The Victorian Age was a time of great changes in English society, economically, industriously, and intellectually. This era brought about prosperity and growth for some citizens, while bringing severe desolation to others. In the midst of these times, many authors began producing works that provide insight into the conditions of the time period and the effects they had on the citizens of England. Often these writings would criticize the conditions of the time and plead for social reform. John Stuart Mill, known by many critics and historians as an early feminist, is one example of such a Victorian author who challenged the standards and ideals of the time. In his work of non-fiction prose, The Subjection of Women, Mill criticizes the societal standard that placed women as subordinate to men, which traces its roots to the bondage of women to men in early human society. He argues in favor of equal treatment between the sexes, asserting that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement” (Mill 1122). Mills attempts to persuade readers of his ideas by arguing against the automatic assumption of women’s nature, as well as drawing attention to the fact that this is the only area of the modern world in which a group of people are forced into a place in society simply by birth.
Mill points out that one of the primary reasons for the subordination of women is due to assumptions about the nature of women that have been engrained into society. That is, the belief that women are the weaker, more passive sex who would naturally desire to be dependent upon a man as their superior. Mill provides several reasons why one should believe this idea is flawed, the first being past precedent. He recalls a time in which the human race was divided into the classes of masters and slaves, which “appeared, even to the most cultivated minds, to be a natural, and the only natural, condition of the human race” (Mill 1122). In this time, society assumed there existed within mankind both free natures and slave natures, which thus justified the ownership of other people as slaves. Other historical examples are additionally used to show how various ideas of what is natural not only change over time, but are not agreed upon universally. This is likewise so with the issue of the subjection of women, which appears natural to the Englishmen but unnatural to the ancient Greeks, who viewed women as independents and had them “trained to bodily exercises in the same manner with men” (Mill 1123). These refutations through historical evidence lend credence to the idea that the subordination of women is not based on proven fact but on an opinion-based theory.
Even aside from a historical lens, Mill is able to disprove the assumption that women are naturally inferior to men by challenging the amount of knowledge men actually have about women. He states that men cannot conclude with confidence the true nature of women simply because they have never been a member of that sex, and thus their knowledge of women remains “wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they need to tell” (Mill 1127). Many literary women indeed are beginning to step forward and relay some things they need to tell, which in fact hurts the case for the subordination for women as their writings prove them to be equal in intelligence to men. Mills brings up these points to ultimately show how the subordination of women hinders human improvement, as a society cannot exhibit positive growth if the standards are based on upon mere assumptions that are easily refutable.
According to Mill, the subordination of women further hinders human improvement by holding back an area in society that has already begun to progress. He points out that in the modern world, “human beings are no longer born to their place in life…but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them the most desirable” (Mill 1125). Society has progressed in that people no longer must remain in the status in which they were born, but have embraced the ability to advance in society through their ambition and hard work. He then describes the subordination of women as a “relic of an old world of thought and practice” in which indeed people’s place in society was determined by their birth. In the same way, women are forced into a place of submission, under the dominion of man, based solely on how they are born. An area in which humanity has in the past exhibited so much growth remains stagnant as women are made the exception; despite any amount of hard work or ambition the woman might display, she will continue to be seen as weaker than her male counterpart and therefore unable to advance beyond a certain point. In the same way, Mill implies, humanity will remain unable to advance any further until ending this prejudice against one sex.
Mill’s overall message, like so many other Victorian authors, begged for social reform. As the English society continued to progress in multiple ways, certain outdated standards remained, notably the legal subordination of women. For all the advancements society had achieved, Mill insisted that humanity would continue to remain stunted in growth until this issue was resolved. It is obvious today that Mill’s plea did not go unheard, as the modern world has continued to progress beyond these prejudices and has since given women many of the rights and opportunities that he desired for them to enjoy.
Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature.
Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Boston: Longman, 2010.1121-1129. Print.