Victoria Pedraza | 10/30/2023
John Stuart Mill, a prominent 19th-century philosopher, is renowned for his contributions to utilitarianism and liberal political theory. However, in this blog post, we will delve into a lesser-known facet of his work: his pioneering stance on feminism. Mill's exploration of women's rights was groundbreaking in its time and continues to influence contemporary feminist thought. This post aims to examine the feminist aspect of Mill's philosophy, scrutinize his views on gender equality, discuss his limitations as a male feminist, and explore the legacy and relevance of his ideas today.
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill, born on May 20, 1806, in London, England, was a British philosopher, economist, and political thinker who left an indelible mark on the fields of ethics, politics, and social philosophy. Mill's upbringing was profoundly influenced by his father, James Mill, a philosopher and economist, who groomed him to be a prodigy from an early age. Mill's extraordinary intellectual development, however, came at the expense of his emotional and social well-being, as he was subjected to a rigorous education that left him in a state of depression and disillusionment during his youth. Nevertheless, he emerged as a towering figure in the Victorian era, advocating for individual liberty, utilitarianism, and women's rights. Mill's life and works reflect the tumultuous social and political landscape of the 19th century, and his ideas continue to be studied and debated in the modern era.
Mill's views on women's rights
John Stuart Mill's views on women's rights are primarily encapsulated in his essay, "The Subjection of Women," co-authored with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. In this work, Mill argued passionately for gender equality. He contended that women's oppression was a social construct and that their subjugation limited not only women's rights but also the progress of society as a whole. Mill advocated for equal opportunities, legal rights, and suffrage for women, challenging the patriarchal norms of his era. He believed that gender should not determine one's role or potential in society and that women should be allowed to freely develop their talents and ambitions.
To appreciate Mill's feminist perspective, it is important to compare his views to those of other feminist thinkers of his time. Mill's ideas aligned with the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth, all advocating for the dismantling of oppressive gender norms. His work set the stage for more comprehensive discussions about gender equality.
John Stuart Mill's influence within the political landscape of his time cannot be understated. As a prominent philosopher and Member of Parliament, he held a position of significant authority and respect in 19th-century Britain. It was precisely this power and platform that made his support of gender equality all the more crucial. At a time when prevailing societal norms and laws systematically marginalized and oppressed women, Mill's advocacy for women's rights was both groundbreaking and disruptive. His voice carried weight, and his commitment to the cause of gender equality challenged the deeply ingrained patriarchy of his era. Mill's influence served as a catalyst, propelling the feminist movement forward by lending credibility and legitimacy to the fight for women's suffrage, legal rights, and equal opportunities. His efforts not only advanced the feminist cause but also highlighted the importance of prominent figures using their influence to champion social justice and reform in the political landscape of their time. He had power, and he used it to advance a cause that wouldn’t benefit him.
Discussion of Mill's feminism
Mill's feminism, while pioneering and impactful, was not immune to criticism. Mill, as a male feminist in Victorian society, was inevitably influenced by the societal norms and biases of his time. Some of the critiques directed towards his brand of feminism can be seen as valid. Critics have pointed out that Mill's approach was somewhat paternalistic, wherein he sometimes assumed he knew what was best for women, potentially overlooking their agency and diverse experiences. Additionally, Mill's feminism was criticized for its Eurocentric perspective, as he did not always fully appreciate the unique struggles faced by women from different cultural backgrounds. This Eurocentric lens might have led to a certain degree of ethnocentrism in his views on gender equality.
Furthermore, some have argued that Mill's feminism had limitations when it came to recognizing the intersectionality of oppression. While he advocated for women's rights in a broad sense, he did not always address the unique struggles of women of color, working-class women, or other marginalized groups. His focus on gender equality did not always extend to the complex interplay of race, class, and gender, which limited the inclusivity of his feminist vision.
One of the notable intersections in Mill's philosophy was with utilitarianism. While he believed in the greatest good for the greatest number, this principle sometimes clashed with the specific needs and rights of women. The utilitarian framework could, on occasion, prioritize the collective good over the specific interests of women, and this created tensions within his advocacy for gender equality.
In evaluating Mill's feminism, it is essential to acknowledge both its groundbreaking aspects and its limitations. His work laid a solid foundation for the feminist movement, but it also serves as a reminder that even well-intentioned efforts can be shaped by the biases and constraints of their time. Let me remind you that we ourselves are not immune to this. Mill's legacy is one that both inspires and calls for continued examination and evolution in the ongoing pursuit of gender equality.
Legacy of Mill's feminism
Mill's feminism had a profound impact on the feminist movement of his time. His advocacy for gender equality contributed to the first wave of feminism and played a pivotal role in the fight for women's suffrage and expanded rights. Furthermore, Mill's ideas continue to influence contemporary feminist thought, as many of his arguments and ideals still resonate with those striving for gender equality in the 21st century.
England's first wave of feminism, which spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marked a pivotal moment in the history of women's rights. John Stuart Mill's advocacy for women's suffrage and gender equality played a central role in this movement. The first wave of feminism in England achieved significant milestones, notably the Women's Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, and the suffragette movement, which vigorously campaigned for women's right to vote. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted the right to vote to women over the age of 30 who met certain property qualifications, and finally, in 1928, the voting age was lowered to 21, putting women on an equal footing with men. These accomplishments represented a groundbreaking victory for women's rights and set a precedent for future feminist movements. While England's first wave of feminism was not without its limitations, it laid the foundation for ongoing activism and awareness surrounding women's issues, propelling the fight for gender equality into the 20th century and beyond.
"The Subjection of Women," a collaborative work by John Stuart Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, stands as a seminal text in the history of feminist literature. Published in 1869, it is a powerful treatise that makes a compelling argument for the rights and emancipation of women. The essay fundamentally challenges the prevailing social norms of the time, asserting that women's subjugation is a grave injustice and an impediment to societal progress. The authors advocate for women's suffrage, equal opportunities, and freedom from legal and societal constraints. "The Subjection of Women" not only helped advance the cause of gender equality in the 19th century but also continues to be a source of inspiration and reflection for contemporary feminists, emphasizing the need to dismantle oppressive systems and grant women the full rights and liberties they deserve.
John Stuart Mill's profound influence on the feminist movement, marked by his advocacy for women's rights and the publication of "The Subjection of Women," cannot be overstated. His work in the realm of gender equality, while not without its critiques, remains a crucial milestone in the history of feminist thought. Mill's commitment to challenging the societal norms of his time, his call for gender equality, and his position as a male advocate in the political landscape of the 19th century, have left a lasting legacy. Mill's feminism continues to inspire and encourage contemporary feminists to push for social and political change. His dedication to justice and equality serves as a reminder that progress is an ongoing journey, and his ideas continue to resonate with those striving for a more equitable world.
Being an ally in feminism means having each other's backs and lifting each other up. It's about people, no matter their gender, standing up against inequality and supporting women in their fight for equal rights. It's not just talking the talk; it's walking the walk. Being a feminist ally means being there to listen, learn, and take action when needed. It's all about being in it together and fighting for a more equal world. John Stuart Mill, a true ally of feminism, used his influence and platform to champion women's rights in a time when it was a radical and revolutionary cause. And so he earned a spot in this blog, which seeks to uplift women.