In a recent talk, Christina Sommers was asked why she still claims the mantle of feminism after spending so many years trying to defeat the bad ideas that have seemingly consumed its ideological center. She responded that she felt that the classical liberal model of feminism for which she advocates has proven itself a triumph of human emancipation and she wants to see it returned to its former glory. Among the champions of classical liberal feminism on whose work she models her own vision, Sommers cited the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Stuart Mill. By reclaiming these ideas, she quipped that she wanted to Make Feminism Great Again. When I picked up this book, a piece of me hoped that I was going to find that inspirational core that Ms. Sommers wants to reclaim. Though it is considered a canonical work of classical liberal feminism, the few worthwhile arguments contained in John Stuart Mill’s famous essay, The Subjection of Women, are overshadowed by what mostly sounds like a foundational text for much of the rhetoric one hears in modern intersectional feminism.
Published in 1869, Mill’s essay ran contrary to the cultural and political norms of 19th century England. Just as Voltaire’s and Thomas Paine’s broadsides against the religious establishment were transgressive in their time, Mill’s argument was provocative in its time albeit for slightly different reasons. The colossal irony is that the arguments Mill makes that are genuinely liberal would be considered absolute heresy to the modern intersectional feminist. Some of Mill’s claims have aged well while others have been utterly demolished by the passage of time and the availability of empirical data. What’s perhaps most annoying is that almost 150 years have passed since this essay was written, women have been granted the voting franchise along with a host of legal privileges, and despite dominating academia and media, feminists still act as though their ideas are challenging and heterodox. If anything, modern feminism is not interested in emancipation at all. It’s about according unquestioned deference to the idea that women are still living in subjection and any gains that have been made are either insufficient, suspect or to be disregarded altogether. Even worse, it’s about making men pay penance over the belief that women are presently held in subjection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Besides being a plea for political equality, The Subjection of Women touches on the psychology of obedience, the connection between morality, liberty and Christian faith, gender differences in skill and nature, and ways in which the patriarchal hierarchy of authority within the family manifested in the democratic state. At the time of its writing, the voting franchise was granted exclusively to men who owned property. Women were, in fact, subject to a fairly rigid set of cultural norms and standards which simultaneously created the foundations for a stable social order and fueled enough angst for female Victorian-era authors and feminist academics for decades to come. Mill rightfully takes aim at the various ways in which law specifically sanctioned such subjection and subordination, but otherwise veers off into unfounded assumption and muddled sophistry. Throughout the essay, Mill repeatedly refers to the subordinate role of women in the most dire terms. By Mill’s reasoning, women apparently possess little or no ability to freely express love, affection nor do they have any genuine willingness to be wives or mothers. He invokes words like “slavery” and “control” while simultaneously recognizing that there has been an ongoing improvement for the lives of men and women alike. Marriage is, at best, a benevolent form of “bondage”. His entire case hinges on speculation over what could be under equal enfranchisement; the results of which can now be measured with approximately 150 years of political history to survey.
All that is proved in its favour by direct experience, is that mankind have been able to exist under it, and to attain the degree of improvement and prosperity which we now see; but whether that prosperity has been attained sooner, or is now greater, than it would have been under the other system, experience does not say.
Mill often sounds like a social constructionist throughout the piece. He seems to be dismissive of biological differences while placing an inordinate emphasis on the degree to which convention shapes female nature. If anything, this betrays the low opinion he holds of female agency or the degree to which women were equal partners in constructing social convention. Admittedly, the social conventions were rigidly upheld and women were encouraged to marry during the time he wrote the essay, but this is also partially due to the fact that, at the time of publication, women outnumbered men as a result of military conscription. Once again, feminists mysteriously overlook the “privilege” of being conscripted to die in a war simply for being born male and able bodied.
It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters; for, if conquered and slave races have been, in some respects, more forcibly repressed, whatever in them has not been crushed down by an iron heel has generally been let alone, and if left with any liberty of development, it has developed itself according to its own laws; but in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters.
The distinction between female nature and skill is somewhat blurry throughout the piece, but he’s basically arguing that female nature has been so thwarted by law and convention, no man knows of what women are truly capable. He makes no meaningful distinction between the skills one needs to employ in a government role versus those necessary in a private sector job. Is there a female “nature”? In other words, is there a set of characteristics one could broadly describe as feminine? I believe the answer is Yes and these capacities have been confirmed through empirical observations and neurological research. The same holds true for men. Skills, on the other hand, are learned. Mill’s entreaties to remove barriers of entry to private sector employment are unimpeachable, but even after almost 150 years, inequality of representation within the workplace is prima facie evidence of patriarchal social conditioning to the modern feminist. With respect to private sector employment, women have proven themselves as capable as men in professions where there’s skill parity and are also subject to the same moral and ethical failures as men. Whether one wishes to attribute excellence (or mediocrity) in a particular field to male or female nature diminishes the larger importance of maintaining a universal standard of excellence to which any individual should be measured. Is it fair to assert that female nature has contributed to the employment choices women have made despite an omnipresent feminist narrative of crushing patriarchal social pressures? Without a doubt. If women were genuinely interested in construction, street sanitation, military combat training, high tech and petroleum extraction, we’d see it reflected in the data. But we don’t. Are you likely to find a single gender studies paper which attributes this disparity to anything other than patriarchal brainwashing? Probably not.
The exercise of political power is another skill set altogether. Political power entails the ability to elicit loyalty and command obedience; the accumulation of which certainly does not preclude, and may even necessitate, the usage of coercion, psychological manipulation, blackmail and bribery.
The moral education of mankind has hitherto emanated chiefly from the law of force, and is adapted almost solely to the relations which force creates.
Mill invokes historical examples of female regents and heads of state as evidence that women possess the requisite skills necessary to hold political power and govern the nation state. He simultaneously repudiates the denial of the voting franchise to women as an injustice while claiming that there’s no reason to believe that women would have contrary interests if granted the vote. This is a claim which can and has been tested empirically, and has been proven categorically false. What Mill seems to overlook is the simple reality that with the voting franchise comes not only the question of the nature of rights themselves, but the responsibility for upholding the law. The nation state is, first and foremost, an institution endowed with the ability to exert military and police powers. Historically and presently, this responsibility has been borne predominantly by men. It’s easy to advocate for laws when the duty of enforcement and the cost of legislation is shouldered disproportionately by men. The centuries-long march towards the emancipation of the individual has been a balancing act between the degree to which the State compels moral behavior or reserves to the free exercise of individual agency. Mill earns his liberal credentials by taking an unequivocal stand in favor of the latter. The voting patterns and governing philosophies exhibited by women since the time this was written reveal a strong tendency against individual liberty in favor of legal positivism, redistribution, and laws that are generally more socialistic in nature.
Law and government do not undertake to prescribe by whom any social or industrial operation shall or shall not be conducted, or what modes of conducting them shall be lawful. These things are left to the unfettered choice of individuals.
He sounds only a few degrees removed from your average gender scholar whe he argues that the patriarchal social order is thwarting men’s perception of female capabilities and the range of what can be expressed. Despite dominating academia and being the targets of a global ego stroking campaign spanning every Western country on the planet, feminists endlessly flog the notion that women remain crushed under the bootheel of a soul destroying patriarchal social order. All disparities in outcome are also evidence of patriarchal sexism and subjugation. Virtually every barrier to private sector and government service has been opened to women, but feminists refuse to accept the reality that having a uterus doesn’t automatically make your art good or give you marketable job skills. Mill likely did not anticipate the vast art and entertainment industry we have today nor women’s ability to succeed wildly within it. Unsurprisingly, no quantity of female success is enough for the feminist and they seem unwilling to accept that paintings of menstrual blood and feminist poetry tend only to please feminists. Mill’s argument has metastasized into its own article of faith and has only served to rationalize feminist bigotry, inflame feelings of gender supremacy and claim a mantle of permanent victimhood.
But they have not yet produced any of those great and luminous new ideas which form an era in thought, nor those fundamentally new conceptions in art, which open a vista of possible effects not before thought of, and found a new school. Their compositions are mostly grounded on the existing fund of thought, and their creations do-not deviate widely from existing types.
One of Mill’s most egregious errors is in his underestimation of the female tendency to chase abstraction and use it to collectivize the plight of womanhood under a pretense of emancipation. The entire field of gender studies is arguably dedicated to the singleminded pursuit of chasing an abstraction called “patriarchy” and establishing a definitive and irrefutable causal link between this omnipresent oppression and all adverse outcomes affecting womanhood.
Feminism in one meme
A woman seldom runs wild after an abstraction. The habitual direction of her mind to dealing with things as individuals rather than in groups, and (what is closely connected with it) her more lively interest in the present feelings of persons, which makes her consider first of all, in anything which claims to be applied to practice, in what manner persons will be affected by it — these two things make her extremely unlikely to put faith in any speculation which loses sight of individuals, and deals with things as if they existed for the benefit of some imaginary entity, some mere creation of the mind, not resolvable into the feelings of living beings.
Worst of all, Mill appears to be one of the progenitors of the notion of “male privilege”. In the Mill worldview, all of men’s worst moral failings are compounded by the social order. He fixates almost exclusively on the idea that men automatically adopt an attitude of superiority while completely ignoring the sacrifices and responsibilities borne by men in order to raise a family. Excluding the abusive or excessively pathological, is there any love deeper or more profound than that of a mother and a son? Do sons not love their sisters? Is there no 19th century Englishman who sacrifices every fiber of his being to ensure the best possible life for his wife and daughters? How dismal is Mill’s worldview that he frames male and female relations in such bleak terms? How dim is his view of female initiative and agency that he places the burden disproportionately on the shoulders of men? While there was undoubtedly some truth to what he was saying, the hope for greater emancipation has mostly devolved into an obnoxious global guilt trip.
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.
As a footnote, Mill was surprisingly astute in his observations about Islam’s resistance to reform and the resultant stagnation this inflexibility has bred within Islamic culture. Ironically, the liberal ideal of equality has proven itself a bottomless pit. The equality for which Mill advocated in this essay has become a pathological pursuit for feminists and the progressive Left in general. The idea of male privilege that Mill introduced in this piece has been extended into every aspect of Western culture to the point where it is an act of bigotry to assert that some cultures hold superior values than others. If he were to utter these sentiments today, he’d be vilified as a white supremacist and a racist.
To pretend that Christianity was intended to stereotype existing forms of government and society, and protect them against change, is to reduce it to the level of Islamism or of Brahminism.
When citizens of Western democracies are asked whether they are supportive of “equal rights” for women, you’re likely to hear an unequivocal and resounding Yes. The fact that many people will insist that this hasn’t yet been achieved speaks to the true legacy of Mill’s essay: the idea that women are living in a state of subjection. Mill undoubtedly wanted political and social egalitarianism, but what he actually wrought was a cult of perpetual grievance. Clearly, Mill’s essay was a catalyst for change. In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act was passed which allowed women to inherit property and own money. In 1884, a second act of the same name granted married women the right to own property apart from their husbands. While most would likely agree that these were true triumphs of liberalism, the same cannot be said of the broader legacy of feminism that this essay helped usher into the world.