John Stuart Mill on Women's Rights

Air Date: 
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Audio: 
Transcript: 

The 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill is recognized in modern philosophy chiefly for two reasons. He refined the Utilitarian tradition of philosophy established by Jeremy Bentham and he reemphasized the primacy of individual liberty and self-determination against the inroads of the majority in democratic societies. One part of Mill's contribution has been largely overlooked, however. It is his call for legal and social equality for women in an 1861 volume entitled The Subjection of Women. (1)

Mill lived in an era when women were subordinate to men by law and custom. They were expected to marry, rear children, and devote themselves to their families. In most cases they could not pursue a formal education, own property or amass wealth, vote, serve on juries, practice a profession or trade, seek a divorce, even from an abusive husband, or travel alone. Women lived in the shadow of their de facto masters, their husbands.

Mill's case for women's equality reflects his Utilitarian roots. The subordination of women, he argues, is not only "wrong in itself" but "one of the chief hindrances to human improvement." (p. 7) By denying women the same opportunities as men, he says, society not only impedes the development of roughly half the population but denies itself the benefit of their talents. (pp. 88-89) Why is such a foolish practice followed? Mill asks. Because, he says, our customs and laws are a carryover of the law of the strongest. (pp. 10-11) The fact that men are typically superior to women in physical strength leads to the presumption that men are superior to women in all areas, despite the fact that there is no proof to support the claim. (p. 10) In this respect, Mill says, the predicament of women parallels that of slaves. (p. 11, p. 18)

Mill argues that the progress of society requires that all people, men and women, not be imprisoned in the "fixed social position" in which they are born but instead be given opportunities to develop their talents and to pursue their desires as long as they pose no threat to the rights of others. (pp. 22-23) To the naysayer who doubts the potential of women to match the achievements of men in literature, science, government, medicine, education, and the arts, Mill retorts that this is self-serving speculation. The only way to measure the potential of women is to free them from domestic bondage, give them the same opportunities as men, and observe the results. (p. 22, p. 26, p. 62, p. 74) History confirms that Mill's confidence in the outcome was prescient. To the skeptic who opines that the liberation of women will destroy marriage and the family, Mill answers that a marriage which is attractive to women, one based on equality and mutual respect instead of subordination, will prosper indefinitely. (pp. 33-34) To those who argue that authority to make decisions in any organization must ultimately rest in a single person, Mill replies that this is certainly not the case in successful partnerships in business, and that even if it were, this does not mean that the controlling voice on a given matter must be the husband's. (p. 45)

In a nutshell, then, Mill argued nearly 150 years ago that the liberation of women will produce two important results. It will benefit society by triggering the contributions of women in many fields, and it will benefit women by granting them the autonomy that is essential to happiness. In my view he was right on both counts.


  1. The edition used here is Prometheus Books, Great Books in Philosophy Series, 1986 (ISBN 0-87975-335-8). References are by page numbers.

© 2009 Tom Shipka