On The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

Shaped by Experience
by Joshua M. Patton

The subject of whether Harriet Taylor Mill co-authored The Subjection of Women with her husband John Stuart Mill is still a topic debated by literary and political theorists.  Mill explains it in his autobiography this way, “When two people have their thoughts and speculations completely in common, it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality which of them holds the pen.”  One way of interpreting this statement is that Mill may have written the words himself—not unlikely since he lost his wife to illness in 1858, three years before this text was first published—but that the ideas contained within were borne as much from his wife’s intellect as his own.  Others argue that he may have taken her original writing and incorporated it into the manuscript.  However it happened, Mill (and his wife) realized that this argument would be most effective if it seemed to come from a male writer so she was not attributed when the book was released.  In fact, it is thought that Mill extended this thinking to his arguments, and framed the benefits to the emancipation of women in a misleading fashion.  However, considering the context of his wife’s influence (directly or indirectly) on his theories, I suggest that by examining his claims it will be apparent that they are sincere and consistent with his logic throughout the essay.

            For the male-dominated audience Mill was attempting to reach, it is easy to imagine how—from their point of view, at least—that by relinquishing any of their hold on society they are working against their own interests.  So when Mill calls for the education of women, someone wishing to maintain the status quo would realize that it is much harder to deceive and oppress an educated segment of the population.  While this may be true and may have even occurred to Mill, he acknowledges that, “It is easy to know stupid women.  Stupidity is much the same the world over” (Mill, p. 33).  He is not disparaging women here or even the stupid.  Mill is setting up his argument that stupidity itself “prevail[s] in the circle by which the person is surrounded” (Mill, p. 33).  By educating women, they raise the collective intelligence of society and only circles of stupid men will be lamenting the lost trickery.  Like his arguments against physical violence and “ill usage” in marriages, this is Mill the theorist writing something he truly believes.

            Yet, Mill the husband appears in the text as well.  Towards the end of Chapter 4, Mill describes the benefits of a marriage between equals.  Spouses with “similarity of powers” and who, from time to time, have “the luxury of looking up to the other” (Mill, p. 100).  Mill knows that not every marriage is going to fit his almost wistful description of not only equal intellect but symbiotic personalities.  When Mill is describing the benefits of his claims, especially with regard to marriage, the situation he describes is most likely his own marriage, his hypothetical woman isn’t hypothetical at all.  She’s Harriet Taylor Mill, or at least what bits of her Mill could get on the page.  In fact, in this very section Mill acknowledges this weakness, saying “To those who can conceive [a marriage between equals], there is no need [to describe it]; to those who cannot, it would appear the dream of an enthusiast.”

            Harriet Taylor Mill made an enthusiast out of her husband.  This work is both groundbreaking (at the time) political theory but it is also a love letter.  It is a gift from the Mills to the world, so that everyone might have what they were lucky enough to find.  Sentimentality aside, it’s indicative of a type of passion that can guide talented hands in the shaping of ideas that can affect us all.

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. "Chapter 7, General Review of the Remainder of My Life." Autobiography. University of Texas at Austin. Web. 09 Apr 2013. http://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/mill/auto/auto.c07.html

Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. Nook. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2012. eBook.