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Book of the century: The Subjection of Women

In a dynamic demonstration of the motivating power of the written word, a ladies’ literary discussion group read The Subjection of Women in 1883. As soon as they had closed the book, they set up the Finnish Women’s Association to campaign for women in public life. It is not coincidental that in 1906 Finland became the first European country where women had the vote.

J.S.Mill’s book is, with Marx’s Capital, one of the two most important political books written in Britain in the nineteenth century. In it Mill argues ‘The legal subordination of one sex to another is wrong in itself and one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.’

Mill had believed in gender equality, he said, ‘from the very earliest period’ and revealed his commitment at the age of 18 in 1824 in his first published article in the Westminster Gazette.

In adult life Mill’s ideas were developed with Harriet Taylor, who became his wife. He said ‘all that is most striking and profound’ in The Subjection of Women was contributed by Harriet. Opinion is still divided on how much each contributed, but it is undoubted that his relationship with her was, as he said, ‘the honour and chief blessing of my existence’ and her early death from tuberculosis in 1858 was a blow from which he never recovered. ‘The spring of my life is broken,’ he said.

He published The Subjection of Women in 1869. No one could make definitive statements about the nature of men and women, he said, because equality had not yet been tried: ‘I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. Until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely.’

Image credit: John Stuart Mill 1870 by London Stereoscopic Company. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In subsequent decades the book was widely translated and distributed. New Zealand legislators repeatedly referred to his ideas as they edged their country to becoming the first in the world to enfranchise women in 1893. Mill was sometimes said to have been responsible for the enfranchisement of women in New Zealand and Australia, but that was an exaggeration. Local factors and local campaigns were the most important causes, but their arguments needed the intellectual underpinning that Mill gave.

Norwegian journalist Ella Anker said women came together at that time to discuss this book, ‘how they cried over it, and dreamt over it, as if a new age was dawning.’ The Danish Women’s Association was similarly influenced by the book which was translated by the leading radical Georg Brandes. The most prominent Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs became committed to women’s suffrage as a child when her father, who was in the habit of reading aloud to the family, read them a Dutch translation of The Subjection of Women.

The galvanising effect of the book had its limitations, however. The founder of the women’s movement in Italy, Anna Maria Mozzoni, translated it into Italian, but she was to grow old and die with no suggestion of votes for women in her country which came late to women’s enfranchisement, in 1945.

Marx famously said philosophers had previously sought to interpret the world where the point was to change it. Mill certainly felt that having political ideas was insufficient, and he worked to promote the feminist cause by standing for parliament.

Mill stood successfully for election in the Westminster constituency in 1865. He was able to move an amendment to Disraeli’s Electoral Reform Bill in 1867 to enfranchise women. Though the amendment was lost, more than a third of those voting gave support, which qualifies the assumption that the House of Commons, was as a body, opposed to votes for women and had to be brought round.

Among other arguments from human rights principles, Mill disparaged those who argued that votes for women would make a revolutionary change. He said, ‘The majority of the women of any class are not likely to differ in political opinion from the majority of the men of the same class.’ In other words, expanding the franchise to women was not going to change the balance of power, as women were not likely to vote on gender grounds, but according to their class or party loyalty. This prescient observation was overlooked by campaigners for the next fifty years who argued (as did their opponents) that the enfranchisement of women would bring about major political changes.

This made it more difficult for conservative societies to grant women the vote until experience showed that Mill was correct: it was only right and just that women should have the vote; and it was also a request that should easily be granted as it would make no difference to the political system.

Featured image credit: Voters outside a polling place, Brisbane, Queensland, 1907 by The Queenslander. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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