A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Introduction to Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and sociologist who is renowned for her work on women’s rights within Islam. Beyond the Veil is the result of her doctoral research and was first published in 1975; the edition I have, from 2011, includes a new introduction addressing the Islamophobia that currently permeates European politics and the West’s obsession with the veil.

So far I’ve only read the first few chapters of Beyond the Veil , and before I say anything about them I want to acknowledge a few things, namely that as a white European whose knowledge of Islam is limited I’m likely to get things wrong. Obviously it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to try to get them right, but I think that acknowledging my perspective and letting you all know that I’m more than open to hearing from people more knowledgeable than I am will make for a more productive discussion. So if I happen to be wrong, feel free to correct me, and if you happen to be knowledgeable about feminism and Islam, I would love to hear from you.

In the  introduction to the original 1975 edition, Mernissi says the following:

In this book I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam’s premises, actualised in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of makes.

Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain their power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.

The point Mernissi makes in the second paragraph seems particularly important to me: gender inequality is not inherent to Islam, but is the result of specific  religious interpretations having been actualised into law, policy, and social practices. There are historical reasons for why these anti-equality interpretations trumped more progressive ones, and I can’t wait to read more of Beyond the Veil to find out what they were.

And of course, I’m also really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.

Further Reading:

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An Apology

Some of you are probably wondering what happened with this month’s title, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Unfortunately our host for the month was unavailable, so we decided to postpone the group read and discussion to February 2013. The Year of Feminist Classics schedule will carry on as planned, and we’ll be back next month with a discussion of Little Women. See you then, and once again our apologies. Sometimes life gets in the way of blogging despite our best intentions.

ETA: I realise this post is coming considerably late, so if any of you already read and blogged about the book, feel free to drop us your link and we’ll do a round-up.

Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea: Discussion questions

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Hi everyone – Iris asked me to apologise on her behalf for not having been able to post these sooner, but life got unexpectedly busy for her. But it’s never too late, right? Here are some possible discussion topics she and Jodie had planned for this month’s titles, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. As usual, feel free to incorporate as many as you want in a post or comment, to add questions of your own, or to approach the books from a completely different angle. Different perspectives are always welcome.
  • Do you think Jane Eyre is a feminism text? Which aspects of the story do you think could be read as feminist, and which do you think perhaps couldn’t?
  • How does Jane Eyre’s development as a (possibly) proto-feminist character narrative compare to the development of the other female characters in the novel?
  • Do you think any of the male characters can be read along feminist lines? Do you, for example, think that Rochester as presented in Jane Eyre fosters Jane’s growth towards becoming an independent woman? Do you think this is restrained to his treatment of Jane, or does it go for all women?
  • How did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change your perception of Rochester, or possibly even of Jane Eyre as willing to accept Rochester’s role as “victim”?
  • Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea can be read as a feminist text independently from Jane Eyre? Is it even possible to read the two books separate from each other?
  • The following are all quotes from Jane Eyre describing Bertha Mason:

    Edward Fairfax Rochester, of Thornfield Hall, in the county of —, and of Ferndean Manor, in —shir, England, was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason, merchant and of Antoinetta his wife, a Creole, at —church, Spanish Town, Jamaica.

    ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family’ idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! – as I found out after I had wed the daughter; for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parents in both points. I had a charming partner – pure, wise, modest: you can fancy I was a happy man. I went through rich scenes! Oh! My experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it!…You shall see what sort of being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human.’

    ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’

    Did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change or add to your perception of Jane Eyre’s portrayal of Bertha’s ethnicity?

  • How do you feel about intersection of gender and ethnicity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea? Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea supplements an omission in the original by providing an alternate reading of some of the characters’ lives? How do you feel about the way Jean Rhys went about this? Is her rewriting enough to address some of the gaps in Jane Eyre?
  • Do you think revisionist fiction has an important role to play as a feminist enterprise by addressing some of these gaps in early texts, which were often constrained by their societies and contributed to dehumanising certain groups of women? Do you see revisionism as a tool for questioning dominant narratives, even within feminist, and giving a voice to women who were previously voiceless? Why or why not?

Introducing another Year of Feminist Classics

As Iris mentioned in our previous post, we would like to extent the Year of Feminist Classics into 2012. However, the chaos of the holiday season and several life events prevented us from getting organised as quickly as we’d have liked, and as a result we ended up deciding to run the project from February 2012 to February 2013. This will give everyone more time to prepare, and will also prevent us from having to wrap things up amongst the end of the year rush in the future.

There’s another important change in how the project is run: we have invited several other co-hosts to join us. All of them are bloggers we admire and whose perspectives we know will contribute a lot to our discussions, and many were active participants last year. Now that there are more of us, we’ll be working in teams whenever possible to make sure there’s always someone around even if life gets in the way of reading and blogging.

Over the past few weeks, the new team tried to come up with a diverse, well-rounded reading list that addresses some of the gaps and blind spots we found in the texts we read last year. Some of our choices are more recent than the ones from the first year’s list, but we believe they’re all more than important and influential enough to be called classics.

Without further ado, here’s our reading list for the New Year:

  • FebruaryFeminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (Amy)
  • MarchThe Book of the City of Ladies by Christine De Pizan (Jean)
  • AprilWhipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Cass)
  • MayJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë read alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Iris)
  • JuneStone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Emily)
  • JulyLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott (Nancy)
  • AugustThe Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Lauren)
  • SeptemberBorderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (Melissa)
  • OctoberThe Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (Jodie)
  • NovemberBeyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi (Ana)
  • DecemberWomen, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Emily Jane)
  • JanuaryFeminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Eva)

We invite you all to think of this project as an informal feminist reading group. You don’t have to commit to joining the discussion every month, but we’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you’re able to. We’re very excited to read these books together, and we hope we’ll have the opportunity to continue to learn from each other and from you.

So, who’s with us? Let us know and we’ll be happy to add you to this year’s participants list. We’d also really appreciate it if you helped us spread the word to other readers.

Introducing Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was first published in 1990, and is now regarded as not only a key text for anyone interested in feminist theory, but also as one of the founding texts of queer theory. Butler’s background is in philosophy; her engagement with poststructuralist theory and her convoluted writing style make her work notoriously demanding. Butler has addressed criticism based on her writing’s impenetrability by saying that shaking up language is part of the process of shaking up the status quo. While I think Butler’s position certainly invites discussion, it would be a shame to let her style steal attention away from her ideas.

Gender Trouble was the text that first introduced the concept of gender performativity: the idea that what we consider to be “real gender” is a cultural construction sustained by “the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders”. Butler critiques gender essentialism, a stance that even some feminist thinkers have aligned themselves with, and says in the preface to the 10th anniversary edition:

It was and remains my view that any feminist theory that restricts the meaning of gender in the presupposition of its own practice sets up exclusionary gender norms within feminism, often with homophobic consequences.

I found this an interesting idea, because if there’s one thing I certainly don’t want feminism to do, it’s to replace our current set of rules about how each gender should or shouldn’t act with a different but equally restrictive set. I don’t think feminism is generally guilty of doing this, but it’s also not a monolith, and as such there will naturally be people identifying with the term whose positions I don’t agree or identify with.

One of the most common criticisms of Butler’s work is its alleged lack of practical application: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal, which we reviewed here on the blog earlier this year, was an example of this. Staal writes about how she became frustrated with Butler’s reliance on theory and didn’t find a way to connect her ideas with her actual life, which is what she had done beautifully and insightfully with the authors she had previously discussed. Reading the preface to my edition of Gender Trouble left me with the impression that this is something Butler has heard countless times before. She says:

The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a model for readers of the text. Rather, the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which possibilities ought to be realised. One might wonder what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible”, illegible, unrealisable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.

Again, this is an interesting idea: Butler suggests that her work is easier to dismiss by those whose identities easily fit into the current gender binary. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with having an uncomplicated gender identity, of course – not as long as we do acknowledge that other possibilities exist.

Also, it’s important to remember that as much as there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about our current ideas about gender, categories of identity do matter to people. Butler acknowledges this when she says:

One is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual framework, and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.

I look forward to seeing how Butler develops these ideas as I continue to read Gender Trouble. I have briefly studied Butler’s work in the past, but this will be my first time reading her most famous book in its entirety. Because Gender Trouble is a complicated work and November is full of “real life” demands for many people, I’d like to invite you all to perhaps post your impressions of the book as you read it, even if you’re not done by the end of the month. I can’t wait to hear what everyone makes of Gender Trouble.

An Introduction to A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

    

First of all, I wanted to apologise for the fact that this introductory post is one week late. Two of the Year of Feminist Classic project hosts are currently in the process of finishing graduate school degrees, and so we have been struggling with research proposals and looming deadlines. Unfortunately this mean we’re a little bit behind schedule and haven’t been able to update the group blog as frequently as we’d have liked. But hopefully now that the busiest months are behind us things will run a lot more smoothly.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929, and it was based on two lectures delivered and Newham and Girton Colleges in 1928. The central premise of the essay is that “every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year” – without economic independent and the freedom that derives from it, women’s achievements in the arts and letters will always lag behind.

With this in mind, A Room of One’s Own tackles themes such as access to education, literary history, the social circumstances surrounding women’s writing, androgyny, and the taboos surrounding lesbian writing (it’s worth noting that A Room of One’s Own was published the year after the obscenity trial concerning The Well of Loneliness.)

In the introduction to my edition of the book, renowned feminist scholar Susan Gublar notes that Woolf’s use of a fictional narrator for the essay has been a point of contention: some readers find that it makes the text too vague or detached; others that it gives it its wide appeal. There was a reason why Woolf deliberately avoided using a personal tone for A Room of One’s Own, even though there was a lot in her personal background she could have referenced (her education consisted of being tutored at home, while her brothers were sent to expensive schools and universities). Woolf explained her decision as follows in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth:

“If I had said, Look here I am uneducated, because my brothers used all the family funds which is the fact – Well they’d have said; She has an axe to grind; and no one would have taken me seriously.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions about how women’s writing is received, does it not? It also puts me in mind of our old friend Mary Wollstonecraft.

Also, I found the following passage from Gubar’s introduction worth citing:

…While Woolf has been attacked as too angry in her caricaturing of men, she has concomitantly been chastened for being fearful of rage, put off by the all too justifiable rancor of her female predecessors. Similarly, she has been denounced both for inflating and for demeaning women’s cultural achievements. Although praised as a quasi-Marxist in her materialism, she has been trounced for an elitism inculcated by her relatively privileged background. Heralded as an anti-imperialist, critical of England and Empire (with all its embarrassing capital letters), she nevertheless has been taken to task as racist, unconscious of her biases about third-world societies and people of color. Perhaps because of the multiple ambiguities of her allusive text, Woolf has also been adopted as a muse by conservatives hostile to the contemporary women’s movement and by feminists who share a passionate commitment to women’s well-being by whose differences of opinion about sex and gender extend to disagreements over the values, tactics, means, and ends that ought to govern the women’s movement.

It could perhaps be argued that all this disparity says more about the cultural, social and ideological context of several waves of criticism than about the text itself, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider – and it makes me look forward to reading the project’s participants different reactions to the book all the more.

Resources online:

(Do you have any further suggestions? If so, leave the link in the comments and I’ll be happy to edit it in.)

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.

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal – With Giveaway!

Reading Women by Stephanie StaalReading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life is a book with more than a passing resemblance to the Year of Feminist Classics Project.  The author, Stephanie Staal,  writes about how she decided to retake the Feminist Texts class she first took as an undergraduate, and even her reading list is very similar to ours.  For this reasons, we couldn’t say no when we were offered the opportunity to review the book here. Reading Women came out today, and all four of us have posted our thoughts on the book on our blogs. Amy had this to say:

I really enjoyed this book as a look at one women’s discovery through the texts. Staal is clear that it is only her interpretation and ideas and that others will of course find different things in the book. To me this highlighted the best part of feminism and these texts which is how individual it can be and how it can still speak to so many of us in different situations. By coming together and listening to (and respecting) each others stories we can keep the momentum.

Emily Jane was particularly interested in how Staal’s reactions to the texts she reads changed over time. She says:

Ten years later, Staal has wildly different reactions to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler–among many others–than she did upon her first reading of them. Interestingly, she sometimes has wildly different interpretations than do the younger women in her class, as well. This inter-generational exchange of interpretations was one of my favorite parts of the book, and I loved how the conversational tone allowed for so many different perceptions to get their due. Many times, in fact, I was tempted to take a break from reading and talk back to Staal and the girls in her class! But not all of the book is classroom centered. Staal always refocuses on how the things she’s learning from the “great books of feminism” impact her relationships with her friends, family, and everyone else.

To Iris,

What makes Staal’s book interesting for bloggers who are also participating in our feminist reading project is that Staal’s approach to the works of feminism very much reminded me of what we are doing. She does give insight into the central premises of these works of feminism, but she doesn’t describe them in a scholarly fashion alone. Like we have done with Wollstonecraft, Mill and Bâ, she looks at these works both in the light of the historical context as well as in the light of modern concerns. Furthermore, she engages with them through the prism of her own personal life. Something that does, I think, sound very familiar to book bloggers.

And I also felt that the highly personal tone of Reading Women was very fitting:

The practical applications of feminism and the ways in which it can be helpful when it comes to everyday decisions are, after all, the major themes of this book. Another reason why I didn’t mind the highly personal tone was because the author was a pleasure to spend time with: she comes across as sensible and highly intelligent, and it doesn’t hurt that I agreed with her about 90% of the time. It was easy to imagine myself discussing all these books with her over coffee.

Thanks to Public Affairs, we are hosting a giveaway for Reading Women. The giveaway is open to everyone, but we thought we’d reward project participants with an extra entry for the sake of fairness. If you’d like to be entered, just leave us a comment saying so – it’s as simple as that.  For an extra entry, mention it if you have signed up for the project – it doesn’t matter if it was to read one book or all twelve of them. The giveaway will be open for two weeks, until the 8th of March. And if you come back next week, we’ll be asking Stephanie Staal a few questions about her own reading project and the things it has in common with ours.

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!

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.)