We tend to focus on women who write about women and the issues that prevail around the experiences of the feminine, but we hardly introduce the work of men who write on our behalf. Such a man is John Stuart Mill, a 19th century philosopher and political economist who centered his work, The Subjection of Women (Dover Thrift Editions, 1997), originally published in 1897, on the revolutionary idea that women should be free to choose, to live, and to strive.
Mill begins his essay with the fact that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” He argues that this subordination should be eliminated and replaced with perfect equality between men and women. In this equal state he imagines, women are not weak and disabled simply because they are women, and men are not superior and privileged simply because they are men.
He posits logic in his argument, asserting that men think women’s place beneath them is ”natural,” not because it is, but because historically, domination has always been seen as “natural” by those who possess it. From the ancient Greeks’ domination over slaves to the British nobility’s domination over the serfs to the United States’ enslavement of Africans in the south, Mill demonstrates that the ones who perceived their power over others as ”natural,” did so because they were the dominant figures of the time. This domination does not make it right, as history has shown us.
On an interesting note, Mill brings to light that what seems “unnatural” to us is simply “uncomstomary.” We are not used to seeing certain things, and so they seem unnatural to us. Men in Mill’s time were not accustomed to seeing women as strong, physically or intellectually, and so they deemed them weak and fragile. Mill counters this perception of women by citing historical examples of women who reigned with equal fervor: Queen Elizabeth; the Greek Amazons; and Spartan women who were physically trained alongside men, proving to Plato that there existed “social and political equality of the two sexes.”
The problem with women’s subordination — in contrast to the serfs and slaves — is that women’s enslavement is “accepted voluntarily,” he points out. And this is the paradoxical issue. Women’s subservience to men in all things domestic and political is that women “make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it.” The reason for this, Mill reflects, is that women are conditioned for this secondary role from the moment they are born, knowing nothing more. And even though women at this time had begun writing their voices and collectively fighting towards the suffrage movement, many others remained in their stations, accepting their place beneath the men who ruled them.
According to Mill, women will always find it difficult to assert their independence and freedom because patriarchy has designed certain stratagems that make this rebellion a conflict of interest:
All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men…[because] their masters require something more from them than actual service. men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments…All men…desire to have…not a forced slave, but a willing one…They have therefore put everything in place to enslave their minds.
All women are brought up believing that they are different from men, physically, intellectually, and in terms of inner strength. This is no different today than it was in Mill’s time. Women continue to abandon careers for husband, children, and home, because this is “tradition.” It’s what women have always done. It’s what is “natural” and “customary.” Men expect women to sacrifice for others, for their children, and women do it — sacrifice themselves for those whom they love — because they are told that it is in their nature to do so — even if it isn’t.
This submissiveness, this subjection, makes women attractive to men, and women vie for this attraction, compete for it, and embrace the self-sacrificing persona for the affections of the man they love. And Mill finds this selfish on the part of men, for they prevail upon women to remain weak and passive and dominated, when they could be so much more.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.