Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

Wow. This book is brilliant.  Mill isn't just a good feminist-considering-he-was-writing-in-the-1860s, he's just a good feminist.  In The Subjection of Women (which, btw, is not a how-to), Mill tears apart any and all arguments for women being legally and socially subordinate to men.  Obviously, women not being able to own property and being totally subject to their husbands isn't really an issue anymore, but his arguments extend further than that to
general inequality between men and women, some of which unfortunately are still relevant.

Mill starts by refuting the argument that tradition and custom are proof of a natural order and are justifications for men's domination of women.  Mill points out that the contemporary system wasn't arrived at by thoughtful deliberation of learned minds; instead, it is a vestige of a time when strength and brutality were paramount, "the primitive state of slavery lasting on."  Men wanted women for sex and procreation and were physically stronger, so they subjugated them.  Mill admits that it's not as bad as it used to be, but the patriarchy still "has not lost the taint of its brutal origin.  No presumption in its favor, therefore, can be drawn from the fact of its existence."  He points out that because we've largely abandoned a system of might equaling right, we pretend its remnants don't exist to feel better about ourselves; but that doesn't mean it doesn't still exist, and it's important to call it what it is.

Mill also explains why it makes sense that the subjugation of women still exists.  First, the power is enjoyed by half of the population.  When a single dictator or a small ruling class wield power over large numbers of people, that power becomes largely unpopular and easier to fight against.  When half the population enjoys the power, it's a lot harder to make a top to bottom societal change.  Further, it's much easier to exert control over subjects when the exertion is so direct.  It is hard for one or a few to control masses, who are spread out and often unsupervised.  However, each woman is constantly under the watch and control of her father/husband and is utterly dependent on him (fortunately this is one of the outdated observations).  "In the case of women, each individual of the subjected class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined."  The opportunities and costs of defying him is much greater.  Thus, men dominating women still existed not because it was "natural" or "right," but because bringing about systemic change was so hard.  And of course it was hard for men to acknowledge this, for, as Mill asks, "was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?"

This dynamic still exists, even as women have gained greater financial independence.  Because men didn't want mere slaves or servants, they indoctrinated women to seek men's approval as well.  "All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections."  This still crops up today.  I've mentioned the Harvard Heidi-Howard study before, but this crops up in many areas.  Sisters are more likely to take care of aging parents their brothers; women are (still, somewhat) expected to give up their careers in order to raise children; girls are praised for being nice and sweet much more than boys, who are encouraged to compete and assert themselves.

"When we put together three things - first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife's entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character."  

Mill goes on to explain how we all suffer from allowing being "born a girl instead of a boy...[to] decide a person's position through all life."  By only drawing from half of the population for skilled jobs and leadership positions, we drastically under use our human resources and we're all poorer for it (Mill also argues that any observable differences between men and women aren't dispositive because girls and boys receive disparate levels of education and are raised so differently).  Mill takes a free market approach: if you let everyone try to do whatever they want, those who are most suited for an occupation will get it.  If women can't perform a task because they are too fragile or not smart enough or something (he says for the sake of argument), then the market will prevent them from doing so and society won't have to bar them from it.  Another of my favorite truth bombs that he drops is when he points out that if it was in women's nature to remain in the home to bear and raise children, then the patriarchy wouldn't have to compel them to do it.  

I could go on and on.  Mill makes numerous great arguments and it was a treat to read, even if sometimes he was a little verbose.

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