Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: On the Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill

It turns out that my memory is correct: I have read The Subjection of Women before. It was a long time ago, back when I was a college freshman, circa September 2003. The college I attended at the time required that all freshmen take a series of Core seminars, which were supposedly intended to help us think critically. Having already conquered most of the curriculum in high school, I was unenthused about having to re-cover enlightenment philosophy, re-read The Communist Manifesto, and have inane discussions which would doubtless fulfill a certain sense of deja vu.

I got all of that and more: a throughly inane argument with my classmates about the proper pronunciation of the word "Appalachian" (hint: there are no shhh sounds or long a vowel sounds) and the relative merits of bluegrass. Nobody understood my culture. Or something. I was a square peg there because I didn't believe that the West Coast, southern California specifically, was the center of the universe.

Anyway, one of the few books we read that I actually enjoyed (because it was one of the two that I hadn't read previously) was The Subjection of Women. In retrospect, I can see why it was assigned over, say, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mill's analysis is far more friendly to the modern reader, primarily because he is not an essentialist in terms of gender roles. In fact, he outright rejects the notion that men and women are intrinsically different, arguing that these differences likely arise from socialization, not nature, and that in light of the way society functions, it is impossible to know whether or not men and women are different at all, much less whether one is inferior to the other. This is a much more palatable idea than Wollstonecraft's assertion that masculine women are the result of a man's brain inhabiting a woman's body!

Much of Mill's thesis, that men and women should be equal (which, again, is not something Wollstonecraft endorses), flows from the idea that women are full of unrealized potential. Since nobody knows what they are capable of, why not let them try? As a result, Mill argues that women should not only be educated in the same way that men are, that they should be allowed to pursue the same professions as well. Furthermore, he argues, full equality is necessary if women are to realize their potential. He vehemently denounces the legal practices which cause a woman's legal identity to be subsumed into her husband's, as well as the notion that women's sole purpose in life is marriage. He couches his language in terms of what is good for society and individuals, not morality and religion, which is another departure from Wollstonecraft that I find refreshing. I've always been a fan of the way that utilitarianism finally enabled a modern shift between religious and secular philosophy, and opened the door to a more rational way of framing social issues.

4.5 out of 5 stars. I really enjoyed this book, even though it's quite dense.

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