Breaking social conventions to achieve gender equality: Analysis of John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women”
John Stuart Mill was known for his contemplative discourse on liberty and utilitarianism, two important concepts that developed Western society as it moved forward into modernization in 19th century. As one of the main proponents of utilitarianism, Mill believed that the path towards a socially and morally progressive human society was through actions, behavior, and thought that aims to benefit the majority — that is, achievement of the “greater good.”
Utilitarianism being Mill’s primary thesis in his discourses, his essay entitled “The Subjection of Women” brought into fore his discussion of liberty and equality as applied to a particular sector in the society: the women sector. In this essay, Mill confronted the current social order wherein women were subjugated while men dominate and control society and its institutions. He enumerated the nature and conditions in which women subjugation emerged and prevailed throughout human history; from his analysis, he generalized that the history of oppression against women was brought about by the persistence of the ideology that women are the weaker sex, thereby reinforcing the practice of assigning women functions and roles that are secondary or subversive to men.
This paper provides an analysis of Mill’s discussion of the origins, development, and propositions against the prevalence of subjugation of women in the society. The analysis conducted posits that Mill proposed that women oppression prevailed because of the preservation of the status quo, wherein women were considered the weaker sex, thus influencing people’s beliefs about the capabilities and functions of women in the society. Mill proposed that gender equality will only be achieved if these rigid norms will be broken and society would develop an open-minded perspective that women are as able to function in the society as men are. In effect, he called for the abolishment of limitations that women were usually put or categorized under.
In developing his thesis, Mill had laid down first the state of women subjugation as he observed it in his society (19th century English society): “The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural. But how entirely, even in this case, the feeling is dependent on custom, appears by ample experience…” He then went on to prove that contrary to the popular belief that the status quo, wherein women were subjugated by men, was also tolerated by women, Mill argued that there had been numerous literature that express women’s protest against the prejudice and discrimination that they received in society. However, society had been reluctant to give attention to these protests, mainly because women subjugation had become part of society’s norms that to deviate from this was unthinkable, and would only cause instability on the social order.
Indeed, Mill addressed this tendency of society to hold on to social stability and stagnation. He argued that this tendency developed because status quo was considered modern society’s “comfort zone,” wherein people were not confronted with the possibility that change can and will happen to them. Mill expressed this observation by stating describing how women’s roles and functions originated from and developed to be the norm of English society in 19th century:
All men…desire to have…not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite [sic].. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.
This passage reflects McCann’s (2004) analysis of the liberty of an individual as elucidated in Mill’s discourses. Mill’s comparison of voluntary slavery to women subjugation was also utilized in his analysis of human liberty, wherein he asserted that this practice was synonymous with the ‘violation of…fundamental tenets of liberty…voluntary, free choice ceases to exist…the individual “abdicates his liberty” (56). What McCann’s analysis revealed was that women subjugation had become deeply integrated in 19th century society, thereby creating the social order wherein submission to male domination and power became voluntary and was tolerated. In the process of voluntarily submitting to patriarchy and male domination, women, in turn, lose their right to have freedom as functioning individuals in their society.
In order to prevent this from happening — that is, wherein women would gradually lose their liberty due to continued oppression and subjugation by males — Mill proposed that a gradual change of the prevalent ideology on the male-female dichotomy be enforced in order to abolish the social norm and status quo of women oppression in the society. This proposition was explicated as follows:
But what we are now discussing is not the need which society has of the services of women in public business, but the dull and hopeless life to which it so often condemns them, by forbidding them to exercise the practical abilities which many of them are conscious of, in any wider field than one which to some of them never was, and to others is no longer, open.
For Mill, equality would be achieved only when women were made to realize the liberties that they have, a right that had gradually diminished as a result of their long history of oppression. In the passage above, he reflected his utilitarian stance, wherein he applied women subjugation in the context of social progress — that is, by arguing that this social order was a detriment to the movement of humanity towards modernization and social progress (Hamburger, 1999:154). To achieve equality between males and females was to establish a new social order where society approaches the ideal egalitarian society humanity had long desired to have. In effect, gender inequality stood in the way of social progress; thus, for the greater good, gender differences should be recognized to create a constructive social order that would lead to a harmonious society (Stafford, 2004:175).
Drawing primarily from Mill’s belief that each individual should exercise his/her liberty while subsisting to the utilitarian belief of “greater good,” “The Subjection of Women” was a discourse intended to put forth the fact that in order for humanity to progress and move forward, it should learn to adopt to change and realize that each individual has his/her own significant role in contributing to this progress. And for John Stuart Mill, this will only become possible if human society will learn to break its rigid norms regarding gender inequality (i.e., male superiority and female subjugation) and subsist to an ideology that supports and promotes the right of every individual live on the principles of liberty and equality.
Hamburger, J. (1999). John Stuart Mill on liberty and control. NJ: Princeton UP.
McCann, C. (2004). Individualism and the social order: the social element in liberal thought. NY: Taylor & Francis.
Mill, J.S. (1869). E-text of “The Subjection of Women.” Available at http://www.constitution.org/jsm/women.htm.
Stafford, W. (2004). “Is Mill’s ‘liberal’ feminism ‘masculinist’?” Journal of Political Ideologies, 9 (2).
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