A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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.)

47 responses to “An Introduction to “The Subjection of Women”

  1. zibilee February 1, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I think it’s very interesting that the collaboration between husband and wife (if indeed there was one) had to be hushed up in order for the book to be taken seriously. I mean, I am not surprised, given the attitudes of the time, but I do find it interesting. I will be looking forward to everyone’s thoughts on this book!

    • nymeth February 1, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      It is interesting, isn’t it? And even more so is the process by which Taylor has been demonised. I can’t know what kind of person she really was, of course, but this seems to be a common process when it comes to women who don’t fit a specific mould and who were close to men we perceive as intellectual giants.

  2. Zeteticat February 1, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this since I stumbled across this project a week or two ago. The last bit in the post is particularly interesting – the role science has played in reinforcing gender stereotypes, and how it’s currently being used, by some, to debunk those very myths. I’m also currently reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine which tackles exactly “the kind of misconceptions that are given a scientific cloak of authority” by disproving them with other scientific studies. I don’t know much about Mill or Taylor so this should be interesting!

  3. Madame Curie February 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I finished this essay last week and LOVED it. Very much looking forward to our discussion here!

  4. Annie February 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    In the French edition too, the name of Harriet Taylor is lacking ; Like you I think it’s sad.

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  6. dangermom February 3, 2011 at 4:15 am

    I’m really looking forward to reading it, but I keep forgetting to get it when I go to work, so now I have to wait until Monday, darn it.

    I only just read somewhere about Harriet Taylor and what an awful person she was supposed to be, and now I can’t remember where I read it. I’d like to go back and review so I can figure out what’s going on there.

    • nymeth February 4, 2011 at 8:25 pm

      There’s no knowing what kind of person she REALLY was, of course, but it’s one of those things… men never seem to get the same amount of flack and discredit for being unpleasant human beings. It’s kind of like what we said regarding Wollstonecraft’s critical reception last month. If you do remember where you read that, I’d love to hear about it.

    • SilverSeason February 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      What I understand is the Harriet Taylor was stuck in a bad marriage and had a long relationship with Mill at that time, divorce being impossible. That of course made her an awful women. After her husband died, she and Mill married.

  7. Trisha February 4, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I have just cracked the surface of this book, so no completely formed thoughts on it yet. I do find the relationship between John and Harriet intriguing though and may have to do more research on that controversy. If you are engaged in a relationship which thrives on intellectual conversation and debate, I can very much see how Mill’s quote is true. There are times I will say something in an argument and subsequently realize the idea – or even the words – originated with Brian, not me. I like thinking of this as indicating a positive partnership (as Mill does) instead of as this weird, mindless occurrence (as I usually think of it). 🙂

  8. Trisha February 5, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Just finished the book and wrote up a reviewish-discussionish type post which goes up tomorrow. I just wanted to say two things though before my mind goes blurry: first, I absolutely love the snarkiness that is in here. There are a few times in the essay where Mill injects some funny. The one about brain size being ridiculous because then elephants would be smarter than humans pops into my mind. Second, I really got stuck on the idea that allowing women to pursue professions does not mean they will succeed. I thought this argument really indicative of the idea that it’s not that men think women incapable, it’s that they are scared women are capable and will displace them. Okay, now I’m off to find some brain-candy type of read. 🙂

  9. Iris February 6, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    I wrote up a post on part I, which will go up on Tuesday. I know, it seems a little weird to write a post about 20 pages or so, but I finished part I today and I had so many things buzzing through my mind that I simply had to write them down before continuing to read. Maybe make the discussion post the 10th of february? Or some half-way questions, an early wrap-up of questions that have been raised, etcetera?

    • nymeth February 6, 2011 at 7:47 pm

      Iris, I think it’s great that part I alone made you want to write a post, and I can’t wait to read it! I will try to get a discussion post up as soon as possible – hopefully towards the middle of next week, but if not certainly before it ends.

  10. Vicki February 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I’m still only part way through section 1 (and enjoying it), but thought I would mention that the intro to my edition, a really pleasingly old OU press edition that includes ‘On Liberty’ and ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ as well, acknowledges Harriet Taylor’s influence on Mill’s thoughts but says explicitly that the ‘Subjection of Women’ was a joint work between Mill and his step-daughter Helen Taylor. Has anyone else seen this stated? The introduction, which was written in 1912 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (so feminist credentials firmly established), refers to Mill’s ‘Autobigraphy’ and a Criticism of him by a Professor Bains.

    I just wonder if there’s actually sufficient confusion over the contributors that modern editions tend towards the only certainty, which is Mill!

    Furthermore I do wonder whether, aside from the apparent injustice, as modern readers does it matter to us who wrote it? When a piece of writing comes from such a different political, economic and social context as that in which we will try to interpret it today, how important is the identity of an individual author rather than seeing him or her or them as representative of an historical period and set of ideas? This is an extension for me from the discussions some had last month about the reality of Wollstonecraft’s personal life possibly not matching up to the book’s position. How much do/can/should we separate the individual author from the ideas? And this month, where the relative inputs of the likely authors is unclear, does that change the validity of the arguments laid out? If we don’t like the arguments, might we be more likely to focus on this issue as a reason to question the whole credibility of the idea? And does the fact that these books come from such a different era affect the point?

    Cunning readers will note that I ask a lot of questions to save myself the difficulty of trying to answer them! Sorry if I’m swaying off topic a bit too – these are just the thoughts the discussions so far have been inspiring in me.

    • dragonflyy419 February 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm

      My version too has the three essays, but I wish mine had such a nice introduction. My copy seemed to consider the Subjection of Women the least important of the three essays and managed to devote one half of a paragraph to it of the entire introduction, including a remark about how Freud completely dismissed it. This really disappointed me.

      I suppose understanding the other helps put the text further in context for me. I’d like to know if his wife or step-daughter helped write it, because it gives me a larger view of the picture, but that’s my personal curiosity. But at the same time Vicki, you are right that who the author is shouldn’t affect the ideals presented. They should be stand alone. Just some thoughts of my own … not complete as I haven’t finished reading the essay yet.

      • nymeth February 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm

        As I was telling Vicki, I do agree with you both. My inclusion of this information in the introduction post was not meant to imply that it should influence our reaction to the arguments Mill presents.

    • nymeth February 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      Vicki, that’s a good point about publishers sticking with what’s certain. I also agree that we should focus on the text itself rather than the controversy regarding contributions. I mentioned it here because this is the introduction post, and as such I thought that information surrounding the text might have a place and be of interest. But I will not return to this point for the actual discussion of the text.

      • Vicki February 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

        Yes, sorry to drag the conversation off topic a bit – I am actually more interested in your suggested focus on the role of scientific paradigms on the feminist debate so looking forward to your discussion post (I’m another one halfway through Delusions of Gender)!

      • Emily Jane February 12, 2011 at 1:28 am

        I agree that the identity of the author shouldn’t have much impact on the value of their claims; however, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. Since women (and other marginalized people) have routinely been written out of history this way, I think we do need to take this issue into consideration. I’ll let it alone and from now on focus on the actual text: just HAD to make at least one comment about it before I do.

    • SilverSeason February 11, 2011 at 10:06 pm

      Your question — how important is the identity of an individual author rather than seeing him or her or them as representative of an historical period and set of ideas? — is relevant in this discussion. So, yes, Mill probably did write down the words which we now read in his essay. That doesn’t mean that he and Harriet did not thresh the whole problem out between the two of them.

  11. dragonflyy419 February 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I thought this was an appropriate quote out of The Subjection of Women:

    “Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers, belong to a woman by suggestion, to themselves only by verifying and working out? If I may judge by my own case, a very large proportion indeed”

    When I read this line it made me think of this introductory post and the question of his wife’s involvement in this essay. I would never have noticed that if it hadn’t been for this post! Perhaps he is hinting at something here? We’ll never know of course … but I like to speculate …

    • Nymeth February 12, 2011 at 10:55 am

      Good point! Mill was pretty upfront and unapologetic about how much Taylor had influenced his intellectual development, which makes it even more surprising that her role has been so contested.

  12. Pingback: The Subjection of Women, part I | Iris on Books

  13. Pingback: Thoughts on The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill « Dragonflyy419 Attempts to Combat Boredom

  14. dragonflyy419 February 8, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I just finished the essay last night … I’m looking forward to seeing where the discussion posts take us … but in the meantime I wrote this … http://dragonflyy419.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/thoughts-on-the-subjection-of-women-by-john-stuart-mill-harriet-taylor-mill/

  15. Anis February 9, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I’m french and I think it’s a very good idea ! I read this book in french and I loved it. The relationship between Harriet and he is very interesting and new. Everybody knows Harriet contributed to this work, because it was her ideas she developped in other essays (Sorry my english is poor and my taylor is not very rich ! But an occasion to practise your beautiful language !).

    • nymeth February 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      Nothing to be sorry about, Anis! English is not my first language either, and that’s true of another one of the project hosts too. Don’t worry at all!

  16. Madame Curie February 9, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    It has been suggested that Harriet Taylor Mill’s 1851 essay entitled “The Enfranchisement of Women,” which was initially published in Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, LV (July, 1851), 289-311, contains many of the arguments that John Mill later included in Subjection of Women. The full text of Enfranchisement can be found here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=255&chapter=21713&layout=html&Itemid=27

    I intend at some point to read the essay and to compare it to Subjection. That might make for a good discussion point on this topic as well.

  17. Pingback: The Subjection of Women « Silver Threads

  18. SilverSeason February 11, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    I was very impressed by Mill’s essay. He really did get it regarding gender equality: it was a codification of long-standing arrangements beneficial to those in control, not a reflection of the needs or nature of women. Because I have read so many 19th century novels in which women’s situation of marriage — no rights to property or children — were at issue, I particularly appreciated his comments on marriage and have posted a summary: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-subjection-of-women/.

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