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Mill and the Subjection of Women

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Julia Annas
St Hugh's College, Oxford
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When Mill's The Subjection of Women was published in 1869 it was ahead of its time in boldly championing feminism. It failed to inaugurate a respectable intellectual debate. Feminist writers have tended to refer to it with respect but without any serious attempt to come to grips with Mill's actual arguments. Kate Millett's chapter in Sexual Politics is the only sustained discussion of Mill in the feminist literature that I am aware of, but it is not from a philosophical viewpoint, and deals with Mill only in the service of an extended comparison with Ruskin. Philosophical books on Mill give the essay short measure. Alan Ryan in J. S. Mill heads one chapter ‘Liberty and The Subjection of Women’, but the former work gets twenty-six pages and the latter only four. Ryan says that ‘it is almost entirely concerned with the legal disabilities of women in Victorian England’. H. J. McCloskey, injfohn Stuart Mill: A Critical Study, gives the essay one and a half pages, commenting that it reads ‘like a series of truisms’ and seems so unimportant today because equality of the sexes has been achieved!

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1977


1 It became at once unpopular and neglected; it was the only book of Mill's ever to lose his publisher money (Ryan, A., Jf. Mill, S., p. 125)Google Scholar. In 1867, when he was an MP, Mill tried to amend the Reform Bill in such a way as to secure the franchise for women, but only 73 MPs voted with him.

2 Freud translated Mill's essay, and discussed his dislike of it in the famous letter to his fiancée in which he says, ‘If… I imagined my gentle sweet girl as a competitor it would only end by my telling her… that I am fond of her and that I implore her to withdraw from the struggle into the calm uncompetitive activity of my home’.

3 Of course I am not claiming that Mill clearly or consistently thinks of ‘utilitarian’ arguments as those that confine themselves to desires and needs that people actually have, without reference to any idealizing of the situation. (If he did, there could hardly be room for controversy as to whether he espoused ‘act-’ or ‘rule-’ utilitarianism.) My distinction is intended to hold apart two lines of thought which Mill seems to employ in the essay, and they would remain distinct even if both of them were brought under the heading of some very broad conception of utilitarianism.

4 All references to The Subjection of Women and The Enfranchisement of Women come from the useful collection Essays on Sex Equality by Mill, John Stuart and Mill, Harriet Taylor, edited by Rossi, A. (University of Chicago Press, 1970).Google Scholar

5 We should note in passing that this argument depends heavily on our being able to predict a very large-scale change in society from the occurrence of similar changes in the past, and also on the assumption that progress in the required direction will not be blocked by large-scale movements in society based entirely on irrational or destructive forces. Mill could not foresee the inroads made on women's rights by fascism, for example.

6 In 1972, for example, the percentage of girls studying mathematics and science subjects at A-level was higher in single-sex schools than in mixed schools, tiny in both (18·7 per cent as against 13·4 per cent).

7 For some preliminary clarifications on this, see the excellent article by Nochlin, L., ‘Why are there no great women artists?’ in Women in Sexist SocietyGoogle Scholar, Gornick, and Moran, (eds.), also (abbreviated) in Art and Sexual PoliticsGoogle Scholar, Hess and Baker (eds.).

8 Cf. the quotation on p. 182; and what is said about equality on p. 173: ‘society in equality is its normal state’. This is hardly something we can learn from experience, when history presents us with nothing but hierarchies.

9 Mostly in part 1 of A Theory of Justice.

10 One small but striking example (quoted from the Daily Telegraph of 16 12 1963Google Scholar by Mitchell, J., Women's Estate p. 126)Google Scholar: ‘All four hundred employees at the Typhoo Tea Works, Birmingham, went on unofficial strike yesterday because a forewoman reprimanded a workman. A shop-steward said, “The forewoman should have referred any question of discipline to the man's foreman…”’. 470 people, in fact, struck over this issue; 300 of them were women.

11 Commentators generally see one or the other strand, but not the fact that Mill combines both. McCloskey curtly sums up the essay by saying (op. cit., p. 136), ‘Obviously the utilitarian arguments [from the abuses of power, etc.] have greater force and relevance here than elsewhere’. Ryan, on the other hand, sums up just as curtly (op. cit., pp. 157–158), ‘the argument is essentially the argument from individuality’, and notes that arguing ‘for the higher and better happiness which stems from self-respect and personal autonomy’ is ‘not a very obviously utilitarian appeal’.

12 ‘… the following Essay is hers in a peculiar sense, my share in it being little more than that of an editor and amanuensis. Its authorship having been known at the time and publicly attributed to her’ (p. 91). Rossi, (pp. 4143)Google Scholar discusses other evidence for Harriet's authorship, which she accepts.

13 I am grateful for helpful comments and discussion to A. O. J. Cockshut, J. Dybikowski and G. Segal.

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