over coffee.

Thanks to Public Affairs, we are hosting a giveaway for Reading Women. The giveaway is open to everyone, but we thought we’d reward project participants with an extra entry for the sake of fairness. If you’d like to be entered, just leave us a comment saying so – it’s as simple as that.  For an extra entry, mention it if you have signed up for the project – it doesn’t matter if it was to read one book or all twelve of them. The giveaway will be open for two weeks, until the 8th of March. And if you come back next week, we’ll be asking Stephanie Staal a few questions about her own reading project and the things it has in common with ours.

The Subjection of Women – Discussion Post

The Subjection of Women

First of all, I wanted to thank everyone who has already contributed with their thoughts to the discussion of The Subjection of Women. This post is coming a little later than I wanted, for which I apologise. But please do continue to contribute with links or comments, and I’ll be glad to include everything in the final round-up at the end of the month.

There are a few points in particular that I thought might be interesting to discuss. First of all, I found Mill’s rejection of essentialism and his emphasis on the environment and on gender as a social construct very refreshing, particularly in a historical and cultural context in which the idea that biology as inescapable destiny was stronger than ever. As tempting as it is to think we have moved beyond that, though, I wanted to ask you whether you think we are sliding back towards that end of the scale (if we ever left it at all).

Dragonfly419 brought up Harvard President Lawrance Summers’ comments about women’s supposed biological limitations and how these make it harder for them to excel in maths and science, which I thought was an excellent point. Do you think Mill and Taylor are turning in their graves? Did you find the arguments against biological determinism presents in “The Subjection of Women” as relevant and contemporary as I did?

Secondly, I thought it might be interesting to focus on Mill’s points about women and literary history. In regards to part one, Iris felt that he was not taking into account what women had achieved despite all the obstacles against writing they had to face. While I can see her point, I actually loved his discussion of the topic later on in the essay. It’s a far cry from, to quote from To The Lighthouse, the dominant idea that “women can’t write, women can’t paint”. What are your thoughts on Mill’s points about women and literary history?

Thirdly, several readers have emphasised Mill’s wonderful vision of marriage as a true partnership of equals. It has also been pointed out, though, that his constant comparison of the status of women in marriage as defined by Victorian law and slavery is somewhat problematic. I realise I’m dangerously close to Scales of Suffering territory here, which is something I normally try to avoid, but I’m curious as to how you read the analogy. Do you think it was dismissive of the horrors of the institution of slavery, or do you agree with Trisha, who suggested that Mill used it as a deliberate rhetoric strategy, both for its emotional pull and for its likelihood to gain the sympathy of the abolitionist movement? (You could also, of course, agree with both points.)

Last but not least, Madame Curie suggested reading Harriet Taylor Mill’s 1851 essay “The Enfranchisement of Women” and comparing it to “The Subjection of Women” – which I think is an excellent idea. Anyone up for it?

As always, please feel free to bring up any other points you want to discuss – these are really only general pointers, and not meant to determine what we will or won’t talk about. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks!

An Introduction to “The Subjection of Women”

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher and MP who wrote extensively about social, political and economic theory. Mill was also influential as a proponent of Victorian feminism – in addition to writing “The Subjection of Women”, he often used his position as an MP to demand the vote for women. His campaign for parliamentary reform included a proposed amendment to the 1867 Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men. Needless to say, this amendment was not approved, but its proposal was one of the factors that helped propel the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Suffragist Movement.

The Subjection of Women” was written in 1861 and published in 1869. According to Mill himself, it was written in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Taylor died a few years before Mill put their commonly held ideas about gender equality to paper, but in his own words, “When two people have their thoughts and speculations completely in common, it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality which of them holds the pen”. The essay, then, was the result of ideas the two had discussed extensively over the course of their long friendship and eventual marriage.

It is not surprising that Harriet Taylor was not acknowledged as a contributor when “The Subjection of Women” was first published: Mill knew very well that philosophical arguments presented by men stood a better chance of being taken seriously, so it’s easy to imagine him playing by the rules and working within the system in the hope of later being able to change it from the inside. It does make me a little sad, however, that no contemporary edition has (to my knowledge) changed this and acknowledged Taylor’s role.

However, the extent of Taylor’s collaboration with Mill, or indeed whether it occurred at all, is the subject of much scholarly discussion. Taylor’s role in Mill’s life seems to be the object of one of those demon-or-not controversies that feminist academics can easily spend decades trying to counterbalance. I don’t know enough about either Taylor or Mill to go into the subject with any amount of depth – so I’ll only say that I can’t understand what Mill could possibly have stood to gain by inventing a collaboration that never really took place at all, and that I am a little suspicious of the whole process of casting doubt on it. You’ll be able to find more information on the topic by following the links at the end of this post.

The critical reception of “The Subjection of Women” is also very interesting to read about. I’ve been reading Sexual Science by Cynthia Eagle Russett (one of the many side quests this project has led me to, much to my delight), and she talks about Mill quite extensively in the initial chapters. One of Mill’s main arguments was that we could not know the true nature of the differences between men and women because we couldn’t extract ourselves from an environment that at the very least clearly reinforced them. This, however, was dismissed on the grounds that it showed his “ignorance of science”. Russett says,

Contemporary scientists and scientific popularizers dismissed Mill as the one who ignored science. Darwin, who respected Mill, nonetheless lamented his scientific ignorance. The London anthropological Society, devoted to racial and sexual inequality, excoriated the “school of Mill”.

I would love to perhaps use “The Subjection of Women” as a point of departure to discuss the interplay between gender, power, and the kind of misconceptions that are given a scientific cloak of authority – both in a Victorian context and in a contemporary one. But more on that later: I’ll give you some time to get started with the essay, and I’ll be back towards the middle of February with discussion points. Happy reading, everyone!

Resources Online:

(Do you have any further suggestions? Leave me a comment with the links and I’ll be glad to add them.)