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5 December 2014

Book Review #5: The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill

For those of you who have been following this blog for some time, will already be familiar with A Pair of Brown Eyes –an ongoing Victorian fiction I'm keeping here–, and if you're not, I invite you to take a look at it, here at the Index. It was precisely this story that got me most particularly interested in The Subjection of Women, in the hopes that reading a male voice of those times would shed some light on one fact that has been nagging me ever since I started: whether I had envisioned my main male character (Andrew) too modern in his perception of women.

But now I see I had nothing to fear in that respect, as there were some free-thinkers and female-cause supporters among the male of that age. In fact, I need to say this before I even begin with the review: I have fallen in love with John Stuart Mill! It's really comforting to know there are feminist men out there, and he has just proved to be one of the most inspired (and inspiring) I have ever read.

Author's bio.-

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born into a family of deeply-rooted utilitarian beliefs, and received a very strict education by his own father, whose aim was to make of his son an intellectual champion of this new set of ethics. Upon a severe nervous breakdown in his early twenties, young John began to realise how his upbringing had left him devoid of sentiments; it was at that time that he turned to reading the RomanticsWilliam Wordsworth in particular–. This occurrence changed his mindset to some extent, and he came to the conclusion that poetry and logic should be joined together to bring about a superior knowledge of the world, which was the core principle of what would later made him one of the most influential thinkers of his age.

The other important turning point in his life was meeting the woman who was called to become his wife: Harriet Taylor. They maintained a platonic friendship for many years –up until her first husband's death– and they finally married in 1851. Stuart Mill always claimed she had been a major influence in his work; he thought of her as an equal in intellect, and went so far as to say she had co-authored many of his essays, and whether this be true or not, I think it speaks very well of the man behind his words.

You'll find below his marriage proposal. It is a fairly long quote, but I couldn't bring myself to excerpt it in any way:

"Being about, if I am so happy as to obtain her consent, to enter into the marriage relation with the only woman I have ever known, with whom I would have entered into that state; and the whole character of the marriage relation as constituted by law being such as both she and I entirely and conscientiously disapprove, for this amongst other reasons, that it confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will; I, having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers (as I most assuredly would do if an engagement to that effect could be made legally binding on me) feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring such powers; and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them. And in the event of marriage between Mrs. Taylor and me I declare it to be my will and intention, and the condition of the engagement between us, that she retains in all respects whatever the same absolute freedom of action, and freedom of disposal of herself and of all that does or may at any time belong to her, as if no such marriage had taken place; and I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretension to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage." 6th March 1851, J.S. Mill

The Premise.-

"The object of this Essay is to explain (...) that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong itself, and now one of the chief 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."

Have I hooked you into reading The Subjection of Women with this single quote? Yes? Good, then! Because, if you do decide to give this essay a try, this is the main idea you'll find permeating the whole of it, around which Mr. Mills builds his arguments. Throughout the essay, he delves deeply into this assertion, and does so by providing plenty of examples taken from history, in which these chief hindrances to human improvement get fully explained and challenged.

The Path.-

What follows is a very personal (and probably very biased) interpretation of the main ideas found in the essay. A couple of things struck me from the very beginning, which are:
  • Men have, from the very outset of humanity, relied upon their greater physical strength to subject women.
  • "It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men, combined with her inferiority in muscular strength) was found in a state of bondage to some man."

    Following this path, Mill goes on to equate marriage and women's state of affairs to slavery.

  • Women's real tendencies and nature are still unknown, because all they have been taught is to be subjected to the will of men, and not to pursue their interests.
  • "What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing –the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others."

  • While we can accept that the majority of men are honourable, women are liable to end up in the hands of tyrants.
  • "Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to – though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him – he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations."

    Mill makes a great, convincing effort to link this idea with the other two, as he sees it as a consequence of both.

The Solution.-

I'll let Mill speak for himself:

"I believe that equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character, and that a good woman would not be more self-sacrificing than the best man: but on the other hand, men would be much more unselfish and self-sacrificing than at present, because they would no longer be taught to worship their own will as such a grand thing that it is actually the law for another rational being."

"The rule is simple: whatever would be the husband's or wife's if they were not married, should be under their exclusive control during marriage; which need not interfere with the power to tie up property by settlement, in order to preserve it for children. Some people are sentimentally shocked at the idea of a separate interest in money matters as inconsistent with the ideal fusion of two lives into one. For my own part, I am one of the strongest supporters of community of goods, when resulting from an entire unity of feeling in the owners, which makes all things common between them. But I have no relish for a community of goods resting on the doctrine, that what is mine is yours, but what is yours is not mine; and I should prefer to decline entering into such a compact with anyone, though I were myself the person to profit by it."

Equality of rights? Marriage settlements? Separate goods? Yes, these are the kind of things John Stuart Mill advocated for – in as early a date as the 1860s. Do I need to add anything?

Some details I found interesting.-
  • The Serjeant Talfourd Act/Custody of Infants Act 1839 is mentioned. This bill granted divorced mothers the right to petition for the custody of her children, provided that these were under seven and that she was proven of good character (meaning non-adulterous).

  • Germaine de Staël and Mary Somerville. The former, a novelist and essayist; the latter, a science writer. Both are used in the text to exemplify what women are (or would be) capable of doing, if left to their own devices.

  • John Stuart Mill was godfather to another great thinker I most particularly admire: Bertrand Russell.

What I've learned and final thoughts.-

I must confess that, while I tried to approach The Subjection of Women with an open mind, I had prepared myself to be shocked –or even offended– by some of the outdated nineteenth-century ideas I assumed would find depicted here. And, guess what? It never happened: I couldn't have agreed more with what I read here. Stuart Mill has such a great sense of the universal in dealing with these issues that many of the things he addresses are still very much relevant to our 21st century world.

However he may have called it, his feminism is felt in every page of the book, and some things in his discourse actually reminded me of Virginia Woolf (you can read my review of A Room of One's Own, by the way):
"When women have had the preparation which all men now require to be eminently original, it will be time enough to begin judging by experience of their capacity for originality."
which is impressive, given that he wrote this essay some sixty years before Woolf's most famous work: could it be that later feminism has yet to give Stuart Mill all the credit that's due to him?

So, the only thing left for me to say is, The Subjection of Women has been a highly rewarding and inspiring read, and a must for those of you who, like myself, think that Victorian times can offer much more than prudishness and strict ceremony.

Further reading (and listening).-

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  1. I didn´t know the author. It sounds good. I am going to punish myself jejej. Kisses.

    1. No need for punishing, hehe. Thanks for dropping by :-).

  2. Me suena de algo el autor, y aunque suena bien, de momento no me animo a un ensayo en inglés.
    Un beso:)

    1. Bueno, el ensayo no es un género que apetezca siempre, me alegra que al menos te sonara bien. Gracias por pasarte :-).

  3. Hola Marsar. Te sigo en tu blog y he decidido nominarte para recibir un ¡¡¡ Liebster Awards !!! Muchas felicidades y pásate por mi blog para que puedas leer sobre los requisitos que hay que cumplir:


    1. Ya te contesté en tu blog, pero te lo digo aquí igualmente: ¡muchas gracias por haberte acordado de mí en tus nominaciones! :-D

  4. Hello Marsar,
    How interesting that in the 1860s he advocated for equality of rights! I enjoyed the way you put together this review. Also, your Google+ post to follow you there too was very compelling :)

    1. Yes, it is interesting, I think he must have been quite an interesting man :-). I'm so glad you liked the review.

      And thanks for liking my Google+ post :-).

  5. Yes, your review is beautiful! So nicely laid out!

    I had no idea Mill had an interest in this area. I haven't read any of his works but perhaps I'll be adding him to my Classics Club list #2. I really enjoyed your review!

    1. Aww, you're nice! :-)

      Well, this is the first essay I've ever read by him, so I don't know much about his work either, but I've come to this conclusion: his mind must have been a beautiful place ♥.

      Thanks for dropping by! :-)

  6. I think it's easy to think that all people in a particular time period from history were the same, thinking archaically, and that all of us modern people are way more open minded. I think however, it's not the case. Even today, there are an incredible amount of close minded people despite all the progress we have made over time, which is unfortunate.
    I also think that the reason progress has even been made, is because of those select few open minded people in our history. They were the ones that paved the way to things being changed for the better, so I feel like in all time periods there was someone like Mr. Mill, who went against the grain and thought for themselves, giving us the many luxuries we have available to us today.

    1. You're absolutely right! Change is only possible thanks to those insightful and brave people who are able to see beyond their society's constrictions. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to go against those close-minded people that have always been –and will continue to be– in existence :-(.

      Thanks for dropping by, and four eloquent comment :-D.