What is ''The Subjection of Women'' about?

Samantha Logue, Erica Cummings
  • Author
    Samantha Logue

    Samantha Logue has taught high school history, social science, and English for over three years. She has also tutored English online for two years and has a master's degree in history from the University of the Witwatersrand. She also has a Post Graduate Certificate of Education.

  • Instructor
    Erica Cummings

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

Explore John Stuart Mill's ''The Subjection of Women''. Learn the book's historical context, read a summary and analysis, and review Mill's take on female subjugation. Updated: 07/11/2022

Table of Contents


John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women

John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, political economist, and politician. He was a passionate advocate of Classical Liberalism and in 1859, he published his most well-known work, On Liberty. Unlike many other liberal philosophers of the Victorian Era, Mill's vision of liberalism extended to the rights of women and he was a champion of gender equality.

In 1869, he published the essay The Subjection of Women. Within this context, the title refers to ''female subjection'' in which women are controlled by an individual or the state. Throughout the document, Mill presents arguments as to why women should be allowed to participate equally in society, politics, education, and professions.

Portrait of John Stuart Mill

Portrait of John Stuart Mill

Historical Context of The Subjection of Women

Despite deriving its name from the queen, the Victorian Era in Britain was highly patriarchal and male-oriented. The education of women was limited and they were denied access to many professions. Philosophers, politicians, and even scientists claimed that women were inferior to men. Due to supposed intellectual deficiencies, women were not considered rational enough to vote.

However, throughout the 19th Century, the Woman Question emerged as a common topic within political and social discourse. The question arose during a time in which rapid urbanization was changing the nature of society. Urbanization had created new job opportunities for women, particularly in factories and manufacturing. Often this was labor-intensive work, but women could perform these jobs just as well as men. In fact, some businesses preferred to hire women as they could pay them fewer wages. In previous decades, women often worked on farms and in the household. They looked after crops, raised children, and were reliant on their husbands for income. As a result of urbanization, many women worked outside the home and could achieve some level of financial independence. Women increasingly became an important part of the labor force and economy. Questions began to be asked as to what sort of legal, political, and social rights these women were entitled to.

These questions did not just revolve around working-class women. The role of middle and upper-class women was also impacted by industrialization. Thanks to the marvels of manufacturing, women did not have to spend hours fixing and mending clothes or preparing food. This meant more free time, and often women would take advantage of these hours with reading and education. However, women in the first half of the 19th Century were denied access to higher education. Eventually, these persistent limitations led women of all classes to demand equal economic, political, and social opportunities.

From the mid to the latter part of the 19th Century, there were some improvements for women. For example, in 1868 the first nine women were enrolled at the University of London. During his time as a Member of Parliament, Mill used his platform to champion the rights of women by calling on parliament to introduce women's suffrage. He also sponsored the Married Women Property Act (1868), which would grant married women the same property rights as single women. However, Mill was a firm believer in gender equality, and despite some incremental steps for women's rights, he knew that more was needed to ensure equality.

Mill continued to engage in the Woman Question by publishing The Subjection of Women. The purpose of the essay was an appeal to men in which he demonstrated the irrational prejudice against women. He argued that men should accept gender equality as it would be an overall benefit to society. Upon its release "The Subjection of Women" was met with some criticism and mockery from critics. However, the women's rights activists were much more enthusiastic and they ensured the document was distributed throughout Britain and the United States.

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The Subjection of Women Summary

Although The Subjection of Women is described as an essay, this document is often published in a book format. For ease of understanding, this summary will use chapters as the layout. Each chapter adheres to the original sections of the essay.

Chapter 1: The rationale of the argument.

Mill introduces the proposition that '"The principle that regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes-the legal subordination of one sex to the other -is wrong... (and are) obstacles to human improvement, and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality..."' Throughout the chapter, he provides arguments in favor of this proposition. These include the origins of female subjection and the changing attitudes in modern society. He highlights the ethical issues of a male-dominated society by drawing a comparison between the treatment of women and slavery. Furthermore, Mill challenges the traditional view of women by arguing that their subjection is not justified by history.

Chapter 2: Women and marriage.

Mill outlines the domestic issues facing Victorian women. He examines the laws that govern marriage and demonstrates the power disparity between men and women. Examples are used to show how marriage laws overwhelmingly favor men. For example, children of a married couple are considered the property of men. Once again he uses the slavery analogy to highlight the inequalities within a marriage contract. He outlines his suggestions for an equitable marriage by drawing an analogy to business partners and encouraging a '"division of power."' He advocates for female participation in the workforce and society but understands some women may choose to focus on domestic affairs. He argues that this prerogative should be left for a woman to decide and not the state.

Mill's arguments place him at odds with what historians have dubbed the Cult of Domesticity. This term refers to an idealized image of womanhood that developed in the 19th Century. These expectations of femineity were most often projected onto middle and upper-class women. The virtues that were associated with a '"good woman"' included piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. In other words, a woman was expected to serve her husband, raise the children, prioritize others, and look after the house. This was to be done graciously and willingly without complaints or arguments.

An idealized depiction of a Victorian woman and children

An idealized depiction of a Victorian woman and children

Chapter 3: Women outside the home.

In this section, Mill fleshes out his ideas about the role of women outside of marriage. He argues that they should be allowed to vote, pursue professions, and participate in political office. He then challenges common arguments that are used to exclude women from public occupations. These include derogatory opinions regarding the intellectual and emotional nature of women.

Chapter 4: The benefit of reform and equality.

In the final part of the essay, Mill discusses how legal and social reforms will benefit society. This includes benefits to women such as ensuring equality in marriage and encouraging women to pursue intellectual endeavors and professions. He argues this will benefit men as it will encourage competition and intellectual stimulation. He also believes that young boys will benefit from considering girls as their equals and they will develop humility and a sense of service. He also explains how this will restrict the sense of male entitlement and prejudice. He concludes by stating that humanity will not achieve its potential if half the population is excluded from self-development and participation.

Copy of an 1869 edition of The Subjection of Women

Copy of an 1869 edition of The Subjection of Women

Analysis of The Subjection of Women

Below are several themes within "The Subjection of Women" that Mill uses to build his arguments.

Perfect Equality:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does Mill say in his book ''The Subjection of Women''?

In The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that women should be treated equally within society and that marginalization of Victorian women is irrational and unethical. He highlights the legal difficulties women experience in marriage, politics, and education. Mill provides counter-arguments to common misconceptions about women that were used to exclude them from participating in public life.

Why did John Stuart Mill write ''The Subjection of Women''?

John Stuart Mill wrote "The Subjection of Women" to demonstrate the advantages of perfect equality. In this context, perfect equality refers to a society in which men and women are equal. He argues that in a society in which women are provided equal opportunities, men will benefit intellectually, financially, and morally.

What does John Stuart Mill say about marriage?

In "The Subjection of Women", Mill highlights the legal advantages men possess in Victorian marriage contracts by comparing the status of women to slaves. He explains that once married, women lose their property rights and become financially dependent on men. As a result, most of their personal decisions are ultimately based upon the wishes of their husbands.

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