Dear friends and readers,
I thought as another response to the attack on the people who promoted the image of Jane Austen on the 10£ note as well as the image itself I thought an outline and commentary on John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women would not be amiss. The treatise is an argument for the legislation that Mill supported: for example, allowing women to own property. He also along the way singles out as a group especially detested, the education single woman (spinster, bluestocking, bookish) and there we see where the strong loathing for Austen comes about, though unexpected by many of us, might have been predicted by Mill. Judy Chicago intuitively grouped Austen there.
Mill begins by facing the real problem: no one will listen to his arguments. There is a deep feeling to be contended with, a deep feeling which supports the most intimate of daily relationships, and when a given condition rests on a feeling that arguments cannot reach, the arguments against it get ever hotter. (In Chapter 2 he goes on to delineate how 50% of the human race profits strongly from the arrangement so that also makes for the difficulty of anyone trying to change it, and explains how it is that the present 50% exploited is complicit and co-opted.)
Then he goes on to argue against feeling as a recent basis for justification. He says this is really resting a case on instinct, and suggests that the instinct argument has replaced arguments said to be founded on reason (the 18th century mode). He doesn’t say here but later (again Chapter 2 — these chapters links) that the instinct of the generality (or average person) is a false guide for setting up what is just and fair.
So where did the arrangements which keep women subordinate to men (and remember in this period women couldn’t own their own income, could be beaten by husbands as husbands pleased) come from? Mill resorts to the kind of myth-making Locke, Hume, Rousseau and others have done: it’s a reductive tale telling that posits a general state of things in synecdoches. From the earliest twilight of society we find women paired with men in a state of bondage, and this gave rise to laws and customs which justified and elaborated this reality. He says the bondage was to make things easy for men who attached value to the woman as a companion (when she served him as he wanted).
My comment: If we go back to hunters and gatherers, or study present tribal relationships, that doesn’t seem quite true. There groups of men trade and use women (something like what we find in chimp groups). I’ve read that Mill’s parable describes early neolithic bands (agricultural) arrangements better.
He says that a great deal of the original brutality has been lost or modified, but a great deal is still self-evident. The difference between 19th century modes and earlier ones is earlier ones didn’t think it necessary to justify the law of superior strength. They were not ashamed. He insists on how the relationship is still based on law of force. One way in which the situation was justified at the time was to present a very soft view of it.
My comment: we see this in Trollope’s Small House and Framley Parsonage. The problem here I’d suggest is he doesn’t bring home how if it is that many people will not hurt and take advantage of a law or custom which permits them to, many do take such advantage and can hide it. He also does not bring in enough reality: Barbara Bodichon about how men simply leave or don’t support women is needed to undermine the soft view of how happy all are in the present arrangement.
Then he does make the argument I referred to above: this power arrangement comes “home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family and of everyone who looks forward to being so.” Women are individually in the subject class; as present arrangements go, if she objects, she just gets in trouble with her master and gets nowhere: “each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation.”
He stops to present the rhetoric that’s used about inferior classes (women are weak and emotional is what he refers to but doesn’t make explicit) and how the rationale here is “the feebler and more un-war-like races [groups, "the sex" of women] should submit to the braver and manlier [more capable].
It’s not true that women are happy in the present arrangement. No want of women complaining. Recently they petitioned parliament for suffrage. This could only happen in recent times when women educated. A great many women do not accept or like the present arrangement. The problem here is the person complaining is put under the judgement of the individual inflicting the punishment. Only children endure this.
At this point he denies that women’s character as presently seen is natural or the one they would have if not for education and continual training in submissiveness. I can vouch for this in 18th century memoir and before. It’s overt and shameless. In the 20th century it’s much subtler. Women says Mill are taught to be submissive, sacrificing, self-controlled (no fighting, no anger); they made to direct all their efforts in getting the affections of a man as the solution for how to get through life and what they should want out of it. Given that only through men they are allowed to fulfill ambition and get respect, he says it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become all encompassing.
My comment: we can see here the origin of the present obsessive beauty industry, cosmetics, anorexia (in part anorexia comes from continual incessant pressure to look thin and sexy). Movies mock girls who are plump.
Mill’s second and historical argument is the modern world works differently than the old. Mill celebrates the change: people are enormously freer to choose how they can spend their existences: “The peculiar character of the modern world … is, that human beings are no longer born to their places 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 more desirable.”
I’d say this is too optimistic. We are really held down by what we learn as children, cannot all that easily move above a station or milieu in life; if education enables us, once we leave school, connections, patronage, manners and the old laws of cunning and strength kick in again; men being in power, women have to sell sell directly or indirectly very often to get ahead.
Still he’s right that we are not given a life sentence at birth as once we were. That we can move about leads to his section about how unjust and wasteful it is to throw away half the human race simply on providing sex for men and children.
Now we are into vexed areas in a way: freedom and free competition. He suggests that women are now “highly artificial creatures,” the result of “forced repression in some areas, and unnatural stimulation in others.” (So here is why in these open areas of free competition they react and don’t do as well as men; he implies this or says it in 19th century words: women remain dependent he says. They’ve been taught to be this way.
So these natural differences we see in the present state of society are not necessary, are the result of forced education, how circumstances and all that surround a child growing up influences it.
Respecting the mental characteristics of women, he denies men know much about it. This reminds me of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Anne Elliot’s eloquence in Austen’s Persuasion. Men have had the pens in their hands. Men writing about women see them from their own interest: would she make the wife I want or could use?
Women learn not to tell the truth (as slaves did): anyone looking up to another in power is not going to be “open” and “completely sincere.” (Actually few are that anyway. Again there is a high idealism and nobility of outlook in Mill.) For writers who want to make money, “very few of them dare anything, which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.”
So women are not going to do what is contrary to their nature as now formed by society. The anxiety of people to interfere on their behalf or against them is in a way irrelevant for now. Change comes slow.
The present arrangement boils down to forcing women to marry and produce children. It’s a way of compelling it. No wonder women of spirit don’t want it or aren’t keen. If this is all you want of them and will not allow them to marry and have children in equal conditions (meaning that the way of mothering children would then become very different and also marriage as then practised), then says he all that “has been done in the modern world to relax the chain on the minds of women, has been a mistake. They never should have been allowed to receive a literary education. Women in the present arrangement who read, much more women who write, are in the existing constitution of things, a contradiction and disturbing element.
So we see why the hatred, fear, cruel mockery and derision against educated women emerges. We see why bluestocking is still a derogatory term. How dare she? And here is where Austen comes in, for she is seen as a spinster, bluestocking perhaps, at least educated, intellectual. Mill waxes a bit bitter here: better to train them up as odalisques and domestic servants. In some cultures that’s just what is done, and when teenagers some girls are into being odalisques.
Mill begins with marriage. As he has ended on the thought the way the world is set up is meant to coerce women into marriage and having children, so he begins here.
An 1869 reviewer of The Subjection of Women objected that Mill discussed sex nowhere. Unless the reviewer means by sex romance and his belief that women are masochistic (want to suffer, are attracted to punishment), Mill does discuss sex. He discusses it throughout: in the original bondage he says we find people paired in, in men wanting to possess women. Agreed he does not discuss sexual attraction as the reason women go in for marriage; his view is sex has nothing to do with marriage, but is what women are forced to do to find safety and respect. He does not discuss all the sex that goes on outside marriage either. Sex is viewed by Mill as a commodity men want and women offer up as part of an exchange in marriage. The reviewer’s response is not to explain but to use the word “sex” over and over as an instinct (unexplained) and say it comes first and explains all.
So Mill begins by saying that given that marriage is the point of the way women are brought up and educated, you’d think the society would make marriage as attractive as possible. No. Women are in history forced into it; now we see them pushed by circumstances and mores.
He then provides a section about how the laws are set up to prevent her from owning anything and having any say in her destiny her husband doesn’t want. The two are one person (the husband’s will) under the law. Carol Pateman (a legal philosopher) has a book where she says the society is set up as men contracting with one another, and they allow women to opt in through contracting to a particular family or male — except for those women who achieve the successful independent income and career (not possible in Mill’s time and one of his goals I suppose).
Since women are so stuck, one justice would be to allow them to get rid of a bad husband. But she is not allowed to leave — punishments are meted out to her on all sides. (This makes me remember how in Trollope’s Small House Lord de Courcy’s valet says he’s better off than Lady de Courcy; he can give notice.)
Of course not all men take such gross advantage of the law and custom, and many are kind and good, and a marriage is a partnership — of sorts. The woman is still subject and subordinate. But says he (and I think this important) “Laws and institutions require to be adapted, not to good men, but to bad. Marriage is not an institution designed for a select few.”
It would be tiresome to repeat all the commonplaces about how men as a group are unfit for this kind of power over another human being. Still he goes on to suggest the sorts of misery that can be inflicted on the powerless in private life. What mitigates the situation: personal affection that the marriage starts with, when it grows up between the two, shared pragmatic interests. People tell the woman she can tyrannize over others beneath her (say children I suppose, servants, those who need her husband), but Mill says (rightly) “A Sultan’s favorite slave has slaves under er, over whom she tyrannized, but the desirable thing would be that she should neither have slaves or be a slave.”
It’s true that we can’t renegotiate our relationship every day and power has to be meted out for final decisions, but it is not true that the same person is equally capable in all areas or ought to have final say in all.
There is a rhetoric that goes with women’s subordination: men “thought it a clever thing to insult women for being what men made them.” Men are taught to worship their own will. (Trollope presents this as a given, sometimes justifying it, sometimes critiquing it, but never ever justifying a woman having a will.)2. “There’s nothing men so easily learn as self-worship.” Men here means humanity individually.
Mill puts it forward as a self-evident truth that “the only school of genuine moral sentiment is society between equals.” Earlier ages rested social relationships openly on force and entirely on it. He is arguing the changeover occurring should include women.
And he goes farther by implication (includes children) when he argues that decency in life and happiness and practical good for all must come out of adapting the above moral rule to family life.
Many people do live today in this just morality, but many do not, and women are not allowed to have any life outside the family.
He then brings up religion to show it’s a rationale (as in Chapter 1 social norms) for supporting a brute power relationship. Wives must obey husbands &c
An important place to begin to move from the situation we are in now is for women to be able to own her property. People profess sentimental shock at this idea, but Mill says while he supports wholehearedly the idea of community of goods, he would not want to be in such a community (of two) where “what is mine is yours, but what is yours is not mine.” Both should profit.
My comment: Two people are not one. The radical truth of life is the limitation of human contact. We live and die in ourselves. Austen has a striking comment on this towards the end of Emma.
He again (as he has done throughout) brings out the parallel between wifehood and slavery as presently practised and now rejoices slavery has ended in the US, and says (in effect) since women are bodily answerable to men in marriage (and what is this if not a discussion of sex), having to bear the children and bring them up (usually all by herself as he’s gone from the home), it is the most basic justice that she should be secure financially, when she can be permitted to contribute and control her own earnings, be treated in effect as an adult (which she is as when she is thrown out).
Reality comes in here as Mill imagines the man drinking and idle — he is thinking of working class ideals but it covers upper class life too. “The power of earning is essential to the dignity of a woman.” Also of course a man. So when the two marry, the woman should be seen as and given the right to choose who she marries, as she would a profession or career. He imagines a much better life for all.
And laws must be set up to make this a norm and protect it.
Although this chapter started off very well, I found the last 2/3s
half filled with a kind of desperate twaddle or shadow-boxing. In much of the chapter Mill is concerned to fight off stereotypical ideas about women. I have no patience to summarize performative political talk so will not be outlining this part of the chapter but rather pulling telling lines. It is true stereotypes are part of what rule womens’ lives.
Also Mill himself believes in some of this. Women as we presently see them, and men too, are the product of artificial perverse constraints and mores. (The men don’t suffer as much since the perversions and strains are put there to release their power.) But after he has said we cannot know what women are or could be, he launches into a few things he thinks are really intrinsic to women. These are they are practical and intuitive. The rest he observes he says are the result of training or no education, the narrow circumstances of their lives, that they themselves are working to do for themselves in highly limited ways (under threat of loss or punishment and as contingent beings).
My response to the list of things he says intrinsic to all or most women is, well that’s not me. I’m not practical. (I’m perhaps not at all like the reader he envisages.) I wish I were intuitive clever about people; experience has shown me men can be this way much more effectively than I. In the section emerges from Mill himself some Victorian (I would say only they are still sometimes shouted from the rooftops of media) ideas about women. Such as the assumption (voiced at the end of Chapter 2) that they must spend much of their lives doing things for their marriage, for husbands, and bringing up children. So everything else must be adapted to this. Not that both people could integrate work and family or a woman could choose not to marry.
I suggest much of this section is an attempt at rhetoric. He thinks he needs to answer these ideas about women that are in his readers (which he assumes will be men’s) minds. And here and there there are good comments to qualify which I quote here:
she is expected to have her time and faculties always at the disposal of everybody. She must always be at the beck and call of somebody, generally of everybody. If she has a study or a pursuit, she must snatch any short interval …” [The reason I spent 2 decades translating sonnets is this is what I could do, could snatch in the intervals of time then]
The natural desire of consideration from our fellow creatures is as strong in a woman as a man; but society has so ordered things that public consideration is, in all ordinary cases, only attainable by her through the consideration of her husband, or her male relations …
I did love how he scorned false praise for women’s high morality meted out as compensation for taking from them every channel by which they could exercise it, and when he made fun of educated men (who nowadays will pride themselves, well some of them on their feminism):
I do not know a more signal instance of the blindness with which the world, including the herd of studious men, ignore and pass over all the influences of social circumstances, than their silly depreciation of the intellectual [ridicule aimed at educated women], and silly panegyrics on the moral nature of women.
The chapter does open well. He says that were it just a matter of
getting people to act decently and justly his job would now be
done. He says the “disabilities” (a word Trollope makes cruel fun of in Is He Popenjoy? of women are there to keep them subordinate “because the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal.” This is eloquently said:
Were it not for-that, I think that almost everyone, in the existing state of opinion in politics and political economy, would admit the injustice of excluding half the human race from the greater number of lucrative occupations, and from almost all high social functions; ordaining from their birth either that they are not, and cannot by any possibility become, fit for employments which are legally open to the stupidest and basest of the other sex, or else that however fit they may be, those employments shall be interdicted to them, in order to be preserved for the exclusive benefit of males.
The reason given is it’s for the good of everyone. Patently it’s for the good of half of society — to which I’ll add it takes care also of the children men want. Today Mill says such arguments are made more smoothly than they once were. Propaganda has gotten better.
In the present day, power holds a smoother language, whomsoever it oppresses, always pretends to do so for their own good: so, when anything is forbidden to women, it is thought necessary to say, and desirable to believe, that they are incapable of doing it, and that they depart from their real path of success and happiness when they aspire to it.
[This reminds of how Larry Summers, the ex-President of Yale, said
women are no good at math or science. That's where money is made and real power is had in our society. I'll mention a chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz committed suicide the other day; she jumped off a building. She was a premier engineer, a rare woman of achievement. I read she was hounded for doing what many academics do: she got a job for her partner and used money given her for housing and trips to make her life more comfortable. I believe in A Man for All Seasons there's a dialogue on how this works.]
The real loss says Mill is half of humanity. There is so little
talent among human beings for all sorts of higher or more difficult things, to prevent half of humanity from doing it, is a loss to everyone. It’s here he points out that when women have inherited central positions in governments (queens and the like) how well they have done. (Soon after this he has more of the semi-twaddle of what comes naturally to women.)
Are we so certain of always finding a man made to our hands for any duty or function of social importance which falls vacant, that we lose nothing by putting a ban upon one half of mankind, and refusing beforehand to make their faculties available, however distinguished they may be?
I very much liked this last principle put forward before he launched into his disquisition on women’s qualities:
To have a voice in choosing those by whom one is to be governed, is a means of self-protection due to everyone, though he were to remain for ever excluded from the function of governing …
Obviously women ought clearly also to chose who they shall marry
[This is what Squire Dale in Small House has no conception of.]
And Chapter 3 ends well. He comes back to the idea that if these are the characteristics of women (some of which he’s denied, but
others he’s allowed, and others qualified), and the response that
women want society this way. How do you know? When you ask them,
they don’t complain. Well a lot of them don’t. To which he replies, they don’t because it’s useless and what would they get for it. I’ve had on Trollope19thCStudies the response (when we were reading He Knew He Was Right) well, my spouse is happy the way it is, and she says so. That what the core of the argument on behalf of marriage. Full-stop. Mill:
That fact certainly enables men to retain the unjust privilege some time longer; but does not render it less unjust. Exactly the same thing may be said of the women in the harem of an oriental: they do not complain of not being allowed the freedom of European women .. Women do not complain of the general lot of women; or rather they do, for plaintive elegies on it are very common in the writings of women, and were still more so as long as the lamentations could not be suspected of having any practical object.
He says rightly at the close:
Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking.
And that’s what has not begun to happen in many areas of life. In the area of jobs and income to a much larger extent than Mill dreamed of men have allowed or seen that it’s in their interest to let women make money and do good work. Beyond that, well …
the record is very spotty to say the least. Read Eleanor Rathbone’s The Disinherited Family now. She was an important labor politician for many years. She was my first candidate for the £10 mote.
For Chapter 4 (beautifully eloquent ending) see comments section.