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John Stuart Mills & Feminism

As a history junkie, I jumped on the opportunity to explore one of our class’s big thinkers more in-depth. As a double major in history, my interest is more narrowly focused on the women’s rights movement, more specifically during the 1960s. Nevertheless, the evolution of women’s roles in society, the formation of gender expectations and the origins of feminism has always absorbed me, and I was fascinated to learn that John Stuart Mill was one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Although we often associate Mill with the philosophical ideology of utilitarianism, his 1869 essay entitle The Subjection of Women, advocates for perfect equality between men and women and that subjugating women was  the greatest form of oppression that plagued Great Britain. He stressed that women had the intellectual abilities to be exposed to higher education and should have equal access, while also possessing the capability to occupy roles in the political and professional domains. Additionally, Mill commented on the status and sanctity of marriage, emphasizing that the union between a man and a woman should be equal and that parity should be recognized both within the home and within a social setting.

In regards to the education of women, he believed that the people of Britain ultimately perpetuated certain gender roles within society because the education system was designed to bind women to a sphere of domesticity. By only enlightening and informing women about their responsibilities as mothers, wives and caretakers, men ultimately forced women to become reliant on the dominant paternal figures in their lives. What I found particularly interesting about Mill’s support for women’s liberation was not only did he put his thoughts into writing, but he also put his words into action. As a member of Parliament, he supported the Reform Bill of 1867, while also pushed for an amendment to the bill that would have secured women’s suffrage in Britain. It was no surprised that the amendment to grant a woman’s right to vote failed (Britain would grant temporary voting rights to women in 1918 and full suffrage in 1928).

Mill’s support of women’s rights ultimately correlated with his ideas of utilitarianism, which preach that, “the best actions and policies are defined as those that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” (ABC-CLIO, 2012). By securing their right to vote, escaping tyranny and patriarchy, and recognizing that their self-interests were different from their male counter-parts, women would be able to secure and redefine their meaning of happiness. At the same time however, despite the fact that Mill’s believed in gender equality, he could not escape the ubiquity of prejudices that existed at the time and the importance of conformity to gender roles.  For example, Mill wrote that, “Like a man when he chooses a profession, so when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes a choice of the management of a household, it may in general be understood that she makes a choice of the management of a household, and the brining up of a family, as the first calls upon he exertions” (Subjection of Women, Chapter 2). This assertion contradicted his belief that women should break from gender stereotypes, and that men and women should maintain equality within the home. This statement underlined women’s inferiority to men, which challenges Mill’s support of women’s liberation and suffrage. Despite the fact that Mill succumbed to societal pressures, made evident by some of  his statements, his ideas as a man were ultimately radical for his time in regards to women’s progress within society, and her desire to break from the shackles of domesticity and have equal opportunity in the public sphere.



About Dana Silverstein

I am a Senior Management and History major at Bucknell University. I currently live in Westchester, New York and am hoping to start a career in advertising upon graduation.


6 thoughts on “John Stuart Mills & Feminism

  1. I really like the way you explained the connection between Mills’ view of women’s rights and the ideas underlying utilitarianism in the post. I agree with Mills’ opinion that equal rights for both men and women bring the most benefit(s) to the most number of people. Also, it is evident that Mills’ was ahead of his time in terms of gender equality and women’s role(s) in society. I guess I am interested to know how you think Mills would evaluate the present conditions in society. Would he be happy/surprised/proud to see the progress that women have made (being able to vote, access to higher education, holding positions of political and professional authority, etc.)?

    Posted by Lauren McGuiggan | January 30, 2012, 1:50 pm
  2. That’s a great question! I think that he would definitely be happy to see women gain full suffrage but may have commented how long it took for it to actually be achieved! From the global perspective however, I think a lot of questions come into play. As a proponent of feminism, Mill believed in what is now considered “white feminism” which neglects the class and race component that Black, Chicano and Asian feminism address. I would be curious to see how he would incorporate the aforementioned aspects into his own belief about women’s rights and the future of equality for women. I think that even though women have made significant strides in the pursuit for parity of men, Mill would recognize that there are still barriers for women, such pay gaps in the work place and gender discrimination. Additionally, there are still countries that treat women as second class citizens and where a social hierarchy is reinforced. I would be curious how Mill’s would reconcile these countries’ views on women, religion and his utilitarianism philosophy.

    Posted by Dana Silverstein | January 30, 2012, 3:44 pm
  3. Dana, I was intrigued to hear about Mill’s involvement in the women’s rights movement. I’ve definitely come across Mills in a few classes before and I can’t remember anything being mentioned about this. I really like reading interesting personal life things about famous scholars like this. I find that many times we talk about a person’s famous paper or book, but rarely find the time to talk about what they did in their personal time. Knowing more about a person’s personal feelings, thoughts, I believe helps me to better understand the concept behind their writings. I can better frame their work and understand where they are coming from.

    Posted by Ben K. | January 30, 2012, 10:16 pm
  4. Ben, I definitely agree with you. Often times, as I have learned throughout my history course of study, individual’s background, schooling, family relationships etc… can shape the way in which people formulate their ideas and philosophies. At the same time, I think we often glorify one specific achievement of a famous historical figure, overlooking some of the smaller contributions he or she might have made. I think this is the case for Mill. We know him as a great utilitarian, but without taking a deeper look into his past, we would have never have known his beliefs and attitudes towards women’s liberation.

    Posted by Dana Silverstein | January 30, 2012, 11:19 pm
  5. Similarly to Ben, I have also run across Mill’s in some of my past classes and actually in some of my current classes this semester. Earlier today, I actually came across Mill’s utilitarian theory in my auditing textbook. With Mill’s fresh in my mind, it was great to read about some of his lesser notable works and idea. In my textbook, Auditing: A Business Risk Approach by Larry Rittenberg, Karla Johnstone, and Audrey Gramling, his theory was applied directly to the procedure of auditing. However, the textbook seemed to be more partial to the rights theory which is a consequentialist’s view on ethics.

    Posted by Amanda Skonezney | January 31, 2012, 3:32 pm
  6. I thought that you had a very interesting take on Mills. I do not have as strong of an understanding of History, and thus learning of other political and academic endeavors of people we learn about in class is very interesting. I think that the idea of gender also applies to that of business ethics in terms of the public and private spheres. By advocating women’s rights Mills is making it clear that women should be able to move into the public sphere and thus into the business world where they can be incorporated into the ethics of the corporate world. I really like how you tied his studies of women into his studies on utilitarianism as well and completely agree with your conclusions.

    Posted by Catherine Gibbons | January 31, 2012, 8:14 pm

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Blog 5 before session 6 What (interest) or Who (person) Inspires You? For this week’s prompt, the Blog Council wants you to examine how this class relates to your own interests. So, please write about how this class relates to some of your own intellectual or other learning interests. We are NOT interested in how it relates to a specific career goal. Plan B: same idea, but based on a person. See whole post for details.

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