A Middlesex University resource by Catriona Woolner

Essay on John Stuart Mill

Catriona Woolner 1997

"One hundred years have passed since The Subjection of Women was published, yet it stands almost alone as an intellectual analysis of the position of women and an appeal for political action to secure equality of the sexes." (Rossi, A, 1972, p.4)

In 1869, when The Subjection of Women was first published, both the family and political society were based on dependence. In the case of the former, women were dependant on their male partners, and the latter, the labouring classes were dependant on the aristocracy, landowners, and owners of the means of production.

In The Possible Futurity of the Labouring Classes (1848) and The Subjection of Women John Stuart Mill argued that society was changing from a feudal/ patriarchal form to one based on freedom under law, and, in supporting this development, he argued that the family and relations between men and women must also develop, rationally, towards self-reliance and liberty.

In The Subjection of Women Mill argued that there is no case, in modern society, for supporting women's subjection on utilitarian grounds and that there is no basis in reason for their continued subjection.

In this essay I argue that the case Mill makes in The Subjection of Women is related to the personal circumstances of his own life.

In recent times, The Subjection of Women has been both criticised for its failings and hailed for its pioneering and visionary insight by feminist writers such as Diana Coole (1988) and Alice Rossi (1972). I have even heard Mill referred to as "a useless old Liberal" by one academic, but, after much consideration, must agree with the views expressed in Mill's favour by Rossi (1972, see Foreword) and, indeed, Mary Warnock in her Introduction to the Everyman edition (1985), where she wrote that:

"Mill ... held that women must be properly educated for their own sakes, to remedy the dull impoverishment of their lives. But he also argued ... that society as a whole would benefit if the talents of women were cultivated, rather than totally wasted." [Warnock, M, 1985, p.ix]

Happiness and personal circumstances

In criticism of Mill, Diana Coole (1988) wrote that The Subjection of Women:

"... forms an integral part of [his] liberal vision; it can no more be discussed in isolation than it can be dismissed." [Coole, D, 1988, p.133]

Mill's liberalism was related to his utilitarianism. As a Utilitarian, Mill believed that all human action could be traced to the basic principles of maximising pleasure and minimising pain. I will argue that The Subjection of Women also needs to be discussed in relation to Mill's personal circumstances and happiness, and that of his colleague, Harriet Taylor.

Mill could see no argument for supporting women's subjection on Utilitarian grounds. That is to say that, whilst it may well maximise pleasure for the male half of the population, it was very far from minimising the pain of the female half. Mill argued that, if it could be proven that the subjection was originally based on sound reasoning and was the result of having tried other methods of government, then it could be understood to have had some validity in being

"conducive to the happiness and well being of both" , (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 2.12)
but he pointed out that, far from being developed as a result of sound reasoning:

"Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognising the relations they find already existing between individuals." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 1.5)

In the 130 years since The Subjection of Women was first published, relations between the sexes have altered dramatically with the enactment of legislation which has guaranteed, in legal terms at least, equality for women in all those areas in which Mill bitterly opposed their lack of it. Women have achieved independence, under law, of men largely as a result of the campaigning efforts of the many, mainly women, who followed the pioneering example of people like J S Mill.

J S Mill was writing and politically active at a time when the family was in very many ways different to the contemporary model. Divorce was rare to the extent that the relationship developed between Mill and Harriet Taylor had to be 'put on hold' until Harriet's husband, John Taylor, died, by which time Mill and Taylor had known each other and carried on a relationship that, for its time, was most unconventional, for twenty-one years. (Rossi, A. 1970)

It is arguable that much of The Subjection of Women was influenced by personal circumstances which forced Mill and Taylor to defer their coming together owing to Taylor's own subjection. It is certainly clear that it is written from the perspective of one who understood the position of women in marriage at that time very clearly indeed, and also one who appreciated the benefits of women's liberation from that position with an enthusiasm and passion that could only be conceived in one who has suffered the constraints imposed by the prevailing conventions of the time.

"What marriage may be in the case of two persons of cultivated faculties ..., between whom there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities with reciprocal superiority in them ... I will not attempt to describe. To those who can conceive it, there is no need; to those who cannot, it would appear the dream of an enthusiast." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 4.18)

In these words, Mill describes the quality, and indeed equality, of his relationship with Harriet Taylor, a relationship which, as previously noted, was nurtured by them over a period of twenty-one years before they could finally come together legitimately as man and wife.(See also Mill's personal declaration written two months prior to their marriage).

Is the Family a Good Model for Political Society?

In modern times there is much controversy over the term "family", with many feminist writers preferring the terms "kinship" and "household" to describe contemporary modes of living, such is the current diversity of family life, brought about by increased mobility, divorce, remarriage, an increasing elderly population and the growth of individualism. In 1869, however, the family may have been seen as a microcosm of political society insofar as the many roles required within the one had their counterpart in the other. For example, both need to concern themselves with shelter, finance, health, education, external relations, future planning, defence (or order), and the most efficient application of available resources.

To take just a sample of these concerns, with regard to finance, Mill did not believe that married women with children should need to work outside the home, in a "just state of things":

"If, in addition to the physical suffering of bearing children, and the whole responsibility of their care and education in the early years, the wife undertakes the careful and economical application of the husband's earnings to the general comfort of the family; she takes not only her fair share, but usually the larger share, of the bodily and mental exertion required by their joint existence. If she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this, but only prevents her from performing it properly." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 2.16)

On the subject of education, Mill argued that women were educated to be subject to men, because it was in their interests at the time that they should be, and although he was not in favour of married women with children joining the workforce, yet he firmly believed that all avenues of employment should be open to women as well as men. To this end, women should be educated equally with men. In the first place he recognised that the childrearing years of a woman's life are only a part of her active life, in addition, should she find herself unhappily married to a despotic husband, she should be able to achieve separation from him and then be in a position to gain "honourable employment".

On the subject of discipline, or order, Mill was opposed to absolute power vested arbitrarily in the hands of potential despots, be they political leaders or patriarchs:

"In domestic as in political tyranny the case of absolute masters chiefly illustrates the institution by showing that there is scarcely any horror which may not occur under it if the despot pleases, and thus setting in strong light what must be the terrible frequency of things only a little less atrocious." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 2.4)

With regard to the most efficient application of resources, Mill argued that the subjection of women denied society the abilities of women:

"In all things of difficulty and importance, those who can do them well are fewer than the need, even with the most unrestricted latitude of choice, and any limitation of the field of selection deprives society of some chances of being served by the competent, without ever saving it from the incompetent." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 1.14)

Criticisms of Mill rebutted

According to Diana Coole (1988), Mill failed to consider that:

"... husbands would lack power and incentive to exploit genuinely equal women, or that women's economic contribution to the household might engender an equivalent obligation on men to share the housework." [Coole, D, 1988 p.145]

Yet what Mill actually wrote regarding women's participation in the workforce was:

"If she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this, but only prevents her from performing it properly." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 2.16)

and despite the judgemental nature of the remark in his use of the word "properly" (and indeed possibly because of - insofar as it may be in the woman's own judgement as to whether either of her roles is carried out "properly" to her own satisfaction), Mill here acknowledged what for many women, one hundred years later, had become a juggling act between career and their role in the home, when every discussion about the liberation of women was ultimately reduced to who was responsible for the washing up!

This is more an indication of Mill's understanding of human nature than any shortsightedness on his part. He perceived, at the time of writing, that one of the immediate effects of women entering the public sphere, conditions at the time being that men had no experience of or disposition towards mundane domestic responsibilities, would result in women continuing to be responsible for more than their fair share of domestic tasks, whilst bearing the additional burden of earning a wage and maintaining the subsequent lifestyle changes that this might entail - such as having a larger house to maintain, a more lavish lifestyle in terms of entertaining etc.

Mill may not have perceived that the same conditions would apply over hundred years later, but Coole must surely have been aware that, despite "engendering an equivalent obligation", in practice married women, whether contributing financially or not, continue to retain the lion's share of domestic responsibility to this day.

Furthermore, in criticism of Mill, Coole employs Harriet Taylor's argument that:

"A woman who contributes materially to the support of the family cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical manner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is dependant on the man for subsistence." [Taylor, H, 1851, quoted Coole, D, 1988, p.145]

in order to show that Taylor was more radical than Mill, and he less of a feminist. Yet experience in modern times has shown that many men continue to tyrannise their wives, whether contributing financially or not, experience of which Taylor would have been unaware, but of which Coole, unless totally sheltered from reality, must surely be aware.

Whilst Taylor's ideas may well be described as more radical than those of Mill, they may also be described as naive in that, twenty years after The Enfranchisement of Women (1851) was published, no appreciable change had taken place in women's position vis-a-vis their male partners or their legal status. Mill, on the other hand, understood politics and understood that it was necessary to appeal to men, who after all held the power to effect change, in a rational and non-threatening way. Major change in the traditional order takes time to achieve, as witnessed by the fact that it was not until one hundred years after The Subjection of Women was published that the 1969 Matrimonial Property Act ensured an equal distribution of assets on divorce by stating that the woman's work as housewife or wage earner should be counted an equal contribution to creating the family home.

It is necessary to separate out the feasible from the radical and move forward at a pace that is acceptable to those who wield the power, and particularly so, as argued by Mill, in the case where those who wield the power are also those who benefit most from their current position. In comparing the position of women in marriage to that of slaves, Mill argued that the task of achieving full equality would be arduous since the subjection was enshrined in custom and tradition and men were naturally indisposed towards change from a pattern of life that suited their purposes. Slavery at that time had been abolished throughout Europe, yet the slavery of women continued, albeit in a more refined, institutionalised form. As it had taken so long to abolish slavery, when only the few stood to benefit from it, Mill argued that it was no surprise that, with every man in the world standing to benefit, it would take much longer to abolish the subjection of women.

"Instead of being, to most of its supporters, a thing desirable chiefly in the abstract, or, like the political ends usually contended for by factions, of little private importance to any but the leaders; it comes home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family, and of everyone who looks forward to being so." (Mill, J S, 1869 par. 1.8)


This essay asserts that the family is indeed a good model for political society, that it was so in 1869 and, despite the many changes that have taken place since (and obviously taking account of the current diversity that exists whereby it may be more appropriate to refer to households than families) it remains so in 1997. We are all born into families, or households, and into an existing form of political society. The one should reflect the other insofar as each individual's early experiences of life occur with in the society of the family and their preparation for life thereafter is established therein. In addition, the morality of a society is reflected by those chosen to represent it in a national and global sense, those most visible to the world outside are seen as representative of the people that they purport to represent. A society that subjects women to a form of slavery cannot criticise one which enslaves other human beings, a society which holds people prisoners because of their political beliefs cannot criticise another for doing likewise, a society which pollutes the atmosphere via its manufacturing methods cannot criticise one which destroys forests to provide homes and livelihoods for its people. What is good for the goose must also be good for the gander.


Coole, D. 1988 Women in Political Society Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Mill, J.S. 1848 Principles of Political Economy , section "On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes"

Mill, J.S. 1869 The Subjection of Women

Rossi, A. 1970 "Sentiment and Intellect: The Story of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor" in A Rossi (Editor) Essays on Sex and Equality Chicago: Chicago University Press

Taylor, Harriet 1851 "Enfranchisement of Women" The Westminster Review 1851

Warnock, M. 1985 Introduction to the Everyman edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft, M, 1792) and The Subjection of Women (Mill, J S, 1869) Everyman's Library

Mill's personal declaration written two months prior to his marriage to Harriet Taylor

Being about, if I am so happy as to obtain her consent, 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 conscientiously 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 (as I most assuredly would do if an engagement to that effect could be made legally binding on me) feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring such powers; and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them. And in the event of marriage between Mrs Taylor and me I declare it to be my will and intention, and the condition of the engagement between us, that she retains in all respects whatever the same absolute freedom of action and freedom of disposal of herself and of all that does or may at any time belong to her, as if no such marriage had taken place; and I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretension to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage.

6 March 1851

J S Mill

[Rossi, A, 1970, p.45-46]

Essay copyright Catriona Woolner 1997

Suggested bibliography entry:

Woolner, Catriona 1997 Essay on John Stuart Mill, available on the Middlesex University Web at http://studymore.org.uk/xwoolner.htm

with in-text references to (Woolner, C. 1997).

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Mill argued that society was changing from a feudal/patriarchal form to one based on freedom under law, and... the family and relations between men and women must also develop, rationally, towards self-reliance and liberty.

Happiness and personal circumstances

Is the Family a Good Model for Political Society?
with regard to:

Criticisms of Mill rebutted

index of some of the essays on this site

Appendix: Mill's personal declaration written two months prior to his marriage to Harriet Taylor