This is a transcript of the JS Mill Lecture 2019, delivered at Somerville on May 24, by Anne Phillips, the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.
My title might suggest a sweeping survey of the different ways in which The Subjection of Women was received over the 150 years since it was published. With apologies, I plan to do something more limited – arguably more self-indulgent – and focus on my own shifting reading of the text. This is not because my successive readings are especially insightful, but because reflecting on the way perceptions of a text change is an important reminder of how situated we all are within the preoccupations of our own moment. Reflecting on this can help protect us from the tendency to put things in boxes, give them overly neat labels, a tendency I, for one, have certainly been prone to at different stages in my life.
So, to begin. I studied Mill as an undergraduate, but only his essays on Utilitarianism and On Liberty. I knew about the extraordinary education he received at the hands of his father; I knew about the mental breakdown when he lost faith in Benthamite principles of social reform and later regained his sense of direction through poetry; but I don’t recall his feminism coming up in any of our discussions. I did not know that he had been elected as MP for Westminster in 1865 on a platform that included votes for women; that he presented the first mass petition for women’s suffrage to Parliament in 1866; or that in the discussion of the 1867 Second Reform Act, it was Mill who (unsuccessfully) proposed an amendment to replace the word ‘man’ with ‘person’, an amendment that would then have enabled women who met the property qualification also to vote. I did not know that he had published a long essay on The Subjection of Women.
I discover this essay only in the mid to late 1970s, when I signed up for an evening class on the History of Feminism, taught by Barbara Taylor and Sally Alexander. Barbara Taylor was then completing Eve and the New Jerusalem, a book on the Owenite utopian communities of the early to mid-nineteenth century and their often radical ideas about transforming the family and gender relations. Sally Alexander (whose involvement in the disruption of the 1970 Miss World contests inspired the character played by Keira Knightley in the forthcoming film Misbehaviour) was particularly immersed in the feminism of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was one of those poorly funded adult education classes – mostly now defunct – that in those days provided a minimal source of income to people who would nowadays probably have prestigious post-doctoral research fellowships. It was a time when little feminist history had yet been published, and little history of feminism, and I think most of us in the class were overwhelmed to discover just how much had been written and argued and lived and campaigned for in the decades and centuries before the contemporary women’s movement. When we were asked to choose a topic for presentation, I volunteered for The Subjection of Women, a text, as I then learnt, that was much more widely read by nineteenth century feminists than Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Rights of Woman, which had been rather sunk by Victorian distaste for her supposedly scandalous life.
At that point, I read Mill as a classic example of a liberal feminist. He was the leading liberal theorist of nineteenth century Britain and, as I now discovered, also a passionate feminist, so what else could he be other than a liberal feminist? That term had a particular resonance in the 1970s women’s movement, where we commonly divided feminisms up into their liberal, socialist/Marxist, and radical varieties, and were usually pretty sniffy about the liberal sort. Liberal feminists were thought to be devoted to achieving equal opportunities for women and men, primarily by removing all forms of legal and institutional discrimination; and were widely regarded as lacking sufficient understanding of the forces ranged against women’s liberation. Socialist and Marxist feminists, by contrast, understood that the subjection of women was sustained by the deep structures of capitalism, which paid only for that which was commodified (so not for all the reproductive work that fell to the lot of women), which treated women as a reserve army of labour (to be brought in and pushed out of the labour market as required), and which happily promoted a dual labour market that concentrated women in lesser paid, poorer skilled jobs. Meanwhile, radical feminists argued that it was male power, and the violence of men against women, that sustained patriarchy. They criticised liberal and socialist feminists alike for what they saw as an agent-less understanding of the forces ranged against women, as if men, as men, played no role in this, as if it were entirely a matter of failed laws or bad social policy or the power of economic structures.
This was the lens through which I first read The Subjection of Women, and it stopped me seeing much of what is significant about the work. What I read in it was an argument about competition and the market as potential liberators for women, and an attack on the male prejudice that was blocking this process. What, Mill asks is the peculiar character of the modern world – the difference which chiefly distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself, from those of times long past? It is, that human beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.
He goes on to say:
‘But if this principle is true, we ought to act as if we believed it, and not to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life – shall interdict people from all the more elevated social positions, and from all, except a few, respectable occupations.’
How, he asks, can one possibly justify all the legal restrictions the nineteenth century put upon women? And why do people think we need them?
‘Nobody thinks it necessary to make a law that only a strong-armed man shall be a blacksmith. Freedom and competition suffice to make blacksmiths strong armed men, because the weak-armed can earn more by engaging in occupations for which they are more fit.’
Reading Mill in the 1970s, this captured for me both the radicalism and the limits of that radicalism. John Stuart Mill had no time for any of the nonsense about women being naturally unfitted for this occupation or that responsibility. As he repeatedly argued, none of us can possibly know what women can or can’t do when no woman has yet been given free rein for her capabilities, when laws and customs so much confine and mould and deny her. He was fully open to the possibility that women might be less able in certain spheres than men, or might on average choose different paths in life, but if they were or did, so be it. Why, however, would you make laws to enforce this? If women really are different from men, then that difference will naturally emerge. Why do societies need such a panoply of laws and institutions and social pressures to make sure it turns out this way? Let freedom and competition decide.
That was the radicalism. But then, the problem that a 1970s feminist like myself would be quick to spot: that Mill expected, and clearly hoped, that women would, mostly, continue to choose being wives and mothers, that most of them would not want to study law or medicine or become Members of Parliament. He then failed to address what we would nowadays see as a crucial component in the liberation of women, which is the radical re-organisation of the care responsibilities that so much to shape women’s lives, and the sharing of these between women and men. Mill wasn’t bothered by the idea that most women would continue to see their lives as located primarily in the domestic sphere. ’In an otherwise just state of things,’ he argued, ’it is not a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute by her labour to the income of the family’ (among other things, he worried that this would simply push down the price of labour), and though he considered it essential to a woman’s dignity that she had the power of earning money, ‘it would not be necessary for her protection’, in that just state of things, ‘that during marriage she should make this particular use of her faculties.’
Here, the 1970s feminist would typically make a comparison (and I seem to recall I did just this in my presentation) between Mill’s overly complacent acceptance that the majority of women would carry on assuming the major responsibility for the care of children and household, while men ventured out into the world of politics and work, and the greater radicalism of the woman who was to become his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. In an essay on The Enfranchisement of Women, published in 1851 under Mill’s name but now widely attributed – by Mill himself as well as by most Mill scholars – to Harriet Taylor, there is much stronger support for the idea of married, as well as single women, going out to work.
‘Even if every woman…had a claim on some man for support, how infinitely preferable is it that part of the income should be of the woman’s earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it…. Even under the present laws respecting the property of women, a woman who contributes materially to the support of the family, cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical manner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is a dependant on the man for subsistence.’
You don’t read this kind of sentiment in the Subjection (the publications are separated by about twenty years, though written more like ten years’ apart) so it is reasonable to assume that it was never a crucial argument for Mill. He then comes over as impressive in his undoubted support for women’s freedom and equality, but also pretty limited in his imagination of what that entailed.
And as I later discovered, this was also what was thought by some of the feminists of his time. Mill was, in many ways, an iconic figure for the Victorian women’s movement. Members of the newly formed London National Society for Women’s Suffrage cited his ‘fearless and eloquent advocacy’ as contributing enormously to the society’s growth and success, and his speeches to such bodies were always punctuated by loud cheers and applause. Millicent Fawcett, just a young girl at the time, but later the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, went rather overboard in her praise of Mill, virtually attributing the development of the women’s suffrage movement to ’the life-long advocacy and guidance of the late J.S.Mill’. But others were more sceptical. Josephine Butler, who led the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, did not consider Mill’s arguments in The Subjection of Women especially advanced. ’On the contrary,’ (she said in a letter), ‘they are but the somewhat tardy expression of a conviction which has been gaining strength in society for the last twenty years’. Emily Davies, who campaigned particularly for women’s access to higher education and co-founded Girton College in Cambridge, worried that Mill’s association with the cause of women’s suffrage made it seem just his ‘personal crotchet’, as she put it, in a letter to Barbara Bodichon. ‘If Mr Mill had made it his first concern, it would have been a different case. As it is, we get mixed up in the public mind with Jamaica and the Reform League which does us no good.’
One of the aspects of the Subjection that feminists of the time worried about was that Mill seemed – to them – overly preoccupied with the plight of married women. For many in the nineteenth century women’s movement, it was the plight of the single woman that presented the most urgent challenge: the women who did not marry, who could not rely on the financial support of fathers or husbands, yet were denied access – either by legislation or by custom – to most of employment, and were then reduced either to dependence on grudging male relatives or to grinding poverty. (George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women partly captures this, though not always in the most sympathetic of ways.)
In my own first reading of the Subjection, Mill’s focus on marriage slightly escaped me, though I now find this hard to understand. The essay is, in fact, at its most passionate when Mill describes the personal subjection of women within marriage and the family, including a powerful passage where he describes the wife’s vulnerability to marital rape. Bear in mind that a man was legally entitled to have sex with his wife, regardless of her resistance or consent, until a landmark case in 1991, and that it was not until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that marital rape was explicitly declared illegal in England and Wales, so Mill was way ahead of his time on this.
In the Subjection, as in other writings, Mill was very much a believer in what he termed the ‘influence of circumstances on character’, and he thought the absolute power which marriage laws gave to men brought out the worst in both sexes. For men, the family became ‘a school of wilfulness, overbearingness, unbounded self-indulgence, and a double-dyed and idealized selfishness’. For women, it stunted both moral and intellectual growth. Mill was in fact considerably more polite about the stunting effects on women than Mary Wollstonecraft had been eighty years earlier: Wollstonecraft’s depiction of the preening and empty-headedness that patriarchy required of middle and upper class women is almost misogynist in its language and tone. The focus of Mill’s argument is more on the effects of the absolute power on the men. He recognised that not all took advantage of the powers the law allowed them – there were good husbands, and good marriages – but ‘laws and institutions require to be adapted, not to good men, but to bad’. As he argued, we do not justify absolute monarchy by citing instances of kindly kings.
The uniqueness of male power, he argues, as compared to other abuses that have been more successfully challenged through the ages, is that it sustains itself through a combination of bribery and intimidation.
‘Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and almost, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters – in closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow subjects: with no means of combining against him, no power of even locally overmastering him, and, on the other hand, with the strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give him offence. In struggles for political emancipation, everybody knows how often its champions are bought off by bribes, or daunted by terrors. In the case of women, each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation.’
This is a language more commonly associated with radical than liberal feminism, and the resonance is even stronger in the additional explanation Mill provides as to why women’s subjection continued for so long. With most abuses of power, he argues, men divide into competing classes, some fighting for change, others to retain the status quo. But when it comes to the subjection of women, ‘the whole male sex’ shares an interest in keeping things as they are, for rich and poor alike can all enjoy their mastery over women. I said earlier that liberal feminists were sometimes criticised for an agent-less understanding of patriarchy, as if men as men played no role in it. You cannot really say this of Mill, who is very strong on the role of men and male power, and depicts the male sex as sharing a quasi-class interest in subjecting women to a state of virtual bond-slavery. What you might say, however (and here I am echoing a point made by Amy Allen in a discussion of Foucault’s understanding of subjection), is that Mill’s adoption of a master-slave paradigm leads him to understate the extraordinary power of gender norms, and the role these play in accustoming us to particular life choices. It is not that these are absent in the text – he writes of the ‘moralities’ and ‘sentimentalities’ that teach women to make ‘complete abnegation of themselves’ – but in his account, we have the men, with their interest in mastery, and we have the laws that accommodate and permit this. If, after reforming all this, it turns out that most women still accept wife and mother as their primary role in life, he could not see this as something to worry about. He didn’t, that is, see how much of subjection is achieved, not through people dominating us or laws that permit this domination, but through the many ways in which we subject ourselves
Mill had particular reasons to chafe at the marriage laws of nineteenth century England, because, at the age of twenty-four, he met and fell in love with Harriet Taylor, a married woman with two young children and soon to have a third. The third was her daughter, Helen Taylor, who was eventually to become Mill’s step-daughter, and it was Helen Taylor (or rather her niece, Mary Taylor, acting for Helen Taylor) who In 1905 left what remained of his library to Somerville College. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor became very close. They shared many intellectual and political interests, including the commitment to feminism. In his Autobiography, written after her death, Mill attributes many of the ideas in his work to her influence, but not, he says, the basic conviction that all legal, political, social, and domestic relations between the sexes should be ones of complete equality, which he says predated his first meeting with her. Indeed, he rather sweetly says that the strength of his conviction on this issue was ‘more than anything else, the originating cause of the interest she felt in me’. One might add to this that at this time in his life, John Stuart Mill was a very attractive young man, who still had all his hair – a ‘rich auburn’ – and hadn’t yet succumbed to the persistent ill health that prematurely aged him. When Thomas Carlyle first met him in 1831, when Mill was 25, he described him as ‘a slender, rather tall and elegant youth, with a small clear Roman-nosed face, two small earnestly-smiling eyes; modest, remarkably gifted with precision of utterance, enthusiastic, yet lucid, calm: not a great, yet a distinctly gifted and amiable youth’. We get a somewhat misleading picture of the Mill/Taylor relationship from the portraits we most commonly see of them: hers taken when she was in her twenties; all of his from later in his life.
I guess if John Taylor, Harriet Taylor’s husband, had been one of the brutal husbands described in the Subjection, she might have left him to live with Mill, though that would itself have been a very difficult decision in those days. But after a trial separation, partly spent in Paris with Mill, she came to the conclusion that it would be unfair to leave the marriage: that her husband had never failed in his affection for her; that it was not his fault that he was unable to share her interests; and not his fault that she had fallen so deeply in love with Mill. And so began nearly twenty years of the arrangement. She remained in the marriage, though mostly living apart from her husband; she and Mill met constantly, took holidays together, wrote one another passionate letters, and worked together on many intellectual projects; but they only married in 1851, two years after the death of her first husband. The general consensus is that they did not have a sexual relationship through this period, which might suggest a rather cool and bloodless relationship. But if you read some of their letters (collected together, rather curiously, by Friedrich Hayek) you sense Mill’s desperation for her to leave the marriage, yet total acceptance that this must be her decision, and complete support of her when she concluded that she could not do this. This is a young man deeply in love, chafing at the constraints, coming to think of marriage as an institution that, in the unreformed state of society, is probably necessary to protect women from the sensualities of men, but was not so necessary for what he described as ‘higher natures’ guided only by morality and love. He argued – long before it came close to a reality – for no-fault divorce. ‘Would not the best plan,’ he wrote in 1832, ‘be divorce which could be attained by any without any reason assigned, and at small expense, but which could only be finally pronounced after a long period?’ He suggested a period of two years.
There is a third aspect to the Subjection that I want to talk about, and this is one that has come more to the fore in recent years in the context of increased scepticism about modernity and progress, and increased scrutiny of Mill’s thinking on Britain’s colonial empire. Like his father, Mill had a post in the East India Company, which he started working for at the age of seventeen, and he continued with this till the Company lost its charter in 1858. His view of empire– at least at the beginning – blended with the progressivist optimism that characterised so much of nineteenth century liberal thinking about the colonies. More specifically, it also reflected his understanding of how we learn to think and act for ourselves. The ‘influence of circumstances on character’ suggests that all of us are potentially able to govern ourselves, but also that many of us have not yet developed the necessary capacities. So, he supported the extension of the suffrage, but favoured plural votes (more votes for Oxbridge graduates than for a skilled worker, more votes for a skilled worker than an unskilled one). He favoured workplace co-operatives as a democratic schooling ground in which workers would learn how to take responsibility for decisions, but more for this than as a right to a fairer share of social resources. And he thought of Britain’s colonial empire as engaged in a civilising mission that would eventually – but only a long way ahead – educate its subjects up to the point where they could become self-governing. In arguing for liberty, he always included the qualification that this didn’t apply to peoples who had not yet arrived at the right stage of civilisation; and he explicitly favoured ‘a vigorous despotism’ as the best mode of government for training people who hadn’t yet arrived at this stage.
You find, then, in Mill’s thinking about colonialism that infantilisation of the colonised as a way of justifying their subjection that has been so characteristic of attitudes to colonialism, up to and including in our own day. It is striking that he is so clear about rejecting that way of thinking when it comes to women, yet permits it when it comes to empire; and indeed so clear, when it comes to women, that if you give one sex absolute power over another, you cannot presume that it will be used in a progressive way, yet seemed to accept the fantasies of the ‘civilising mission’ when it came to colonialism.
We could perhaps take it as evidence of the depth of his feminism that he saw through this kind of argument when it came to women – but it is then disappointing that he did not extend that insight to colonialism. Or perhaps he did. Some recent analysis suggests that Mill became considerably less confident about this in the later years of his life: that, as Duncan Bell has put it, his colonial romance gave way to a colonial melancholia, as he increasingly registered the violence of colonialism and its tendency precisely to encourage that violence. Certainly in 1866, Mill was to take a leading role in the attempt to bring about the prosecution of Governor Eyre, who had violently put down a protest in Jamaica, leading to several hundred deaths. The Morant Bay massacre was for some a turning point, in which the fantasies of a benevolent colonialism gave way to greater realism about its true nature. Mill recognised and vehemently denounced the atrocities, though arguably he still thought that better regulation by the state could prevent them.
In The Subjection of Women, Mill is still writing as if modernity is on an upward trajectory, with the continuing subordination of women as the one great exception: ‘an isolated fact in modern social institutions; a solitary breach of what has become their fundamental law; a single relic of an old world of thought and practice exploded in everything else, but retaining in the one thing of most universal interest’. From my perspective – and this is me now, rather than in the 1970s and 80s – there are two major problems with this. First, just as a factual matter, it significantly overstates the degree of transformation in other fields. To give the most obvious example, in the Subjection, Mill repeatedly contrasts women’s continuing subordination to slavery (now, he says, abolished), in ways that can grate a bit on the contemporary ear. Slavery has not been abolished, but also the aftermath of slavery has lived on centuries later in often virulent forms of racism, and there is something overly complacent in the claim that slavery was done and dusted. In representing the nineteenth century as a period when successive abuses of power – all of them, except the abuses of power over women – have been curtailed and then ended, Mill tells an unconvincing story of progress. It is arguable, of course, that this was partly strategic. He arguably overstates the extent to which the ‘modern era’ is indeed characterised by a belief in achievement rather than ascription, a belief that all are free to employ their faculties to achieve what they want and can, rather than being restricted by the lot to which they are born, in order to highlight the anomalous situation of women. Fair enough, maybe, but this encourages a degree of complacency about other continuing abuses of power.
The second problem with Mill’s framing of women’s subordination as the ’isolated fact‘ or ‘solitary breach’ is that it represents that subordination of women as a hangover from the past, as pre-modern, as nothing to do with the modern era. ‘This relic of the past’, he says,’ is discordant with the future, and must necessarily disappear.’ Again, this is factually wrong. Part of what produced the women’s movements of the nineteenth century, and those campaigns to which Mill so consistently gave his support, was that the nineteenth century (the ‘modern era’) brought with it a diminution of women’s room for manoeuvre, a redefinition of public and private that fixed women more firmly in the domestic, and a biologism that marked them more permanently by what were seen as their bodily weaknesses. It was in the age of so-called modernity that we get the intensification of the notion of ‘separate spheres’; and in the age of so-called modernity that female engagement in politics comes to be seen as at odds with advanced or civilised ideals. In previous periods, women’s engagement in politics had often generated anxiety, but it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that it became subject to explicit prohibition. In 1778, the British House of Commons introduced a prohibition on women attending or listening to parliamentary debates; in 1793, the French National Assembly dissolved political organisations for women; in 1848, also in France, decrees were passed preventing women creating or belonging to political clubs or associations. In one analysis of this, Ann Towns goes so far as to argue that ‘by the end of the nineteenth century, the following norm was evidently in place: civilized states exclude women from politics.’
We flatter ourselves when we suggest that the subordination of women is intrinsically at odds with the principles governing modern societies. In doing so, we also give too much credence to an association that has contributed in destructive ways to hierarchies between cultures, most notably in current representations of Islam. In debates about immigration and multiculturalism, attitudes towards sexual freedom and gender equality are often taken as significant markers of modernity, and are then deployed to demonise groups conceived of as backward or pre-modern. European countries now commonly make access to citizenship depend on adherence to what are said to be ‘core’ values, and the list of these frequently includes equality of the sexes. No problem with that, you might say, except that it overstates the extent to which this is indeed a shared value; that it claims the value as somehow ‘European’, thereby establishing a global hierarchy; and that it has encouraged punitive bans on women’s religious dress in the name of modernity, equality, and freedom. We do not know what Mill would have had to say about these. I hope and believe that he would have ranged himself firmly on the side of those opposing such bans – and much of his writing on The Subjection of Women and On Liberty would indeed support this belief. However, some of his thinking about progress and stages of civilisation might suggest the opposite.
Mill’s essay on The Subjection of Women is an extraordinary achievement. It is extraordinary both in the radicalism of its arguments, and in the material it offers us for exploring these and other issues. It is also short enough so that one can realistically think of re-reading it every ten years or so, seeing different things in it each time, and – if you are at all like me – realising each time round what you missed in a previous reading, or how you distorted the message to fit with your preconceptions. This means of course that my current reading must also be regarded as provisional. Thank you.