The Subjection of Women

The Subjection of Women is the title of an essay written by John Stuart Mill in 1869, possibly jointly with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, stating an argument in favor of equality between the sexes. At the time it was published, this essay was an affront to European conventional norms of views on stature of men and women.

John Stuart Mill credited his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, with co-writing the essay, although she is rarely credited on publications.


"The Subjection of Women" (1869) offers both detailed argumentation and passionate eloquence in opposition to the social and legal inequalities commonly imposed upon women by a patriarchal culture. Just as in "On Liberty", Mill defends the emancipation of women on utilitarian grounds.

Mill was convinced that the moral and intellectual advancement of humankind would result in greater happiness for everybody. The Higher pleasures of the intellect yielded far greater happiness than the lower pleasure of the senses. He conceived of human beings as moral and intellectually capable of being educated and civilized. Mill believed everyone should have the right to vote, with the only exceptions being barbarians and uneducated people.

Mill argues that the reason people should be able to vote is to defend their own rights and to learn to stand on their two feet, morally and intellectually. This argument is applied to both men and women. Mill often used his position as an MP to demand the vote for women, a controversial position for the time.

In Mill's time a woman was generally subject to the whims of her husband and/or father due to social norms which said women were both physically and mentally less able than men, and therefore needed to be "taken care of." Contributing to this view were social theories, i.e. survival of the fittest and biological determinism, based on a now considered incorrect understanding of the biological theory of evolution and also religious views supporting a hierarchical view of men and women within the family. The archetype of the ideal woman as mother, wife and homemaker was a powerful idea in 19th century society.

At the time of writing, Mill recognized that he was going against the common views of society and was aware that he would be forced to back up his claims persistently. Mill argued that inequality of women was a relic from the past, when might was right; but it had no place in the modern world. Mill saw this as a hindrance to human development, since effectively half the human race were unable to contribute to society outside of the home.

"... [T]he legal subordination of one sex to another — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other."

Mill's Arguments

Mill attacks the argument that women are naturally less good at some things than men, and should therefore be discouraged or forbidden from doing them. He says that we simply don't know what women are capable of, because we have never let them try - one cannot make an authoritative statement without evidence. We can't stop women from trying things because they might not be able to do them. An argument based on speculative physiology is just that, speculation.

"The anxiety of mankind to intervene on behalf of an altogether unnecessary solicitude. What women by nature cannot do, is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing."

In this, men are basically contradicting themselves because they say women cannot do an activity and want to stop them from doing it. Here Mill suggests that men are basically admitting that women are capable of doing the activity, but that men do not want them to do so.

Whether women can do them or not must be found out in practice. In reality, we don't know what women's nature is, because it is so wrapped up in how they have been raised. Mill suggests we should test out what women can and can't do - experiment.

"I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. Until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely."

Women are brought up to act as if they were weak, emotional, docile - a traditional prejudice. If we tried equality, we would see that there were benefits for individual women. They would be free of the unhappiness of being told what to do by men. And there are benefits for society at large - doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The ideas and potential of half the population would be liberated, producing a great effect on human development.

Mill's essay is clearly utilitarian argument on three counts: The immediate greater good, the enrichment of society, and individual development.

If society really wanted to discover what is truly natural in gender relations, Mill argued, it should establish a free market for all of the services women perform, ensuring a fair economic return for their contributions to the general welfare. Only then would their practical choices be likely to reflect their genuine interests and abilities.

Mill felt that the emancipation and education of women would have positive benefits for men also. The stimulus of female competition and companionship of equally educated persons would result in the greater intellectual development of all. He stressed the insidious effects of the constant companionship of an uneducated wife or husband. Mill felt that men and women married to follow customs and that the relation between them was a purely domestic one. By emancipating women, Mill believed, they would be better able to connect on an intellectual level with their husbands, thereby improving relationships.

Mill attacks marriage laws, which he likens to the slavery of women, "there remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house." He alludes to the subjection of women becoming redundant as slavery did before it. He also argues for the need for reforms of marriage legislation whereby it is reduced to a business agreement, placing no restrictions on either party. Among these proposals are the changing of inheritance laws to allow women to keep their own property, and allowing women to work outside the home, gaining independent financial stability.

Again the issue of women's suffrage is raised. Women make up half of the population, thus they also have a right to a vote since political policies affect women too. He theorizes that most men will vote for the MPs which will subordinate women, therefore women must be allowed to vote to protect their own interests.

"Under whatever conditions, and within whatever limits, men are admitted to the suffrage, there is not a shadow of justification for not admitting women under the same."

Mill felt that even in societies as unequal as England and Europe that one could already find evidence that when given a chance women could excel. He pointed to such English queens as Elizabeth I, or Victoria, or the French patriot, Joan of Arc. If given the chance women would excel in other arenas and they should be given the opportunity to try.

Mill was not just a theorist; he actively campaigned for women's rights as an MP and was the president of the National Society for Women's Suffrage.


Contemporary criticism focused on the factual accuracy of John Stuart Mill's argument. Mill's statements were well out of the mainstream, and he may have been considered something of a radical. His ideas on changing the legal status of women in marriage and in business would have been especially extreme for the time.

Modern readers might see Mill's arguments as self-evident. With the rise of feminism in the 20th century, Mill seems to be remarkably ahead of his time. But modern criticism may argue whether Mill went far enough in his assertions, or whether Mill's essay is truly a feminist document, since the basis of his argument is utilitarianism. Mill's essay also faces charges of elitism, based on his opinion that only the "educated" be allowed to vote.


The way Mill has interpreted subjects over time changed. For many years Mill was seen as an inconsistent philosopher, writing on a number of separate issues. Consistency in his approach is based on utilitarianism, and the good of society.


Nothing should be ruled out because it is just "wrong", or because no one has done it in the past. When we are considering our policies, we should seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This leads to attacks on conventional views. If you wish to make something illegal, you need to prove what harm is being done. Individuals know their own interests best.

Progress of Society

The greatest good is understood in a very broad sense to be the moral and intellectual developments of society. Different societies are at different stages of development or civilisation. Different solutions may be required for them. What matters is how we encourage them to advance further. We can say the same for individuals. Mill has a quite specific idea of individual progress, (1) Employing higher faculties (2) Moral development, people place narrow self interest behind them.

Individual Self-Reliance

We are independent, capable of change and rational. Individual liberty provides the best route to moral development. As we develop, we are able to govern ourselves, make our own decisions, and not be dependent on what anyone else tells us to do. Democracy is a form of self dependence. This means:

  1. Personal Liberty As long as we do not harm others, we should be able to express our own natures, and experiment with our lives
  2. Liberty to Govern our own Affairs Civilized people are increasingly able to make their own decisions, and protect their own rights. Representative government is also a useful way of getting us to think about the common good
  3. Liberty for women as well as men All of Mill's arguments apply to both men and women. Previous ideas about the different natures of men and women have never been properly tested. Women can participate in determining their own affairs too

See also



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