John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Historical Context
  • 1:00 Victorian Customs &…
  • 1:44 Mill's Opinion on…
  • 2:31 Mill's Opinion on Women & Work
  • 3:24 Perfect Equality…
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

In John Stuart Mill's 1869 book, 'The Subjection of Women', Mill argues for female equality in a Victorian society that denied women many social and political rights. Learn about the historical context of this work and the effect it had on Victorian society.

Historical Context

The question of women's roles and rights in society has been a hotly debated topic for centuries. The Victorian Age of 19th-century England is no exception. In Victorian England, women gradually gained more legal rights, like the right to divorce, but they were still lacking in contrast to men when it came to opportunities for education, political rights, and social status.

Many thinkers, politicians, activists, and writers contributed to this debate on gender roles in the Victorian Age, aptly named the Woman Question. One of those individuals was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), a British philosopher and writer who was fed up with women being treated as subordinate and disempowered. So, in 1869, Mill published his book, The Subjection of Women, which analyzed women's status and advocated for women's equality in Victorian society.

Victorian Customs and Gender Roles

According to Mill, custom, by which he means Victorian culture or society, insists that a woman's primary duty is to please and serve others and to put her own desires on hold. That means women were expected and taught to attract a suitable husband, and, once married, to stay home, raise the children, submit to her husband, and attend to household affairs. This concept of female gender roles was also referred to as the cult of domesticity. Mill rejected all of this and instead argued that such custom kept women from reaching their full potential. Instead, Mill argued that women should be granted more political and legal rights, as well as given more social and economic opportunities.

Mill's Opinion on Women and Marriage

In Victorian society, women had to rely on their husbands for everything. Mill argued that this reliance of a wife on a husband created a type of slavery. Just as a slave is fearful of displeasing his master because the master is the only way the slave gets fed and clothed, a wife is also fearful of displeasing her husband because her husband is her only means of food, shelter, and social status. This unequal relationship between husband and wife cannot possibly make for a truly open, supportive, and affectionate marriage and home life. Therefore, Mill argued that marriages and families would actually be healthier if women were better educated and socially empowered. Slaves had already been freed from bondage by this time, why not women, too?

Mill's Opinion on Women and Work

In Victorian society, women were gradually entering the workforce, though they were still excluded from many fields and were not paid the same as men because Victorian society did not think working women could contribute to the good of the whole society. Thus, Mill showed that granting women individual rights did in fact serve the good of society.

For example, if a doctor is needed in a town, wouldn't it be best for the town to have the best doctor, regardless of gender? Wouldn't the knowledge and skill of the doctor be more important than the doctor's gender? Besides, Mill said that competition would weed out those doctors - whether male or female - who could not work efficiently. Again, Mill argued that allowing women into fields like medicine would not only improve the status of women but would improve society as a whole, because there will be more capable workers available.

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