John Stuart Mill wrote the revolutionary essay “The Subjection of Women” with notes that it was strongly influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. Modern scholars have questioned the legacy that husband constructed for wife in which he has been accused of making exorbitant claims about her intelligence and influence. Despite that revisionist approach, however, “The Subjection of Women” strongly resembles in both content and character an essay titled “The Enfranchisement of Women” published by Harriet in 1851. In that essay, she argued in favor of a utilitarian approach to equality which asserted the presence of hostility toward women kept them subjugated at all levels of society. “The Subjection of Women” was published by in 1869.
“The Subjection of Women” is notable for situating John Stuart Mill at the forefront of the developing notion of a feminist movement. Not exactly called that, those who were daring enough to suggest that women could be the intellectual equal of men were viewed as profoundly radical in their thinking at best and dangerously delusional at worst.
Over the course of four chapters, Mill carefully delineates his argument for an innate equality existing between the sexes and then goes on to suggest that this innate equality is being stifled by denial of access to education. Mill also calls on reform to change existing social structures. Overlaying all this a fundamental appeal to the simple morality of the issue. Indeed, Mill makes an caustic appeal to intellectual evil of the immorality of subjugating women as second class citizens due the prejudicial limitations of birth and birth alone.
It is within the realm of morality that Mill’s essay take attains level of truly revolutionary literature. While raising irrefutable scientific points, the appeal cuts most deeply in his assertion that subjection of women is a systemic choice based on scientific ignorance, but also willful disregard of empirical evidence.