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!