Friday, February 11, 2011

Review of "Subjection of Women"

The February book for the Year of Feminist Classics read-along was John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women. This is an excellent essay that outlines many arguments for why and how the legislation of marriage and roles for women rendered the status of women as "less than slaves" in the late 1800s. The thesis of his argument is
That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chied hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
Mill's arguments for why women should be legally treated as equal with men:

1. The arguments used to keep women in submission have been based on emotions or precedence, termed instinct, which is not rooted in sound reason. In an effort to legitimize our prejudices, we have named them "instinct," but these rationales still stand in opposition to reason, i.e.,
For the apotheosis of Reason we have substituted that of Instinct; and we call everything instinct which we find in ourselves and for which we cannot trace any rational foundation.
Interestingly, his explanation of "instinct" reminds me greatly of the "will of God" arguments provided by Wollstonecraft. These are the same arguments used by many religious and non-religious patriarchal systems today (e.g., Quiverfull movement of Christianity, Mormon gender roles, etc.) that seek to keep women submissive or subordinate to men.

2. The theory that women are naturally weaker than men has never been tested in an environment that does not already assume the same. It is impossible to draw conclusions about the nature of women from their current environment.
Experience cannot possibly decided between two courses, so long as their has only been experience of one.
Moreover, the subordinate role of women was based on a notion of "law of the strongest" (i.e, survival of the physically fittest) that no longer applies as the primary motivation of civilized societies.

3. The fact that dominance is "natural" does not make it right.
[W]as there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?... So true is it that unnatural generally only means uncustomary, and that everything that is usual appears natural.
You cannot expect someone who is privileged to see their privilege as being unnatural.

4. You cannot use the argument that women seem content with their lot as an indication that they are not oppressed.

It is the political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise.

5. We cannot assume that someone will fail at an object and then bar them from trying. Women, men, all classes, and all races should be given equal opportunities in life. People will naturally sort according to individual capability.
In no instance except this [sexism], which comprehends half the human race, are the higher social functions closed against anyone by a fatality of birth which no exertions, and no change of circumstances, can overcome.
6. The definition of "feminine" is socially constructed and not inherent.

7. A master-servant relationship within a marriage can only be detrimental to the unity and maturity of the partners. Moreover, such a relationship blocks the marriage from reaching its ultimate goals of perfecting the individuals in the family.

In summary, Mill gives many reasons for why women should have all of the same opportunities that men have, stating that the general abilities and capabilities of women cannot be determined based on what women as a whole have done. Individuals are largely influenced by their environment. A person who is given no education, and who is taught from infancy to submit their will to others, cannot be expected to perform as well as another who is fully educated and who has been encouraged to have independent thought.

I 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.

I found the following quote to be of interest, because it says a lot in terms of the durability of religious or political institutions long past their overall positive benefit on society:
They do not understand the great vitality and durability of institutions which place right on the side of might...
In other words, placing privilege in the hands of the powerful, and then claiming that the power makes them moral, creates a very dangerous situation that is not easily surmounted.

Overall, the essay was excellent and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Moreover, I found that Mill's arguments still hold for other "isms", such as racism, heterosexism, classism, etc. It would be fascinating to reread this text in terms of gender politics and same-gender marriage.


dragonflyy419 said...

Excellent breakdown of Mill's essay. I like your point that his essay could easily be translated to address other "isms," because though he is talking about women the principles he discusses could be translated to any oppressed group.

Dave♥Nicole said...

on the one hand, I read this and am comforted by how much progress we have made since Mill's time. Then on the other hand I consider many of the women around me (and their marriages) and I wonder how much progress we really have made. Freedom is there for women who want to avail themselves of it, but so many are taught from infancy that this "freedom" is not righteous for "women who KNOW".

Dave♥Nicole said...

Blog idea - it would be cool if you could figure out how to have a sidebar showing the most recent comments.

Nymeth said...

I love your point about his arguments going for a lot of other -isms. And on a completely unrelated side note, I love the cover of your edition!

E. L. Fay said...

Great overview! I liked that you compared Mill's conception of "instinct" to the religious notion of "the will of God" and brought up the Quiverfull movement. I find Christian patriocentric blogs perversely fascinating, and the gender roles they advocate are exactly what Mill tears to shreds. I should probably comment sometime with a few of Mill's arguments and watch the heads explode.

prairienymph said...

Another thing I find interesting is that John Stewart Mill wrote with Harriet Taylor, who later married him, but she is not credited in his publications. A minor note, but it appeared that most of their writings were done in collaboration.
I will ghostwrite things for my husband, for example, when they are writing about gender and the bible to other Christians. Sadly, my ideas get more merit when they are thought to come from a male. I suspect simlar situations here.

I am amazed at how political views of power and merit have influenced notions of gender, race and class.