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John Stuart Mill and the women's movement


1. Biographical outline – see separate handout

2. JSM and utilitarianism

Definition of utilitarianism

A school of philosophy/set of theories developed by the English thinker, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Utilitarians bel. it was possible to produce a ‘science’ of human nature ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of the highest good’ v. difficult to measure happiness or pleasure but Bentham hoped to do so John Stuart Mill’s thought influenced by Jeremy Bentham and by James Mill but he did not simply follow in their footsteps JSM analysed the problems with utilitarianism but never completely abandoned it; attempted to modify it, give it a ‘kinder face’

3. JSM’s feminism

Based on

A belief in freedom and human development PLUS a concern for justice opposed legal, economic, political disabilities of married women so that before his own marriage, he rejected the rights he would have  so gained JSM’s feminism stimulated by  

i)  the objections of his father, James Mill, to the female suffrage James Mill: women best represented by their husbands or fathers

ii) also derived from English and French socialists, inc. William Thompson, Charles Fourier, and followers of the Comte de St Simon

iii)  radical Unitarians who had long traditions of feminism – JSM moved in their circles and was part of their networks

iv)  radical, intellectual women whom he met in such circles, eg.

Harriet Martineau, Sarah Austin, Harriet Grote, Harriet Taylor, whom he eventually married (Harriet Taylor’s first husband was a radical Unitarian) and, possibly, Harriet’s daughter, Helen (JSM’s secretary after her mother’s death)

v)  Harriet Taylor – unhappily married when she and Mill first met; she became a major influence on his feminism

  • JSM acknowledged her influence on his thinking in his Autobiography

  • she helped transform his abstract interests in the subject into a real awareness of women’s subordinate legal and social status

  • Taylor transformed JSM from a ‘salon liberal’ into a radical activist

  • Taylor and JSM did not always agree on feminist issues

  • she was more pessimistic on women’s position and more radical on how change should be implemented  


4.  The Subjection of Women (written in 1861;published 1869)

JSM’s major work on the topic was The Subjection of Women

  described by Barbara Caine as

  • ‘one of the most searing and critical pictures of marriage to emerge in the nineteenth century’ because of ‘its emphasis on the moral and physical degradation entailed both on women and on men’

(English Feminism, p. 104)

James Hammerton, Subjection covers a ‘wide spectrum of legal and social inequalities inside and outside marriage’

  The Subjection of Women

  • although written in 1861, JSM delayed publication until he thought it would be most politically useful in 1869, there was increased interest in feminism and women’s political rights

  • was republished many times and widely read by late 19th and early 20th century feminists and political activists

  • was translated into several other European languages

  • was extremely controversial when it was published because of its subject matter and what JSM says about it

  • created more negative comment than anything else JSM wrote

  • although a discussion about women and marriage, also brought into focus disagreements about the nature of Utilitarianism


  • only major work of feminist theory written by a man not just any man but one considered a major Western political theorist

    •   the absence in Western political thought of concern for the subordinate political, social and economic position of women makes the Subjection even more important and notable

  • it is one of JSM’s greatest works, developed over years of thought and discussion

  • large parts of it are believed to have been written by Harriet Taylor, although the extent of her contribution is disputed by historians; may also reflect views of her daughter, Helen


Arguments of The Subjection

  It explores many of the major themes of JSM’s political philosophy

  • his belief in the possibility of human improvement through participation in the political process

  • his belief in human progress

  • his interest in human psychology

  • arguments for individual liberty and justice and their protection

  JSM discusses

  • wide number of legal and social inequalities suffered by women in and outside marriage

  • describes a wife’s role in marriage as ‘the personal body-servant of a despot’ (despot = husband)

  • compares marriage to slavery wife could not refuse her husband’s physical or sexual demands on her 

  • discussed married women’s lack of property rights

  • argued for marital friendship, tolerance and understanding

  • argued that such tolerance was inconsistent with the inequalities that married women experienced under the law yet paradoxically, JSM bel. marriage to be the normal state for most women

  • expected them to be homemakers and saw this as their most important contribution to society

  • discussed the difficulties experienced by women, esp. middle-class ones, if they tried to work

  Chapter 1

  JSM sets out 2 objects of his essay

1.  Legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong

2.  This wrong should be replaced by a principle of perfect equality between the sexes

JSM rejects society’s claim that the subordination of women is ‘natural’

  • argues that it is impossible to say anything about the nature of women because no-one has seen them in a state approaching freedom

  • furthermore, women’s ‘nature’ is tailored to the requirements of men

  • women’s current social position is an anachronism

  • women’s legal and economic inequality is inconsistent with an ideal of marital friendship

  • marital friendship = an ideal sought by feminist campaigners

Chapter 2

  •  JSM discussion of economic subordination under English common law

    • argues that wives’ separate estate is no answer to coverture

Chapter 3

  •  extended discussion women’s citizenship

    • argues that occupations and functions, including the suffrage, should be open to both sexes

    • their exclusion from political rights, higher education, and many areas of work is linked to the inequalities in the institution of marriage 


5.  Contemporary assessments of JSM

among contemporary critics, 

  • JSM’s work highly influential and often confrontational

  • wrote on a wide range of intellectual topics, inc. philosophy, political theory, history, literature

  • his writings and political activity were praised by feminists in a spectrum ranging from suffragists (suffrage by constitutional means) to suffragettes (suffrage only by active resistance to authority)

  • even those men and women who were hostile to the idea of the female suffrage acknowledged the importance of JSM’s efforts to effect it (Rendall in Vickery, p. 168)

  • Thomas Carlyle called JSM’s prose style ‘sawdustish’ – dry and lightweight(?)

  • The conservative moralist, James Fitzjames Stephen, thought the work was too sentimental whereas JSM thought, that by writing it, he was rescuing Utilitarianism from a narrow focus


6.  Historians’ assessments of JSM

Generally favourable and admiring, esp. in getting female suffrage on the parliamentary agenda as a serious issue but subject to revisionism

Barbara Caine

Caine ack. JSM’s importance and commitment to female suffrage but argued that

  • JSM ignored women activists, other than his wife and his step-daughter

  • he showed little interest in earlier aspects of women’s movement such as the setting up of the Englishwomen’s Journal or feminist campaign for women’s higher education

  • Range of his arguments too narrow

  •  Ignores problems of single women

  • Sexual double standard within 19th c. marriage

  • JSM: too close an emphasis on legal and political reform and insufficient consideration of how to change society’s views on nature of and roles for women

 Julia Annas

  Tension between likely roles for women

  • Autonomous and capable of financial independence from men  or

  • Women as companions, wives and mothers of men

  • Annas argues that JSM confused about whether to take  

  Reformist approach

Inequitable to exclude women from same opportunities as men

society should be reformed to ensure ending of injustices

Radical approach

Women’s natures have been suppressed by society’s views that female submissiveness and dependence are virtues

  • to change this, radical changes necessary in society

  • inconstitencies in Subjection due to JSM’s desire to consider all sides of the question

  • In doing so, he reduces his arguments to the point of inconsistency

  Jane Rendall 

  • JSM less radical than his reputation would suggest

  • he concentrated on the female suffrage but ignored the connections between women’s political and economic position

  • as a result, his arguments were too political, rather than reflecting the reality of women’s lives


7.  Conclusions 

  • JSM = one of the first male politicians to support feminist demands for the suffrage

  • carried feminist demands further than they had ever been carried before

  • nonetheless, took 50 years for the women’s suffrage movement to achieve success

  • had the suffrage been achieved earlier, criticism of JSM would have been less likely

  • JSM’s views on women’s rights weakened by his concentration on the suffrage

  • his radical views may have been influenced by, or even framed by, Harriet Taylor

  • his vision was limited, possibly because he brought a masculine perspective to these issues

  • Possibly over-optimistic in hoping that men’s behaviour towards women could be easily changed

Nonetheless, most contemporary female campaigners agreed with JSM that

  Married women with children should stay within the home

  The sexual division of labour within marriage was unproblematic