J. S. Mill and His Idea for the Emancipation of Women

“The principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes- the legal subordination of one sex to the other- is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”


Why does Mill compare the subordination of women to slavery in his text on ‘Subjection of Women’?

Mill was the first male philosopher cum political activist who forcefully demanded and advocated equality between men and women in both public and private spheres of life at a time when women was considered as “objects” “owned” by their husbands. He advanced many arguments for the justice and utility of women to live as equals to men, and for their emancipation.

John Stuart Mill

However, many contemporary feminist scholars find inadequacies and shortcomings in Mill’s arguments. Some find these limitations in his methodologies (Jennifer Ring), and some say it is due to the limitations in liberal feminism itself (Zillah Eisenstein).

I discuss, on this post, Mill’s analogy of slavery and also the various limitations of Mill’s arguments pointed out by contemporary scholars.

The analogy of slavery in ‘On the Subjection of Women’

The Subjection of Women

Mill likens the position of women in society and particularly their position in the marital relationship in the nineteenth century (Victorian society) to that of slaves subject to the will of their masters.

In the The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that marriage is the legal equivalent of slavery. Mill says that

“the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband” which is no different from what the law calls slaves… This analogy is grounded on the argument that “the wife vows a lifelong obedience to him at the altar, and is held to it all through her life by law”… “She can do no act whatever but by his permission”… “She can acquire no property for herself but for him.”

This is what happens with a slave- belonging to the master, owned by the master as an extension of his property and can be used as the master wishes. However, Mill says that the condition of the wife in the nineteenth century Victorian society is worst than slaves.

In fact, women had no right to care about anything except ‘how they may be the most useful and devoted servants of some men’. Women’s capacities were spent ‘seeking happiness not in their own life, but exclusively in the favour and affection of the other sex, which is only given to them on the condition of their dependence’.

The nineteenth century Victorian society was based on complete patriarchal social relationships. Women were completely subordinated to men.

“The laws of marriage deprived a woman of many of the normal powers of autonomous adults, from controlling her earnings, to entering contracts, to defending her bodily autonomy by resisting unwanted sexual relations.”

The position of married women thus resembled that of slaves on many counts:

  • The social and economic system was such that women were completely dependent upon men. Therefore, women had little alternative except to marry.
  • Once married, their legal personhood was subsumed in that of her husband. According to the then English Common Law, the spousal unity after marriage makes both man and woman one body. But this one body becomes represented by that of the husband. This eliminated the need for women’s suffrage.
  • There was little or no scope for women to take legal help against the violence by their husbands. Rape was impossible within the marriage.
  • Women were not allowed to own property. The property she inherits from her parents becomes her husband’s property. Even the children were the husband’s.
  • There were fewer grounds for divorce from the side of the wife. But the husband could keep the wife away for a long time.

However, the most apparent feature of ‘slavery’ of women in domestic life during the nineteenth century Victorian society was their lack of sovereignty over their bodies. Mill’s discussion of marital rape is important here. According to him,

“by raping ‘his’ wife the husband reinforces his status as ‘owner’ and her status as ‘instrument’.”

Morales points out that the slavery analogy is appropriate in this context because, historically, the power of the slave master was not deemed to be complete in the absence of absolute power over the slave’s body. Morales continues to say that this power gave the master the ‘right’ to claim ‘use’ of the slave’s body for his own purposes, whether as a labor instrument or a sexual one. Mill claimed that this same power is given by law to every husband. It is presumed in a patriarchal marriage that the husband has absolute control over the wife’s body. Therefore, while it is considered the exercise of ‘right’ for men to have sex with the wife, it is considered the rendering of a ‘service’ for women.

Thus, Morales argues that

‘within the context of patriarchal marriage, the husband has the freedom to exercise or not to exercise his ‘right’, but when he does, the wife is expected to provide her ‘service’ regardless of her wishes.”

The major problem here is, Morales pointed out, the societal understanding that women when married, have to give irrevocable consent to sex.

“But what this amounts to is ‘consent’ to become a sexual object, or, most strongly, a sexual slave.”

Mill describes the role of the wife in such a patriarchal family as nothing but the ‘personal body-servant of a despot’. The husband is no more different from a despot- he can abuse his wife at will and the wife does have little legal or physical means to defend herself.

Mill therefore argued that

“the practices of sexual domination in the ‘private’ sphere (are) fundamentally inconsistent with women’s liberation from the shackles of patriarchal power”.

He criticised the patriarchal ideal of ‘feminity’ as embodying a sexualised conception of women’s ‘nature’. He also criticised the conceptions of “sexual attractiveness”, “sexualised body”, the type of being men want them to be as obstacles to women’s liberation.

Mill criticised the dichotomy between the public and the private, and underscored the incompatibility of domination in the ‘private’ realm with equality, justice, and democratic rule in the ‘public’.

Mill was not critical not only about the legal drawbacks of the law courts but also about the social and political inequalities existing between men and women. He vociferously demanded women suffrage.


Limitations in Mill’s arguments for the justice and utility of women to live as equals to men and shortcomings in his political analysis for their emancipation

Vote for Women
Two European women holding a sign for women’s suffrage in 19th century.

In The Subjection of Women, Mill puts forward many arguments in favour of the justice and utility of the emancipation of women. However, many contemporary scholars find in these arguments various limitations and inadequacies.

Mill always focuses on ‘women’s suffrage’ and their legal rights. However, his focus on women’s economic rights and social positions are minimal. He demands equality of both the sexes, but his activity is mainly confined to political rights of women, their right to vote.

Mill also argues that it is wrong to consider the domination of man over women as natural. It is wrong to presume that women are naturally inferior to men. Thus, Mill is found arguing that it is impossible to know women’s true ‘nature’.


According to Mill, we cannot know the true nature of women based on their ‘present’ behaviour because this is only a product of the social system in which women are taught to be submissive, dependent, and obedient. However, elsewhere, Mill, in his arguments, brings in the nature of women to drop barriers to their social and political participation.

Julia Annas points out that if Mill has argued that we have no real knowledge of women’s natures, then we cannot argue from some cases that women are fit to hold some jobs, any more than we can argue from some other cases that women are not fit.13 Mill’s appeal to utility in this argument is termed by Annas ‘dangerous ground for a feminist’.

Besides, Annas also argues that

“his desire to include a utilitarian argument conflicted with his argument that nothing can be known about the ‘nature’ of woman, because utilitarianism takes into account only people’s ‘actual desires and needs’, rather than enlightened or ideal desires or needs”.

Mill also repeatedly said that the exclusion of women from public life were ‘a tyranny to them’, and a detriment to society’. “The first such disability Mill addressed was women’s exclusion from both from parliamentary and municipal franchise.” Mill demanded the right to vote for women saying that it is the right of self-protection, and giving ‘high considerations of practical utility’, he argued that all public offices be open to both sexes. “He went on to suggest that women’s aptitude for politics was rooted in their ‘more rapid insight into character’, their tendency to abjure ‘abstraction’ and ‘imaginary entities’ in favour of attention to ‘individuals’, and ‘the general bent of their talents toward the practical’. All these qualities made women fit for ‘practice and a life of public action.”

Mill goes on to argue that women are ‘intuitive’ and their minds are ‘mobile’ and these qualities of women can act as a corrective to men’s tendency to abstract reasoning and useless over speculation. Annas says that this argument seems like saying women are intuitive while men reason.

And this argument is the biggest harm done to the acceptance of women by men as equal intellectuals. Such arguments would undermine many radical reforms including the education reforms.

Julia Annas says that Mill’s attempts to argue for reform on utilitarian grounds, basing himself on women’s nature as they are, amount to total failure. It is like that “the reader is left with the impression that nature has been expelled from the argument as an enemy only to be brought in again by the back door”.

Another criticism is Mill’s ‘division of labor’. After speaking a lot about equality between men and women in both ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres, it is astounding to see Mill arguing that the best division of duties between the husband and the wife to be that of men working outside the home and women taking care of the family and home. Many scholars see this argument by Mill in the Subjection of Women as inadequacies of Mill’s feminist theory and his ambivalence about women’s role in the society. Okin, for instance, argues that this amounts to denying women the opportunity to establish themselves as fully equals with men. Further, many scholars argue that by not allowing women not to work outside, women are denied the right to share the income brought in by their husbands.

Mill’s arguments for the emancipation of women on utilitarian grounds particularly concerning ‘desires and needs’ of men and women, are also considered to be flawed. According to Annas, if most people are not liberated from that social system characterized by domination of one sex by another, they will not see the present system of relations between sexes as unjust. Most men would not think any change in the relationship as benefit. The way they were brought up will accept it as perfectly just.

Besides, Mill says that there will be an increase in happiness in marriage when it becomes a union of equals. However, women’s desires to remain happily dominated by men and men’s happiness when they dominate women in a patriarchal society are not accounted by Mill. In such a society, it is possible that women accept such a relationship and do not think it unjust.

The main problem in Mill’s arguments is that he does not say any word on re-educating people’s minds by reforming the education system, the social system, etc. However, Mill would disagree with such a proposition for his belief in individual liberty. In this, Julia Annas call Mill’s approach ‘timid and reformist at best’.

On the other hand, Mill’s political analysis for women’s emancipation is characterised by various shortcomings. Mill was asking for radical reforms to make the elite support at least a gradual reform. At the same time, Mill did not discuss other radical issues such as divorce reform or the Contagious Diseases Act, because Mill thought this would distance those elite supporters of women suffrage. His main focus was women suffrage only. Apart from the involvement of an inconsistency in his political analysis, Mill also failed to focus on other radical reforms other than seeking women suffrage.

Besides, Mill even used the ‘sexualised body’ and ‘women’s attractiveness’, those women who ‘fit the mold of proper feminity’, conceptions he himself denounced as obstacles to emancipation of women, to attain his goal-women’s suffrage. The means to his end was certainly contradictory to his own principles.

Further, Zillah Eisenstein argues that Mill “bases his political theory on an individualism that assumes rationality, or the potential for rationality, as the legitimate basis for political participation, and asserts that women have been denied this claim to political legitimacy”. Eisenstein continues to argue that this kind of feminism has serious limitations because while it seems to imply recognition of women as a sex class, in reality it excludes all but an educated middle class of both men and women from access to political power. Eisenstein also points out as do other feminists that Mill, in his division of duties between husband and wife, also fall back on conventional assumptions about woman’s role in a patriarchal family.

On the other hand, pointing out the shortcomings of Mill’s methodology, Jennifer Ring says that the main limitation in Mill’s arguments is ‘his inability to argue from anything but an empirical basis, grounding his evidence on historical data which serve both to stereotype women’s ‘good’ qualities and to judge women’s potential by what is observable from an admittedly unjust history.” Ring continues to argue that “the shortcomings of Mill’s political analysis are the result of his efforts to cling to an impossibly ‘pure’ empiricist methodology. Mill depended so heavily on an empiricist methodology that his political solutions lay embedded in existing custom, unable to embrace the future.”


What is the final take then?

While there are other scholars who regard Mill’s The Subjection of Women inadequate to explain many of the problems faced by women and some even calling it ‘a flawed theory of feminism’, there are other feminist scholars who says that a deeper look is necessary in Mill’s essay.

According to Elizabeth Smith,

“the interpretations of The Subjection of Women by contemporary critics are incomplete in that they fail to consider adequately the historical, personal, and political context in which this essay was written and released. In many ways, critics have underplayed or overlooked Mill’s nineteenth century political context and his hope of acting effectively within its confines.”

Indeed, the historical, personal and political context of Mill’s writing of the essay has to be kept in mind when we examine the arguments in the essay. Mill was living in the Victorian society, where even the talk of ‘women suffrage’ was considered strange and both men and women accepted that women were not equals with men. Elizabeth Smith justifies Mill’s strategy saying that Mill had to work cautiously. According to her, the essay was not only a philosophical treatise, but also a political tract designed to muster support for women’s suffrage.

By examining various other writings of Mill, Smith concludes that

“to Mill, winning the vote for women was the first and easiest step toward gaining equal rights for women… Thus, Mill’s single-minded focus on the suffrage at the expense of activity in other domains of women’s rights was rooted in his belief that the vote with bring in it the ability to gain additional advances for women.”

She also disapproves the arguments that there are inconsistencies in Mills argument in bringing in the nature of women. She insists that Mill repeatedly mentions that “because of the effects of social conditioning it is impossible to know woman’s true nature.”

While discussing about rational freedom, Maria Morales also contends that

“Millian rational freedom is a specifically feminist value.”

What Mill means by rational freedom is a freedom from patriarchy.

Morales also acknowledges that Mill

“understood well laws derive their content, and compel allegiance in virtue of, a broader social ethic. For Mill, this ethic is the real culprit, and consequently, it must be exposed, crushed, and replaced.”

In this sense, Morales considers Mill’s approach to be very much radical.

Mill put every effort to shackle the patriarchal power of men over women in the Victorian society both in public and private spheres. He knew exactly that there was a need to break the ‘private’ and ‘public’ dichotomy if one had to free from or discontinue with the patriarchal social forces. He imagined a freedom from domination.

“Domination comes in many forms but all of them involve life ‘at the mercy of others’.”

To conclude, it is important to consider what Maria Morales says:

“It is unfair to criticize Mill for having been ‘overly’ concerned with the state of the law, when, at the time of his writing and activism on behalf of women, the imposed constraints on women’s lives that are almost inconceivable from our perspective today.”

This comes to the point of what Elizabeth Smith made that it is important to consider the historical, personal and political context in which Mill was writing The Subjection of Women to have a clear understanding of his political analysis as well as his arguments for the justice and utility of women’s emancipation.



Annas, Julia, Mill and the Subjection of Women, Philosophy, Vol. 52, No. 200 (April, 1977), pp. 179-194.

Mill, John Stuart, The Subjection of Women, Nine Books, New Delhi, 2015.

Morales, Maria, Rational Freedom in John Stuart Mill’s Feminism, in Urbinati, Nadia and Zakaras, Alex (eds.), J. S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007, pp. 43-65.

Ring, Jennifer, Mill’s “The Subjection of Women”: The Methodological Limits of Liberal Feminism, The Review of Politics, Vol. 47, No. 1, (Jan., 1985), pp. 27-44.

Robson, John M. (ed.), Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI: Essays on Equality, Law and Education, University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon, The Subjection of Women, in Skorupsky, John (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mill, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 396-422.

Smith, Elizabeth M., John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women”: A Re-Examination, Polity, Vol. 34, No. 2, (Winter, 2011), pp. 181-203.

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