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Helpmate or dead weight?

Notes on J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, chapter 4

[All emphasis in the quoted passages is added by me.]

The self-worship of the monarch, or of the feudal superior, is matched by the self-worship of the male. Human beings do not grow up from childhood in the possession of unearned distinctions, without pluming themselves upon them. Those whom privileges not acquired by their merit, and which they feel to be disproportioned to it, inspire with additional humility, are always the few, and the best few. The rest are only inspired with pride, and the worst sort of pride, that which values itself upon accidental advantages, not of its own achieving. Above all, when the feeling of being raised above the whole of the other sex is combined with personal authority over one individual among them; the situation, if a school of conscientious and affectionate forbearance to those whose strongest points of character are conscience and affection, is to men of another quality a regularly constituted academy or gymnasium for training them in arrogance and overbearingness; which vices, if curbed by the certainty of resistance in their intercourse with other men, their equals, break out towards all who are in a position to be obliged to tolerate them, and often revenge themselves upon the unfortunate wife for the involuntary restraint which they are obliged to submit to elsewhere.

[Men, already predisposed to self-importance, might benefit from new opportunities for humility. (Though obviously more straightforward about it, Mill at his best here, moralizes against men—as Otto Weininger did, though with less appreciation.)]

After pondering the beneficent but inadequate impulse of chivalry in men sparked by women, Mill comments,

At present the moral influence of women is no less real, but it is no longer of so marked and definite a character: it has more nearly merged in the general influence of public opinion. Both through the contagion of sympathy, and through the desire of men to shine in the eyes of women, their feelings have great effect in keeping alive what remains of the chivalrous ideal—in fostering the sentiments and continuing the traditions of spirit and generosity. In these points of character, their standard is higher than that of men; in the quality of justice, somewhat lower. …[Thus even Mill noticed what Weininger made so much of: that principled justice was, at best, second nature to women. But unlike Weininger, Mill didn’t see the necessity of this. That without it, men would truly be unredeemable.] I am afraid it must be said, that disinterestedness in the general conduct of life—the devotion of the energies to purposes which hold out no promise of private advantages to the family—is very seldom encouraged or supported by women’s influence….

The influence of women counts for a great deal in two of the most marked features of modern European life—its aversion to war, and its addiction to philanthropy. Excellent characteristics both; but unhappily, if the influence of women is valuable in the encouragement it gives to these feelings in general, in the particular applications the direction it gives to them is at least as often mischievous as useful. In the philanthropic department more particularly, the two provinces chiefly cultivated by women are religious proselytism and charity. Religious proselytism at home, is but another word for embittering of religious animosities: abroad, it is usually a blind running at an object, without either knowing or heeding the fatal mischiefs—fatal to the religious object itself as well as to all other desirable objects—which may be produced by the means employed.

[The unfortunate tendency to hold principles lightly and shallow ones at that. How much of this is, as Mill implies, merely the result of bad education? How much a symptom of the character of the feminine, an inevitable fall-out of her strengths, much as war and criminality are of the celebrated masculine tendency to abstraction? I think Virginia Woolf, especially in Three Guineas, had something interesting to say in reply to Mill.]

As for charity, it is a matter in which the immediate effect on the persons directly concerned, and the ultimate consequence to the general good, are apt to be at complete war with one another: while the education given to women—an education of the sentiments rather than of the understanding—and the habit inculcated by their whole life, of looking to immediate effects on persons [the concrete], and not to remote effects on classes of persons—make them both unable to see, and unwilling to admit, the ultimate evil tendency of any form of charity or philanthropy which commends itself to their sympathetic feelings. The great and continually increasing mass of unenlightened and shortsighted benevolence, which, taking the care of people’s lives out of their own hands, and relieving them from the disagreeable consequences of their own acts, saps the very foundations of the self-respect, self-help, and self-control which are the essential conditions both of individual prosperity and of social virtue—this waste of resources and of benevolent feelings in doing harm instead of good, is immensely swelled by women’s contributions, and stimulated by their influence.

[Mill shows himself blind to the fact that the consequences he educes here are endemic to male conceptions of how virtue is corrupted. Rigid consequentialism is a critical tool in the moral domestication and training of the rampant destructiveness tendencies in males. This shows that Mill’s, no less than Kant’s, theory is freighted with this masculine prejudice. Kant, however, in his more lucid moments, at least excused women altogether from the field of moral responsibility. Fully conscious of it or not, he was always haranguing men, not women, with his imperatives. Women were something of an embarrassment to his theory, so much so that he felt compelled to dismiss them from the lecture hall, so sure was he that he was onto some deep truth about morality. He could not, in good conscience, believe it quite fit the cut of her soul. And, indeed, at least one consequence of this is that Kant got closer to the truth in moral theory than Mill. He came very close to getting us halfway there. Mill, kinder sentiments aside, didn’t get that close. (Cf. for instance, the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development in boys and girls respectively—not that their empirical work is being educed in support here as much the tenor of their presuppositions. Moral truth sometimes reveals itself to the senses but it is not of the senses.)]

Not that this is a mistake likely to be made by women, where they have actually the practical management of schemes of beneficence. It sometimes happens that women who administer public charities—with that insight into present fact, and especially into the minds and feelings of those with whom they are in immediate contact, in which women generally excel men—recognize in the clearest manner the demoralizing influence of the alms given or the help afforded, and could give lessons on the subject to many a male political economist. But women who only give their money, and are not brought face to face with the effects it produces, how can they be expected to foresee them? A woman born to the present lot of women, and content with it, how should she appreciate the value of self-dependence? She is not self-dependent; she is not taught self-dependence; her destiny is to receive everything from others, and why should what is good enough for her be bad for the poor?

[Mill, again, is being swayed by an overweening faith in the distinctly masculine virtue of autonomy (didn’t he write the book on liberty?), not realizing that this is not the way to judge a woman, however much it may speak some truth regarding a masculine distrust of charity. Compare with Mill’s thought here also Weininger’s suggestion that the education of women be taken entirely out of the hands of women. Not, of course, that that would work since men are rarely in a position to educate women morally. My point is that with no moral education at all girls would fare better than boys.]

Her familiar notions of good are of blessings descending from a superior. She forgets that she is not free, and that the poor are; that if what they need is given to them unearned, they cannot be compelled to earn it: that everybody cannot be taken care of by everybody, but there must be some motive to induce people to take care of themselves; and that to be helped to help themselves, if they are physically capable of it, is the only charity which proves to be charity in the end.

[I am reminded of the saw “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” (Assuming, of course, there will be fish for him to catch tomorrow, the pond having been emptied yesterday.) Mill’s laissez faire liberalism is so nakedly male. It practically has external genitals.]

These considerations show how usefully the part which women take in the formation of general opinion, would be modified for the better by that more enlarged instruction, and practical conversancy with the things which their opinions influence, that would necessarily arise from their social and political emancipation. But the improvement it would work through the influence they exercise, each in her own family, would be still more remarkable.

It is often said that in the classes most exposed to temptation, a man’s wife and children tend to keep him honest and respectable, both by the wife’s direct influence, and by the concern he feels for their future welfare. This may be so, and no doubt often is so, with those who are more weak than wicked; and this beneficial influence would be preserved and strengthened under equal laws; it does not depend on the woman’s servitude, but is, on the contrary, diminished by the disrespect which the inferior class of men always at heart feel towards those who are subject to their power. But when we ascend higher in the scale, we come among a totally different set of moving forces. The wife’s influence tends, as far as it goes, to prevent the husband from falling below the common standard of approbation of the country. It tends quite as strongly to hinder him from rising above it. [She acts, Aristotle-like, to moderate extremes of morality as, indeed, extremes in anything else that may disturb domesticity.] The wife is the auxiliary of the common public opinion. A man who is married to a woman his inferior in intelligence, finds her a perpetual dead weight, or, worse than a dead weight, a drag, upon every aspiration of his to be better than public opinion requires him to be. It is hardly possible for one who is in these bonds, to attain exalted virtue.

[It is why marriage or formal domestic alliance with women has tended to be, if not viewed dimly, eschewed by so many of the greatest philosophers, Aristotle and Hegel exceptions to prove the rule. Mill, himself, is an interesting case. Harriet Taylor was, not totally inconveniently, already taken by John Taylor for much of their long unconventional relationship, a fact that in no small part was a direct outgrowth of the ideas, as much as, if not more than, the domesticity they shared which only came about after a 20 odd year courtship. Mill never stopped being chivalrous (perhaps irritatingly so to Harriet), insisting repeatedly that his work be attributed as much to her (and later to her daughter, Helen) as to him. While, of course, there was broad agreement between them, Harriet’s more nuanced views on women were noticeably not the same as his and it is not difficult to detect arguments with her in his writing.]

If he differs in his opinion from the mass—if he sees truths which have not yet dawned upon them, or if, feeling in his heart truths which they nominally recognize, he would like to act up to those truths more conscientiously than the generality of mankind—to all such thoughts and desires, marriage is the heaviest of drawbacks, unless he be so fortunate as to have a wife as much above the common level as he himself is.

[Pity the many men less fortunate than Mill… but isn’t that their own fault? Or maybe the common lot of men do not want a woman to push them too hard, morally or otherwise? And the common lot of women oblige them?]

For, in the first place, there is always some sacrifice of personal interest required; either of social consequence, or of pecuniary means; perhaps the risk of even the means of subsistence. These sacrifices and risks he may be willing to encounter for himself; but he will pause before he imposes them on his family. And his family in this case means his wife and daughters; for he always hopes that his sons will feel as he feels himself, and that what he can do without, they will do without, willingly, in the same cause. [This is one odd line for one so convinced we have no conception of a moral difference between women and men. See…] But his daughters—their marriage may depend upon it: and his wife, who is unable to enter into or understand the objects for which these sacrifices are made—who, if she thought them worth any sacrifice, would think so on trust, and solely for his sake—who could participate in none of the enthusiasm or the self-approbation he himself may feel, while the things which he is disposed to sacrifice are all in all to her; will not the best and most unselfish man hesitate the longest before bringing on her this consequence?

[Mill must be embarrassing feminists here. He practically sounds like Weininger! What is this about women not understanding the masculine need to rise above the herd? Do we not detect a little heterocosmic austerity in the offing whose lure constitutionally escapes her?]

If it be not the comforts of life, but only social consideration, that is at stake, the burthen upon his conscience and feelings is still very severe. Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy. [“Mrs Grundy is the personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety (from Thomas Morton’s play Speed the Plough, which appeared in 1798).” —Wikipedia] The approbation of that potentate may be a matter of indifference to him, but it is of great importance to his wife. [All the more so may he hold back, if he might take the easy way out and appear virtuous to boot.] The man himself may be above opinion, or may find sufficient compensation in the opinion of those of his own way of thinking. But to the women connected with him, he can offer no compensation. [“Women just don’t get it, do they?” Rousseau tried to have it both ways and shipped off his bastard children.] The almost invariable tendency of the wife to place her influence in the same scale with social consideration, is sometimes made a reproach to women, and represented as a peculiar trait of feebleness and childishness of character in them: surely with great injustice. Society makes the whole life of a woman, in the easy classes, a continued self-sacrifice; it exacts from her an unremitting restraint of the whole of her natural inclinations, and the sole return it makes to her for what often deserves the name of a martyrdom, is consideration. Her consideration is inseparably connected with that of her husband, and after paying the full price for it, she finds that she is to lose it, for no reason of which she can feel the cogency. She has sacrificed her whole life to it, and her husband will not sacrifice to it a whim, a freak, an eccentricity; something not recognized or allowed for by the world, and which the world will agree with her in thinking a folly, if it thinks no worse! … Many a woman flatters herself (nine times out of ten quite erroneously) that nothing prevents her and her husband from moving in the highest society of her neighbourhood—society in which others well known to her, and in the same class of life, mix freely—except that her husband is unfortunately a Dissenter, or has the reputation of mingling in low radical politics. [Instead of doing “right like some other men do,” as the song goes.] That it is, she thinks, which hinders George from getting a commission or a place, Caroline from making an advantageous match, and prevents her and her husband from obtaining invitations, perhaps honours, which, for aught she sees, they are as well entitled to as some folks. With such an influence in every house, either exerted actively, or operating all the more powerfully for not being asserted, is it any wonder that people in general are kept down in that mediocrity of respectability which is becoming a marked characteristic of modern times?

[So is Mill saying that women need equality because then men wouldn’t be left alone bearing all the moral weight that goes with being a member of a perfectible species? In the sense of a truly sex-blind morality, he may have a point. But such a morality is so far from conceivable by humans as we know them—and as Mill should have known them—that his call here for sharing the burden seems unreal. The burden is his responsibility. She may have responsibility for a different burden but it is not one conceivable in the terms of Mill’s still very masculine obsession with liberty and autonomy.]

What, in this case, does the man obtain by it, except an upper servant, a nurse, or a mistress? on the contrary, when each of two persons, instead of being a nothing, is a something; when they are attached to one another, and are not too much unlike to begin with; the constant partaking in the same things, assisted by their sympathy, draws out the latent capacities of each for being interested in the things which were at first interesting only to the other; and works a gradual assimilation of the tastes and characters to one another, partly by the insensible modification of each, but more by a real enriching of the two natures, each acquiring the tastes and capacities of the other in addition to its own. This often happens between two friends of the same sex, who are much associated in their daily life: and it would be a common, if not the commonest, case in marriage, did not the totally different bringing up of the two sexes make it next to an impossibility to form a really well-assorted union.

[The virtues of cultural diversity in a community of two… But, oddly, the “well-assortment” presupposes difference, something education is being blamed here for fostering. Is Mill suggesting that the valued aspect of assortment is not inculcable while the vices of external constraint are? If so, how does this comport with his aforementioned “no moral differences between men and women” view?]

Whatever has been said or written, from the time of Herodotus to the present, of the ennobling influence of free government—the nerve and spring which it gives to all the faculties, the larger and higher objects which it presents to the intellect and feelings, the more unselfish public spirit, and calmer and broader views of duty, that it engenders, and the generally loftier platform on which it elevates the individual as a moral, spiritual, and social being—is every particle as true of women as of men.

[Really? Do women benefit quite as much from such “ennobling” as men? Apart from whether it might enhance or enrich their lives, do they need it as much? Do women place autonomy at the very top of their list? Certainly near it, perhaps, but on quite the same shelf as men? Is she ever as ready to tip-toe? (Careful, this is trick question.) It matters even if it is slightly lower for her, especially because of its sanctified inviolability for him. It matters because there may be something else occupying that shelf for her that he may be inclined to view as, though desirable, not indispensable. And this makes all the difference in the world.]

Are these things no important part of individual happiness? Let any man call to mind what he himself felt on emerging from boyhood—from the tutelage and control of even loved and affectionate elders—and entering upon the responsibilities of manhood. Was it not like the physical effect of taking off a heavy weight, or releasing him from obstructive, even if not otherwise painful, bonds? Did he not feel twice as much alive, twice as much a human being, as before? And does he imagine that women have none of these feelings?

[Maybe 1.3 times as much alive, not twice… While our young man is straining his imagination with this, let him also entertain the thought that he may never experience, for the duration of his life, the intimacy or depth of connection with another that is her special grace, and that she may be excused for wondering at his impoverishment.]

But it is a striking fact, that the satisfactions and mortifications of personal pride, though all in all to most men when the case is their own, have less allowance made for them in the case of other people, and are less listened to as a ground or a justification of conduct, than any other natural human feelings; perhaps because men compliment them in their own case with the names of so many other qualities, that they are seldom conscious how mighty an influence these feelings exercise in their own lives. No less large and powerful is their part, we may assure ourselves, in the lives and feelings of women. [Bless his heart, Mill is means to be kind, but aren’t we exaggerating just a tad? Noblesse oblige it must seem in a mirror.] Women are schooled into suppressing them in their most natural and most healthy direction, but the internal principle remains, in a different outward form. An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will seek for power: refused the command of itself, it will assert its personality by attempting to control others. To allow to any human beings no existence of their own but what depends on others, is giving far too high a premium on bending others to their purposes. [Translation: Better let them run free than mop the floor with us.] Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desire; those to whom others will not leave the undisturbed management of their own affairs, will compensate themselves, if they can, by meddling for their own purposes with the affairs of others. Hence also women’s passion for personal beauty, and dress and display; and all the evils that flow from it, in the way of mischievous luxury and social immorality. The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism. Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous. The desire of power over others can only cease to be a depraving agency among mankind, when each of them individually is able to do without it: which can only be where respect for liberty in the personal concerns of each is an established principle. [Mill reads Foucault.]

[In the next few paragraphs Mill waxes on the great wisdom and succor from women men have enjoyed and yet how diminished it is from what it could have been had he permitted her full privileges at the highest fruits of culture. The apple Eve picked was on one of the lower branches. It could have been from on high if Adam had made himself useful by, at a minimum, encouraging her to climb the tree.

Women have been forced into the unexciting vices of pleasure or misguided virtues of religion and charity. We give Mill the last word:]

When we consider the positive evil caused to the disqualified half of the human race by their disqualification—first in the loss of the most inspiriting and elevating kind of personal enjoyment, and next in the weariness, disappointment, and profound dissatisfaction with life, which are so often the substitute for it; one feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth, there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another. Their vain fears only substitute other and worse evils for those which they are idly apprehensive of: while every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it), dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.


Chapter I | Chapter IV

Posted by luno in political philosophy, philosophy and sex, sex differences, Mill, J. S., feminism (Friday August 31, 2007 at 11:18 am)

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