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