A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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.


5 responses to “Wrap-Up: The Subjection of Women

  1. Annie February 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    You don’t have to apologize. I have to thank for your translation !

  2. Jean February 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I submitted my blog post, but it’s lame! I so enjoyed reading everyone’s comment this month but never got a chance to collect my own thoughts–sorry!

  3. Trisha March 1, 2011 at 1:48 am

    I really enjoyed this one. Mill’s writing was so wonderfully clear which was something I desperately needed after a string of overly verbose and complicated texts. 🙂

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