The Subjection of Women is an essay by philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill. Mill argues in favour of legal and social equality between men and women. He writes that ‘the legal subordination of one sex to the other’ is ‘wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement’ (p. 1).
The Subjection of Women was published in 1869. This is a second edition, dating from the same year.
The legal status of women
At the time that Mill wrote The Subjection of Women
, women could not vote. A married woman was not a separate legal entity from her husband, and any property or money she owned came under his governance.
A common justification for women’s inferior legal status was that they were morally superior to men, and therefore better restricted to the home, where they would be protected from the polluting influence of public life and could shape the morals of the future generation. Mill argues that this is illogical: ‘there is no other situation in life in which it is… considered quite natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse’ (p. 142).
Nature versus nurture
It was widely believed that women were more emotional than rational, and did not have the intellectual capabilities of men. Mill argues that if women seem emotional, passive and apolitical, it is because they have been brought up to be so. In making this claim, Mill echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women
, published almost 70 years earlier. Mill insists that until society treats men and women equally, it will be impossible to know the natural abilities of women, or whether there are inherent differences between the sexes.
J S Mill and Harriet Taylor
In 1830 J S Mill met 22-year-old Harriet Taylor. They did not marry until 1851, after Taylor’s husband had died, but Mill insisted that she inspired, contributed to and revised all his mature writings. Harriet Taylor died in 1858, more than a decade before Mill wroteThe Subjection of Women, but he nevertheless attributes much of the essay to her. Mill says that though he had been committed to the principle of equality before he met her, she taught him the ‘practical’ consequences of women’s legal subordination. Critics differ in their opinions of how much of The Subjection of Women is Taylor’s work.