A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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!

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10 responses to “The Subjection of Women – Discussion Post

  1. nymeth February 17, 2011 at 10:27 am

    My own thoughts are here if anyone is curious.

  2. dragonflyy419 February 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    To the second point brought up I thought Mill did a good job at saying that women did play a role in literary history. There are two quotes specifically that I think he used that instead of diminishing the woman’s role emphasized it:

    1) “Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition …” — Here he is acknowledging that women have been writing as well as men to try and gain their own freedoms …

    2)“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” — Here he is saying that women may be more responsible for the writings out in the public domain than we can possibly know.

    I think these two quotes and there were a few others that I didn’t note instead of diminish the value of female writers show that they were considered of value to Mill … especially the first quote where he acknowledges that women have been writing to express their dissatisfaction with their social condition.

  3. SilverSeason February 19, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    I believe when he compares the situation of the married woman with that of a slave, Mill is not referring to amounts of suffering. Even a happy and respected married woman is like a slave because her rights are not recognized in the system. Too often we use language like “given rights” but if the rights are inherent — as in “inalienable” — it is not up to a man to give a woman rights. She has them because she is human. The slave has rights too because he/she is human. The problem is to get these rights recognized by the social and political structure. In other words, power is exerted by denying rights either by ownership (a slave) or by the marriage laws.

  4. Annie February 21, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I just send a little post about Harriet Taylor-Stuart on my blog.
    Thank you for this discussion post !

  5. EL Fay February 25, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Sorry, I’m a bit late. My post compares Mill’s ideas of gender and political history to those articulated in the 1980s by Joan Scott in her essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” I was also interested in how Mill expressed the Marxist concept of hegemony long before it that particular theory had actually been articulated.

    In terms of criticism, I felt that Mill’s arguments on how women’s personalities have been so warped by social conditioning to be potentially problematic. Such a position can be easily turned in favor of patriarchy.

    My post is here.

  6. Annie February 25, 2011 at 11:02 am

    I just post my review about “The subjection of women”. It is in French, but there is a translator above at right !
    I love this book. I agree with Silver season.
    I think too, that there were slaves (men) and always women’s slaves. And for them it was often harder because she had to suffer too their husband’s wills….

  7. LonerGrrrl February 25, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Hi everyone – I’ve just finished reading Subjection & have posted some rambling thoughts at my blog here: http://lonergrrrl.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/john-stuart-mill-the-subjection-of-women/.

    Overall, I did enjoy the book, especially his arguments for women’s inferiority being due to their limited education and socialisation, and not because of anything inherent in their nature, and particularly his discussion surrounding why women have not made many original contributions to the arts, raising issues that are still incredibly relevant and which remain to be fully tackled today.

    Though I did take issue with some elements of Mill’s essay; as a more radically-inclined feminist, I did think some of his proposals, particularly re. marriage and motherhood, didn’t go far enough. Of course, at the time what he was arguing for would have been deemed radical, but what I got most out of reading Subjection I think, is it shows the limitations of trying to secure women’s equality from within the system as it already exists. So, Mill focused on changing the laws around marriage, but didn’t question the institution of marriage itself, and felt that the revoking of arbitary laws restricting women’s access to education and employment would bring their equality – but reading this today, how successful have such changes to the law been in securing women’s equality? On paper, women have more rights, but we still face quite profound economic and social limitations. So I think Mill’s essay is useful in highlighting what feminism still needs to do and shows that changing the laws may have been a good first step in achieving women’s freedom, but feminists today need to press on and go much further, tackling the more fundamental social attitudes and structures that continue to keep women down, and not just change the law.

  8. Annie February 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks for your inreresant post !
    I think he did ! (question the institution of marriage).
    When he married Harriet Taylor in 1851, he wrote a phrase where he said that he didn’t agree with marriage (I wrote the phrase at the end of my post), but not in “The subjection”.
    I think, in writing this book, he wanted to convince a lot of people, far from the idea of equality, and knew, that he couldn’t begin by saying he didn’t agree wih marriage.

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