A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Category Archives: Introduction

May: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

In May The Year of Feminist Classics group will be reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Jodie, as my co-host, and I, believe that reading these books together will lead to a nice juxtaposition and complimentary view of feminism in literature, and the position of women from different backgrounds as portrayed by novelists. Today, I will post an introduction to Jane Eyre . The introduction post to Wide Sargasso Sea will follow shortly. I believe this month’s reading can be approached in several manners, and I welcome each and any of them: You can read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea separately, or in comparison with each other. You could start chronological, and read Brontë’s work before reading Rhys’ interpretation, but you could also read them the other way around, and juxtapose Rhys’ interpretation with Brontë’s earlier portrayal. I am curious to see what you will come up with! In a week or so, I will put up some discussion questions, hopefully covering both books separately and in comparison with each other.

I am looking forward to discussing both books with you in the upcoming weeks! Feel free to contact me with suggestions for discussion topics, or guest posts.

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Introduction to Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Cover of "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to (a belated, sorry about that) April, everyone! Lets talk about one of my favorite books of all time!

Why Whipping Girl?

Well, to put it succinctly, I recommended that Whipping Girl be included in the Feminist Classics Project because it changed my entire understanding of the intersection of feminism, femininity, and trans identities. This book is kiiiind of a big deal to me and the prospect of discussing it with the fabulous FCP participants was too enticing to resist. (Don’t you love when I pander?)

There are two books I recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about being transgender: Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia and Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano. I read both books for the first time in 2007, while I was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and struggling to understand my ex-girlfriend’s recent announcement that he was a trans man.  While Sex Changes helped me understand more about what this whole trans thing actually meant (that book includes a chapter where Califia compares and contrasts two of my favorite books of all time, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and oh boy, is it dreamy), Whipping Girl was able to help me connect my understanding of feminism and my personal experience as a cisgender, femme-identified queer person with trans identities. It was… mind-blowing.

So no pressure or anything to enjoy this book, people. You may not agree with every argument (or most arguments), but I can promise that Whipping Girl will make you think and will challenge your understanding of feminism.

About Julia Serano

From JuliaSerano.com:

Julia Serano is an Oakland, California-based writer, spoken word performer, trans activist, and biologist. Julia is the author ofWhipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), a collection of personal essays that reveal how misogyny frames popular assumptions about femininity and shapes many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexual women. Her other writings have appeared in anthologies (including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine and Word Warriors: 30 Leaders in the Women’s Spoken Word Movement) and in magazines and websites such as Bitch, AlterNet.org, Out, Feministing.com, Clamor, Kitchen Sink, make/shift, other, LiP and Transgender Tapestry. In recent years, Julia has gained noteriety in transgender, queer, and feminist circles for her unique insights into gender. She has been invited to speak about transgender and trans women’s issues at numerous univerisites, at queer, women’s studies, psychology and philosophy-themed conferences, and her writings have been used as teaching materials in college- and graduate-level gender studies, queer theory, human sexuality and psychology courses across the North America.

Discussion QuestionsIntroduction & Trans Woman Manifesto

1. The Introduction begins with a quote from the amazing Audre Lorde: ” If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Can you find a way that this quote could apply to your own experience, either with feminism or as a member of a sexist society?

2. Whipping Girl introduced a new phrase to the feminist lexicon: “trans-misogyny” (p. 15). What are some examples of trans-misogyny that you’ve witnessed?

3. What do you hope to learn or explore within Whipping Girl? What are your initial impressions of the book? What are your expectations for the essays?

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.

Introduction to The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Written in 1991, The Beauty Myth explores the issue of the ideal of a perfect beauty to which women are subjected and which women strive to achieve. Culture and society push certain images at women which makes women feel they have to look a certain way.

The book summary reads:

In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty”.

I’ve heard numerous critiques that Wolf in this book deals only with women like her – i.e., moderate to well off white women – but I am hopeful going in to the book that I will be proven wrong. This will definitely be one angle though that I will explore in my discussion of the book. I’m looking forward to what others pull out of the book as well.

Wolf herself has made quite a name for herself recently with some of the things she has been in the news for (that Palin and Bachmann are feminists, even if they work against women’s rights in legislation), that the allegations of sexual assault against Assange are definitely all false, and more. Knowing these facts about her I will most likely be reading into her politics through the book as well.

Has anyone started the book yet? I apologize for getting the introduction post up so late, but am looking forward to what everyone thinks of the book!

Introduction to The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston

This month we’re going to be reading The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in addition to working our way through the rest of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I hope that some of you, like me, enjoy taking short breaks from such long, dense books to revitalize our reading brains, and that this month’s overlap will offer inclusion to those who have decided to skip The Second Sex (or have already read it) with no added pressure!

The Woman Warrior was written in 1975 and blends memoir with Chinese folktale to portray the experience of Chinese-Americans in the wake of the Chinese revolution. According to wikipedia, the book has remained controversial since its publication as many have contested its portrayal of both Chinese culture and Chinese-Americans. Kingston has been accused of simplifying people and history into stereotype so that her work would be more easily received by a Western audience, and one reviewer thought it “too mainstream American feminist” (to be believable? for his taste? I’m not sure). In 1982 Kingston responded to her critics with an essay in which she asks why she must be held responsible for representing all of China or the entire Chinese literary tradition in the telling of her own story.

I think the questions of cultural authenticity that have fueled criticism of this book are interesting in that they are an indication of marginalization. Though individual white male authors in the U.S. are sometimes lauded for writing “the great American novel” or accurately capturing the “American spirit”, or whatever, it does not seem to me that this is the standard to which all white male authors in the U.S. are held. They are allowed to write as individuals as a function of privilege, whereas members of marginalized communities are seen only as members of those communities and not as individuals, and thus face the increased expectation of accurately representing all of their history and culture.* This seems, to me, an impossible burden and a set-up for almost inevitable failure.

Despite the criticism, though, The Woman Warrior has remained immensely popular and is taught in a variety of academic settings. The Modern Language Association, in fact, has named it the most frequently taught text in modern university education, which was a surprise to me as I have yet to come across this book in my classes. I am newly interested in “creative nonfiction” and am looking forward to learning about how Kingston has experienced girlhood as a Chinese-American and the ways in which she locates herself and her personal history in the context of 20th century events and timeless mythology.

Discussion questions will appear next week!

*This seems to work a bit differently with gender. Instead of the expectation that women should represent all of womanhood in their writing, the expectation for women writers seems to be that they should somehow transcend their gender in their writing so as to be “un-gendered” which, as we have seen in Beauvoir’s work, masculinity is assumed to be, and therefore more acceptable for a mixed-gender audience. Otherwise, they’re filed away under “chick-lit”. What do you think?

An Introduction to God Dies on the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi

Many of the ‘standard’ feminist classics that we can name off the top of our head when asked to are written by women from Europe or North America. As part of this project it was pointed out that we should expand our horizons and consider those classics coming from other parts of the world as well. (And can I just remark again how grateful I am that this suggestion was made to us!) As I’d heard quite a little bit about Saadawi and her works I thought she would be a great choice and so she was added to our list.

Saadawi is a fantastic woman to read about. I admit that I am going in to this project a little blind and know almost nothing about her except what I’ve managed to find online. She was born in 1931 outside Cairo and was actually sent to school – which was unusual for a girl at the time. Raised by her father to be strong and independent but forced at a young age to take care of her younger siblings when her parents died, she still managed to graduate medical school in Cairo in 1955. She spoke her mind and wrote about the issues that she saw affecting women even though it caused her to lose good jobs and be persecuted by the government. (Read more on Wikipedia.)

She has a long list of works to her name ranging from autobiographies of her time in the Egyptian women’s prison to non-fiction on the status of women in the Arab world to fictional novels. According to Wikipedia it is her 1972 Women and Sex that was seminal to second-wave feminism but alas, it seems to be harder to find. Instead we chose for this month her novel God Dies by the Nile which was written in 1974 as Death of the Only Man in the World  and published under the new title when translated from Arabic in 1985. The original title was meant to be God Dies by the Nile but no Arabic publishers would print the title either in Lebanon where it was first printed or later in Egypt because they said, according to the foreword, that “God cannot die” and that they didn’t want their shops burned down by fundamentalists.

The novel that we will be reading together (and I do hope that you all join in with us! I know this is a harder book to find but I think it will be very worth finding if you can), God Dies by the Nile is set in a small village on the Nile river. The cover of my edition (published by Zed Books and purchased online at Book Depository) reads:

Nawal El Saadawi’s classic attempt to square religion with a society in which women are respected as equals is as relevant today as ever.

Some of the other books that we’ve read have been very focused on Christianity (Mary Wollstonecraft for example), so I think it will be an interesting change to read a novel now that tries to square feminist ideals with Islam. The novel deals not only with religion but also with corruption and, obviously, the mistreatment of women.  I think that we will have a lot to discuss in its pages.

Saadawi also says of the book that it was inspired by stories she heard as a young girl of peasants committing suicide or running away because they become pregnant as servants to mayors and other big men, and how there is no retribution or justice for them. She says also “I finished the novel in two months. Writing it gave me enormous pleasure, a pleasure which sustained me inside prison, and which is more essential to me than breathing.”

Because I know so little about Saadawi and her works and we kind of picked this title at random, I’ve also picked up two other works by her – The Novel and Women at Point Zero to read as well through the month. Is anyone else interested in reading some of her other works and talking about them here? I would love to host anyone who would like to discuss any of her other works or her political activism! Please send me an email at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com or at amy[dot]mckie[at]gmail[dot]com.

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.)

An Introduction to “Herland”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived from July 3, 1860 to August 17, 1935. She was an American socialist and a utopian feminist, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction (poetry, short stories and novels). She was widely known during her lifetime, but (at least, from my non-American point of view) not so well-known today. Women and Economics and The Yellow Wallpaper are her best known works. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution is a work of non-fiction about the necessity for women to change their cultural identities: to become more independent and specialised so as to become better mothers, wifes, etcetera. The Yellow Wallpaper is, I’m sure, the best known work by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the world of book blogging. It describes a woman who suffers from mental illness and is locked in her room by her husband for her own health. In this room she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper on the walls. The short story is said to be based on Charlotte’s own experiences with mental illness and the rest cure treatment she was prescribed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.

The biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman is worth looking into for this project. Charlotte’s life is interesting, to say the least, but also seems to have been very tough. Charlotte, born as Charlotte Anna Perkins, married twice. She first married Charles Walter Stetson, with whom she has a daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson. After the birth, Charlotte suffers from depression (not recognised back then as post-partum depression) and is prescribed the rest cure treatment, which involved not being allowed to write and a sharp limitation of her reading time. She ends up rejecting this treatment and fled to California, without her husband and child. Four years after marrying Charles, they separate, and the child ends up living with her father. Charlotte’s reputation suffers from the separation from her husband (being considered to be on no valid grounds, as they were still friends and there was no adultery) and the fact that she left her child behind. [It is nice to see how all of these books fit together, A Doll’s House flashed before my eyes while reading this]. Charlotte’s second marriage is to Houghton Gilman, her first cousin. They get married in 1900 and live in New York until 1922, when they move to Connecticut. In 1934 Houghton dies, just after Charlotte is diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. In 1935, she commits suicide with chloroform.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was active in several social reform movements. She considered herself a socialist and humanist from the Nationalist variety. Nationalism is described on wikipedia as: “a movement which worked to end capitalism’s greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race.” She was also part of Social Darwinism, in the variety of Lester Frank Ward, which believed that despite evolution, human beings could influence and change society for the better. Gilman rejected Marx’s ideas of violent revolutions, but instead believed in a peaceful change of society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman especially believed that women had a large role to play in the movement towards a better society. She believed that only when women take it upon themselves to be independent (and are allowed to be so), society can change for the better. As Ann J. Lane says on page xv of the Women’s Press introduction to Herland:

Describing herself as a humanist, Gilman argued that since “it is only in social relations that we are human… to be human, women must share in the totality of humanity’s common life.” Women, forced to lead restrictive lives, retard all human progress. Growth of the organism, she said, the individual, or the social body requires the use of all of our powers in four areas: physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social. In each women are denied their share of human activities. (..) “Women are not underdeveloped men,” Gilman said, “but the feminine half of humanity is underdeveloped humans.”

As more feminist of this area, Gilman’s feminism and social Nationalism, involved ideas on preserving national and racial purity, which she observed was being threatened by immigrants that came from non-American or British descent.

Almost all of the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman were serialised in her 32 page magazine, The Forerunner, which she wrote and edited on her own between 1909 and 1916. Even the advertisements were from her own hand. It was in this magazine that Herland was first published. Herland describes an isolated society that exists of only women, who reproduce through parthenogenesis. The society is presented as ideal: it is free of war, conflict or domination. The story is told from the viewpoint of three men who stumble upon Herland by accident. Throughout the story, the social construction of gender is the main theme. The women, in Herland, are represented as loving mothers as well as strong and independent. On the other hand, the men slowly become more feminine: thy, for example, grow their hair long, while all the women in Herland have short hair. Herland is the second out of three utopian novels written by Gilman. The first is titled Moving the Mountain and was published in 1911. The third is called With Her in Ourland (1916), and is a sequel to the in 1915 published Herland.

I have to admit that I have never read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before, even if The Yellow Wallpaper is waiting patiently for me on my bookshelves. I am curious to see whether I will enjoy Herland as much as I have seen others like The Yellow Wallpaper. The plot summary looks promising and thought-provoking. I will post discussion questions in a week to 10 days time. I also want to apologize for putting this post up a little late, my life is a bit chaotic at the moment.

Have you read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before? Have you started reading Herland yet? Are you enjoying it so far, or looking forward to it? Which edition are you reading?

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.)