The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

The Subjection of Women By John Stuart Mill
The Subjection of Women By John Stuart Mill

The fight for gender equality is an age-old struggle. The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill handles an arduous task in an attempt to shed more light on such a timeless subject – the relations between both genders. The author assails a system of discrimination which he feels clears the pathway for one individual to oppress another. The book explores the need to stop denying half of the human race the right to occupy and function just because of their sex. Even though it is over 140 years old, The Subjection of Women highlights all manner of inequalities faced today, just as it was in Victorian society.


John Stuart Mill’s arguments are so eloquent and clear that it is almost impossible to construct opposing views against them. 140 years after its publication, the author’s precisely-written essay seems to state the obvious, just like all good essays should.

Yet when this essay was published in 1869, it immediately launched an impassioned debate. This was a time when women were subjected to great oppression. Women had little to no rights. Things were far much worse if you were a woman of color. Mill became the first male to advocate for the emancipation of females in society. He was adamant that their legal, personal, and political rights ought to be respected.

The male gender and society at large had held a contrary opinion to the need to respect women’s rights for such a long time. The publication of this essay was a direct stab into these beliefs. Mill argued that you cannot know something won’t work unless you try it. He observes that opposing women’s emancipation is based on prejudice rather than rationality.

Inequality between men and women

It is a known fact that men and women have never been treated equally for such a long time. If recent revelations from the BBC are anything to go by, John Stuart Mill’s position that men are treated better than women were justified. According to a 2018 leak, it was found that male employees earn better than their female counterparts even if they all do similar tasks and have matching qualifications. This leak was clear proof that society is yet to get to the level where women are valued for whom they are, beyond the limitations of their gender. Just like in the BBC, discriminatory practices against female staff and preferential treatment for their male colleagues is common in most firms.

Through the essay, Mill shares his opinions about why women are naturally regarded to be inferior to men. Is it human nature for this to happen? According to the author, there is a social system that regulates the interaction between women and men. In this kind of system, one sex is subordinated to another. Essentially, Mill refers to how men often dominate women.

Elected Member of Parliament for the City of Westminster in 1865, Mill was often displeased by how the Parliament in Europe continuously gave women little rights. This further widened the inequality gap between both sexes. According to him these differences remain chief hindrances to human improvement as a whole.

These inequalities can still be seen in our society today. According to the United Nations, 33,000 girls are married off daily before attaining the age of 18. It is estimated that 650 million women alive today were forced to early marriages while still children. Such stats communicate the extent to which the subordination of one sex to another is still a major issue.

All is not that gloomy. Having understood how inequality is a major hindrance to human progress, it is frank to note that key steps are being taken to remedy the situation. We may not be there yet, but the awareness made by this book and other gender equality campaigns would help improve the situation.

Nature versus nature

Mill’s work on The Subjection of Women seemed almost scientific in its style. Because he knew he was going against common views of society, Mill was prepared to back his claims. He termed gender inequality as a relic of the past, which did not have a place in modern society. He writes that “The law of the strongest seems to be entirely abandoned as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs.” His overwhelming arguments can be summed to the concept of nature vs. nature.

The theory of nature versus nature holds that human traits are determined by one’s environment. This theory holds that people’s weaknesses (or perceived weaknesses) are due to nature or nurture. After detailed and independent studies, renowned scholars like Jean-Jacques Rousseau concluded that people are born tabula rasa (blank slates). How they eventually turn out is attributed to environmental influences. Whatever someone goes through while a child has the greatest impact on the kind of adults they will be. The impact of one’s surroundings is far much greater than that of their genes.

Traces of this theory can be seen in John Stuart Mill’s essay. He contests against the widespread belief that women are more emotional than rational and that their intellectual capabilities cannot match that of men. Mill writes that if women appear to be passive, emotional, and less political, it is because their upbringing has conditioned them to behave so. The case of women admitting women to be inferior to men is an outright demonstration of how one can be conditioned to believe in a certain way for the rest of their life.

Practically, this can be seen in how a male child and a female child are brought up. Young boys have often worn clothes of certain colors and are allowed to play as many dangerous games as they can. In so doing, they grow up to be fearless. In the case of girls, they are made to wear ‘girlish’ clothes, mostly pink in color. They are also keenly watched so that they do not try anything ridiculous. In the long run, they grow up fearful and feeling inferior to the male gender. This book opens our eyes to the need to change our parenting habits. It is about time that children are treated the same and allowed to experience similar situations growing up.

Restricted Workspace

As a political economist, it would have been mesmerizing for the author to fail to address work-related issues. Traditionally, women have been conditioned to believe they are only good for certain types of work. For instance, they have always been deemed unfit to handle tasks related to engineering or ones that need some kind of innovation. They have been reduced to handling care duties like caring for families and the sick in hospitals. Luckily, today, more women have emerged to break this notion. They have risen to higher leadership positions in their organizations, positions that were assumed to belong only to men.

In the book The Subjection of Women, Mill contemplates on the kind of work a woman is capable of handling outside family life. The author concentrates on aristocratic and middle-class women with the point of view that some are capable (if not more) than their brothers at governing. He cites French patriot, Joan of Arc and English queens, Victoria and Elizabeth I to prove his point.

The calls to trust women’s capability to do different work continues to grow today. Even though we have more female leaders in our generation, unlike any other time, the world is still discriminatory in terms of underpaying, excluding, overlooking, and exploiting the female talent.

Equality and Reform

The final chapter of The Subjection of Women is dedicated to the concept of reform, making a casing point for the need to ensure equality between sexes. Mill recommends that males ought to be educated on the need to respect women in the same way they would do to men. He also suggests the expansion of women’s positive influence on men.

Ever since the book was written, it seems as though calls for reforms are not nearing an end any time soon. More campaigns have been launched to sensitize the public on the idea of respecting women and valuing their rights to education, participate in politics, and be treated fairly. The Women’s Rights Movement has played a significant role in that, including bringing about the Equal Rights Amendment. This constitutional amendment was aimed at ensuring men and women have equal rights across the United States.

Mill does not shy away from warning us on what would happen if we do not implement the required reforms. He says that married men and women would be forced to merely tolerate each other rather than enjoy their marriage as it was initially intended. For the man, you would be forced to live with a less-educated whose understanding is far much lower than his. For the woman, her personal development is stunted. What a prediction that many would not dispute is already a phenomenon in today’s world.


The Subjection of Women is an interesting book to read thanks to John Stuart Mill’s powerful and persuasive language, and thanks to his relevant arguments. He makes a case for the need to give women more rights.

As long as the male gender continues to be perceived as being more powerful than women, these kinds of discrimination will not stop. Similar to the author’s point of view, these sexes ought to be handled equally from childhood. After all, the theory of nature vs. nature confirms that how one is raised as a child influences their view of life as adults.

The whole book’s arguments are worth considering, given that Mill did not come up with them on his own. Rather, he did so with help from his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill.


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