Tuesday, March 01, 2016

J.S. Mill’s pamphlet, The Subjection of Women (1869)

There is an absolutely exquisite and powerfully compelling analysis of J.S. Mill’s political pamphlet, The Subjection of Women (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1869) by Nadia Urbinati near the end of Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (University of Chicago Press, 2002): 175-189. I happen to have a “new impression” of Mill’s text published in 1909 by Longmans, Green and Co. (London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta!) that I bought many years ago for $2.00 (hence the image from a book that was printed three years prior to mine but is otherwise the same). It has an introduction with a detailed outline of the argument not found in the first edition.

In any case, Urbinati describes it as a political work that goes beyond “liberal politics.” She notes that “since the 1980s,” scholars have in several important respects corrected earlier liberal readings, thereby recovering a “radicalized” feminism, although these later interpretations transformed The Subjection of Women into a “moral text that was a target of his contemporaries.” According to Urbinati, however, while it is indeed a “radical text,” this is “not because it translates gender inequality into a moral issue, but rather because it uses political categories to analyze interpersonal relations that are not intrinsically political. The radicalism of Mill’s feminism is normative because it stems from an analysis of human relations as power relations.”

Urbinati reminds us that Mill’s “political-rhetorical text” “was conceived, written, and published as a pamphlet that addressed a specific audience, not a hypothetical humanity, and not even the république des lettres or a neutral or impartial reader.” Moreover, “[a]lthough he was convinced of the urgency of women’s emancipation, [Mill] waited eight years to publish The Subjection of Women because he thought in 1861, when he wrote it, the political and cultural climate was not ready for his ideas about emancipation. [….] Mill was not an academic, nor was his feminism academic: ‘It is necessary on such subject [women’s equality] to be as far as possible invulnerable.’” Urbinati details Mill’s rhetorical “strategies,” the style being “forensic for deliberative purposes.” And while he “set up his adversarial strategy by stating the liberal principles of equality and liberty up front, he did not limit himself to liberal arguments.” Mill displays a mastery of Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, invoking liberal principles as self-evident or a priori and widely shared by way of “ground[ing] [his] ‘demonstration of the actual conditions of injustice women suffer, allowing him to challenge his adversaries to justify their biased views publicly and daring them to oppose them with reasoned arguments, rather than ‘preferences’ or dogmatic assumptions. So from the very beginning, Mill presented The Subjection of Women as a text of advocacy.”

Mill’s evidentiary “proofs” were sundry: “psychological, historical, logical, and moral.”

“He vividly described the oppressive character of Victorian marriage laws, and the mental and physical violence women suffered as a consequence of male domination. Drawing on historical examples of women’s excellence, and employing the empirical rule that forbids any evaluation of women’s capabilities until they have been given the chance and instruments to express themselves freely, he refuted the common view of women’s intellectual inferiority. He claimed, finally, that women’s emancipation will lead to moral progress and the general improvement of the whole society, and that such progress is consistent with the institution of representative government which actually assume the existence of and requires independent citizens.”

The rhetorical strategies employed are essential to proper appreciation of the political context and corresponding arguments employed in Mill’s “book,” which have often been insufficiently grasped or ill-understood. Urbinati elaborates:

“It is interesting that the two elements that make The Subjection of Women a rhetorical text—the eclecticism of its arguments and the kind of demonstrations it adduces—have been the main targets of criticism. On the one hand, critics complain that Mill’s book is a ‘mixture’ of different approaches and, as such, a betrayal of theoretical consistency. On the other, they question the evidence he used to justify his claim, that is, the demonstrations he used to capture his audience’s attention and sympathy. Indeed, the most common objection concentrates on the final pages of the second chapter, where Mill tried to assure his Victorian readers that giving women freedom of choice would not necessarily imply destroying the family since, presumably, women would choose to raise children instead of looking for a job.

I believe, though, that it is inappropriate to analyze this argument in terms of its theoretical consistency with the a priori principles of equality and liberty. Clearly, Mill was not trying to build a general theory of justice, but to make a radical principle palatable to an audience that was not radical at all, as the furious reactions to his book show. Like other feminists of his time, he had to be prudent in order to be radical.”

In fine Aristotelian fashion, Mill’s rhetoric is keenly sensitive to “the passions, habits, and tastes of its audience.” Mill had to reassure his readers that the means and ends of the emancipation of women would not tear asunder the social fabric (to stick with the metaphor: it should rather, in time, strengthen its warp and weft). In fairness to Mill,

“to point out that some of Mill’s opinions are weak and moderated is simply to say that, as a political pamphlet, his text is the product of a specific time and place. Nevertheless, its theoretical value does not lie in the kinds of demonstration he uses, but in the core argument of his vindication. It is this argument that makes The Subjection of Women a radical and still powerful text.”

Mill characterizes the institution of marriage in his time and place as one of “despotism,” and thus freedom from subjection and movement toward a society conspicuous for the cooperation of self-dependent citizens (as in the Athenian polis) would not be attained by simply calling upon “arguments for individual free choice,” or invoking the model of “marriage as a contractual relation” [in which case the terms would meet the conditions of an unconscionable adhesion contract*], or merely proposing a “policy of opportunity.” Rather, legal reform would have to be complemented and reinforced by reformation of education, profound changes in social norms and opinions, in the manner and substance of habits and social inculcation generally, and of course in the nature of family life itself. As Urbinati explains, Mill conceived of the ideal marriage alone the lines of a “miniaturized polis,” which implies

“a form of freedom wherein each participates according to competence and character. In the polis, the rule of law allows equal enjoyment of liberty and therefore the expression of individual variety. Whereas despotism generates and requires atomistic homogenous subjects devoid of individuality, the polis is based on individual specificity and voluntary commitment, and fosters civic friendship. Here, equality refers to a condition of reciprocity in power relations, to a plurality of roles and ways to contribute to the common good.”

Finally, it was Mill’s notion of despotism that “allowed [him] to politicize all facets of women’s lives within the family, and gave his feminism a radical twist.” And the lens of radicalism can be said to permit us a vision beyond the social and political geography of liberalism proper (or at least its often dominant libertarian topography):

“The cause of women’s freedom became a cause of freedom for the entire society, just like the cause of the slaves in abolitionist writings and of the working class in Marx’s theory. This represented a decisive break with the normative principle of the directly responsible individual agent that underpins the theory of negative liberty. The marital system, like slavery in America and the capitalist system of production, constituted an objective system of relations that operated independently of the will and the intention of the actors. The husband in Mill’s theory, like the capitalist in Marx’s, was driven, as it were, to act according to the logic of domination. Patriarchal relations shaped and determined his identity just as they did his wife’s. So just as a ‘good’ capitalist could not change the exploitative nature of capitalism, a few ‘good’ and humane husbands couldn’t change the patriarchal nature of marriage. By the same token, a husband’s respect for his wife’s negative freedom could not in itself guarantee her security or recognition as an equal. Mill used the same argument to support women’s enfranchisement.”

* Urbinati proceeds to point out that William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) “castigated the existing marital ‘contract’ as a ‘fraud,’ and the worst of all monopolies, since it institutionalized a relation of slavery,” an argument “anticipated” by the woman he married, Mary Wollstonecraft. It was this English writer, philosopher, and pioneering feminist who “made equality a prerequisite for the dignity of man as well as women: the subjection of women precludes men themselves from achieving recognition as the bearers of the highest human qualities, such as virtue and intelligence.”


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