John Stuart Mill


All men … desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected to them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds’.

John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869)

John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806, the eldest child of the political reformer, economist, psychologist and historian James Mill who developed a famous (perhaps infamous) educational regime for his children. Mill also became a radical reformer, eventually being elected MP for Westminster in 1865 on a platform advocating votes for women and working-class men. He presented a petition to Parliament on women’s suffrage in 1866, and tabled an amendment to the Reform Act in 1867 replacing the word ‘man’ with the word ‘person’, which was defeated by 196 votes to 73. He campaigned on a range of other feminist issues, and The Subjection of Women remains one of his most widely-read works in political philosophy.

Although Mill was so formed by his father’s views and pedagogical efforts that he recalled that, when young, his conscience spoke to him in the voice of his father, even from the earliest time Mill disagreed with his father on the question of women’s right to vote. James Mill had argued that women’s interests were adequately represented by their fathers, guardians or husbands, and that therefore it might be permissible not to give them the right to vote, even in a representative government, without involving a ‘sacrifice of the securities for good government’. Mill ‘most positively dissented’, noting that:

‘the interest of women is exactly as much and no more involved in that of men, as the interest of subjects is involved in that of kings, and … every reason which exists for giving the suffrage to anybody, imperatively requires that it be given to women’.

Mill, Autobiography (1871)

Like many other political theorists, Mill used the term ‘slavery’ to describe the position of those who lacked political liberties (such as the right to vote) and were ruled over by unaccountable authorities. He knew this was not chattel slavery, but he thought other things could rightly be termed ‘slavery’ – one of which was marriage.

Mill somewhat muddies the water by calling marriage a form of ‘legal slavery’, by which he means to contrast it with ‘illegal’, i.e. chattel, slavery which had been abolished in Britain (and very recently in the United States when Mill was writing Subjection of Women). Arguably, he was making the distinction modern theorists use today between de jure slavery (slavery that is legal, as chattel slavery was in many places in the past), and de facto slavery (that is, conditions which amount to slavery, even though slavery as a legal institution has been abolished). In Subjection of Women he lists a variety of ways in which women are de facto enslaved by their husbands due to what law and public opinion allow men to do to their wives; the lack of legal protections against their husband’s will afforded to women; and the lack of opportunities for women to achieve financial and personal security, or social respect, apart from by being married. Chattel slavery, Mill knew, was enforced by fear – he argued that women, in the main, were enslaved by education – an education which had been designed by men to suit their own purposes, and which men’s political, legal, economic and phsyical power allowed them not only to enforce but make appear ‘natural’.

Mill thought that, in history, most of the population (male and female) had been enslaved, and that the study of the past in most countries showed a slow movement towards greater freedom and equality, particularly for men. In history, whole groups of people have often been defined by an arbitrary characteristic (class, race, sex etc.) or hereditary position (e.g. slave, serf, or younger son) and barred forever from freedom, holding power, or engaging in certain types of employment. Mill argued that these barriers were – very slowly in the case of race – being broken down, apart from for ‘the aristocracy of sex’. He saw this as being an anachronism to which men had a peculiar blind spot – as strange as if there was a temple to the Roman god Jupiter in central London, instead of St Paul’s cathedral. British and American men, in particular, had a self-image as modern and civilised, championing ideals of freedom, democracy and meritocracy – but not for women.

Mill sometimes seems to (wrongly) imply that all women were just as much enslaved as they had ever been, and at other times offers a more nuanced account of how laws and customs particularly around marriage leave women vulnerable to exploitation so severe it should be called slavery. He was particularly concerned about what we would now call marital rape, which was not only not treated as a crime in his time, but viewed by many contemporaries as not even a wrong. He highlighted women’s powerlessness in marriage, where all their property belonged to their husbands; when they were not legally permitted to divorce or even seperate from their husbands; when men demanded emotional as well as physical, domestic, labour from their wives; and when they had to swear a vow of obedience to them, which was seen as a binding promise and not a mere form of words. So concerned was he about the powers vested in men over women on marriage, that when he himself wed Harriet Taylor he made a declaration divesting himself of any supposed power and rights he would legally be receving.

‘Being about … to enter into the marriage
relation with the only woman I have ever known, with whom I would have entered into that state: and the whole character of the marriage relation as constituted by law being such as both she and I entirely and conscientously disapprove, for this among other reasons, that it confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will: I, having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers … feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as confernng such powers: and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them … I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretension to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of … marriage.’

John Stuart Mill, Statement on Marriage (1851).

Mill acknowledged that not all married women were violently abused or exploited – what he wanted to highlight was that the law, and prevailing social norms, made women vulnerable to such violence and exploitation, any nothing could be done by them (or, often, by their friends and relatives) to prevent it. Even the most respectable men in their public lives can be tyrants at home, and can

‘indulge the utmost habitual excesses of bodily violence towards the unhappy wife, who alone, at least of grown persons, can neither repel nor escape from their brutality … towards whom the excess of dependence inspires their mean and savage natures, not with a generous forebearance, and a point of honour to behave well to one whose lot in life is trusted entirely to their kindness, but on the contrary with a notion that the law has delivered her to them as their thing, to be used at their pleasure’.

John Stuart Mill, Subjection of Women (1869).

Writing with Harriet Taylor in the 1850s, Mill highlighted a range of problems with the law on domestic violence – and how women could also tyrannise over those weaker than them, and unprotected, in the home, particularly children and young adults employed as live-in domestic servants. He also criticsed what more modern thinkers have called the ‘second shift’, whereby women are expected to do all the domestic labour on top of earning money outside the home. Mill has been critcised for arguing that women should treat marriage as their ‘career’ if they choose to marry. I have argued elsewhere that Mill’s position is a bit more nuanced. He thought that if women had to do all the domestic work and also work outside the home, this was exploitative, and that in contemporary society (where men would refuse to take on domestic work, and where if mothers did not take domestic labour, children would be neglected), then it was fairest for women if they (only, or mainly) did domestic work, or only as much work outside the home as was consistent with their domestic duties.

His analysis reminds us that a lack of legal protection makes women vulnerable to exploitation in marriage; that even when there are legal protections victims can be loath to invoke them for fear of retaliation by their abusers, and courts – particularly where they are staffed by men – can be unwilling to convict. He also reminds us that women can be exploiters, and violent, as well as men – and that unpaid domestic work can be a form of exploitation.

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