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“if the preference be natural, there can be no necessity for enforcing it by law”

Notes on Harriet Taylor Mill, The Enfranchisement of Women

[The essay first appeared in the Westminster Review (1851), then in 1868 in a pamphlet under her name, and in John Stuart Mill’s Dissertations and Discussions in 1875. After some confusion as to its authorship, J. S. Mill attributed the essay to Harriet Taylor (1807–1858). Mill elaborated on the theme in his The Subjection of Women (1869). While no doubt he owed much inspiration and criticism to Harriet, whom he married after a two decade courtship, he seemed too often to overstate his deference to her. This is significant for us, not because he may not indeed have owed much to her, but because it reveals a certain presumption on his part to being able to speak for women and a blindness to sexual difference that seriously hobbles attempts to penetrate beyond the prejudices he rightly sought to overcome. There is a certain psychological shallowness that mars Mill’s The Subjection of Women (and, for that matter, much of his work), as a youthful Sigmund Freud (Mill’s German translator and otherwise admirer) noted. (Editor’s note: See notes on Luft.) What is of philosophical substance on the issue of the subjection of women is actually best expressed by Harriet Taylor herself.]

John Stuart prefaced a reprint of Harriet’s essay this way:

…So elevated was the general level of her faculties, that the highest poetry, philosophy, oratory, or art, seemed trivial by the side of her, and equal only to expressing some small part of her mind. And there is no one of those modes of manifestation in which she could not easily have taken the highest rank, had not her inclination led her for the most part to content herself with being the inspirer, prompter, and unavowed coadjutor of others.

[“Her inclination” here Mill cites as though it were an oddity about her, and not something closer to how she felt as a woman about her role in the world. This is what I mean about his unnuanced, blind praise. You might say he was just being kind to his beloved wife. I assume he meant to be. But was he? If the essay were about something other than injustice to women as a class, the remark could be let pass. The cosmic primacy of ego is a male obsession, as Otto Weininger, Germaine Greer and a host of feminists have attested. Would it be as worthy of remark to note John Stuart’s lack of contentment with being “the inspirer, prompter, and unavowed coadjutor of others”?]

Harriet Mill commenting on developments in the United States,

…Their Declaration of Independence, framed by the men who are still their great constitutional authorities—that document which has been from the first, and is now, the acknowledged basis of their polity, commences with this express statement:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

We do not imagine that any American democrat will evade the force of these expressions by the dishonest or ignorant subterfuge, that “men” in this memorable document, does not stand for human beings, but for one sex only; that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “inalienable rights” of only one moiety of the human species; and that “the governed,” whose consent is affirmed to be the only source of just power, are meant for that half of mankind only, who, in relation to the other, have hitherto assumed the character of governors.

[Apart from how we might view it now or how we ought to view it now or should have even then, I think we presume too much to think men used the term “men” lightly in 18th century English documents. They had the term “persons” at their disposal. They could have used “human beings,” etc… Let’s give them credit that their every word was well-considered. They used “men” because they meant men: the kind with external genitalia. If you had asked them then, they would have reminded you, without hesitation. The fact they chose, however, to use “men” everywhere they could have used the more clearly generic terms signaled that they intended to exclude women. (Kant certainly did so explicitly.) But the fact that they could also have chosen—but did not—to use “males” instead of “men” also reveals something: that they knowingly, more often willingly, played on the conventional ambiguity of the term “man” or “men.” The term had just the measure of ambiguity necessary to convey what they intended while leaving to another day the subversive question whether there was any chance whatsoever that “men” as used in these momentous documents might, in some quarters, be interpreted more broadly. They didn’t quite have the nerve to fasten the door on that not unheard of possibility once and for all. So a century or so later with the first stirrings of the first wave of feminists, the unlatched door teeters on its hinges. The chickens of ambiguity came home to roost.]

…While, far from being expedient, we are firmly convinced that the division of mankind into two castes, one born to rule over the other, is in this case, as in all cases, an unqualified mischief; a source of perversion and demoralization, both to the favoured class and to those at whose expense they are favoured; producing none of the good which it is the custom to ascribe to it, and forming a bar, almost insuperable while it lasts, to any really vital improvement, either in the character or in the social condition of the human race. [“Born to rule over the other”: at bottom this is the point of contention for feminists, not equality. The difference is that the former is material and practical, the latter conceptual and subject to obfuscation and distortion. “Equality” is the perhaps the slipperiest terminological legacy of the Enlightenment.]

…That an institution or a practice is customary is no presumption of its goodness, when any other sufficient cause can be assigned for its existence. There is no difficulty in understanding why the subjection of women has been a custom. No other explanation is needed than physical force. [See my notes on Mill for commentary on this.]

[Having at least entertained disposing of “old rules” with nothing to say for them but that they have been customary, there remains this one concerning the subordination of women.] …But of all relations, that between men and women being the nearest and most intimate, and connected with the greatest number of strong emotions, was sure to be the last to throw off the old rule and receive the new: for in proportion to the strength of a feeling, is the tenacity with which it clings to the forms and circumstances with which it has even accidentally become associated.

…Women have shown fitness for the highest social functions, exactly in proportion as they have been admitted to them. By a curious anomaly, though ineligible to even the lowest offices of state, they are in some countries admitted to the highest of all, the regal; and if there is any one function for which they have shown a decided vocation, it is that of reigning.

[Why might that be? Why are female monarchs so not unheard of? Scarcer and scarcer though women have been, and still are, the further up in positions of power and public influence, how explain Elizabeth, Victoria, Mary, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great… or Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, or Hilary Clinton…? Harriet wasn’t being as ironic as one might think. The fact that there was no widespread institution even in the most patriarchal hegemonic systems imaginable against a woman holding the highest office of power is revealing of mother right as primal foundation of cosmic authority itself. I fear Mill, John Stuart, that is, didn’t pick up on this.]

…When the reasons alleged for excluding women from active life in all its higher departments, are stripped of their garb of declamatory phrases, and reduced to the simple expression of a meaning, they seem to be mainly three: the incompatibility of active life with maternity, and with the cares of a household; secondly, its alleged hardening effect on the character; and thirdly, the inexpediency of making an addition to the already excessive pressure of competition in every kind of professional or lucrative employment.

[Harriet Mill proceeds to answer these objections (though not in the same order).]

…There is no inherent reason or necessity that all women should voluntarily choose to devote their lives to one animal function and its consequences. Numbers of women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them, no other occupation for their feelings or their activities. Every improvement in their education, and enlargement of the faculties—everything which renders them more qualified for any mode of life, increases the number of those to whom it is an injury and an oppression to be denied the choice. To say that women must be excluded from active life because of maternity disqualifies them for it, is in fact to say, that every other career should be forbidden them in order that maternity may be their only resource.

[In the preface to his translation into German of J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women, Freud (working under the general editorship of Theodor Gomperz and while a student of Franz Brentano) suggests that Mill is almost inhuman in his lack of understanding of the essential role women play in the household as mothers and caregivers and that their over-involvement in the public sphere was too unrealistic, if not undesirable. In general, Freud approved of Mill’s unconventionality and liberalism, but on the subject of women, he felt compelled to demur. Keep in mind that on the continent (at least) there was a tradition of “exceptions” to the rule of domesticity for women. There was a real tide and it would be an exceptionally strong woman who could swim against it. But it was not impossible. Even Schopenhauer, near the end of his life, confessed that her liabilities as a woman, in part because of the very barriers they posed, should she nevertheless surmount them, might well catapult her beyond in accomplishment any man who had not this to stand in his way. She might go farther than him precisely because she had to go farther. (It was a woman who first won multiple Nobel prizes: Marie Curie, a feat not matched by a man until almost a half century went by; this in spite of her willingness to share credit with others.) This tradition is hardly moral compensation for the basic immorality—even, and especially, from a male point of view—of holding women back. But it does reveal that the “rule” had a reason behind it. The reality is that women do not generally place public manifestations of power at the very top of their reasons for existence. Should they? That is a normative question which Freud and not a few feminists may be excused for answering in the negative. What Harriet Mill was asking for is the unfettered opportunity to do so should she be so inclined. To stand in the way of this is a waste for all concerned. (Editor’s note: For more on Mill and Freud see notes on Luft.)]

But secondly, it is urged, that to give the same freedom of occupation to women as to men, would be an injurious addition to the crowd of competitors, by whom the avenues to almost all kinds of employment are choked up, and its remuneration depressed. …With respect to the future, we neither believe that improvident multiplication, and the consequent excessive difficulty of gaining a subsistence, will always continue, nor that the division of mankind into capitalists and hired labourers, and the regulation of the reward of labourers mainly by demand and supply, will be for ever, or even much longer, the rule of the world. But so long as competition is the general law of human life, it is tyranny to shut out one half of the competitors. All who have attained the age of self-government, have an equal claim to be permitted to sell whatever kind of useful labour they are capable of, for the price which it will bring.

[Harriet here rather subtly injects a feminine sensibility into what is usually a distinctively male concern with a freedom to compete. She, as John Stuart confesses, eventually pushed him toward a “qualified socialism.” Her interests were at once more focused on ultimate aims and immediate opportunity than on intermediate theory where he identified his own strength. (See Mill’s Autobiography.) Even though Harriet was a driving force behind his On Liberty, it is easy to discern a different understanding and valuation of the concept of “liberty.” It was always first and foremost instrumental for her, a rung on a ladder and not quite the top rung, while he often slipped into feeling it more an end-in-itself despite his distrust of abstraction.]

The third objection to the admission of women to political or professional life, its alleged hardening tendency, belongs to an age now past, and is scarcely to be comprehended by people of the Present time… But in the present condition of human life, we do not know where those hardening influences are to be found, to which men are subject and from which women are at present exempt. Individuals now-a-days are seldom called upon to fight hand to hand, even with peaceful weapons; personal enmities and rivalries count for little in worldly transactions; the general pressure of circumstances, not the adverse will of individuals, is the obstacle men now have to make head against. That pressure, when excessive, breaks the spirit, and cramps and sours the feelings, but not less of women than of men, since they suffer certainly not less from its evils.

[One suspects back of this objection a male plea for respite from the harassment of his proprietary imperatives. He would like her, at least, not to harden toward him since in his moments of weakness he wants to believe her his last resort for affirmation.]

On the claim that mediocre women are a drag on the development of men:

…There are women who are the equals in intellect of any men who ever lived: and comparing ordinary women with ordinary men, the varied though petty details which compose the occupation of most women, call forth probably as much of mental ability, as the uniform of the pursuits which are the habitual occupation of a large majority of men. It is from nothing in the faculties themselves, but from the petty subjects and interests on which they are exercised, that the companionship of women, such as their present circumstances make them, so often exercises a dissolvent influence on high faculties and aspirations in men. If one of the two has no knowledge and no care about the great ideas and purposes which dignify life, or about any of its practical concerns save personal interests and personal vanities, her conscious, and still more her unconscious influence, will, except in rare cases, reduce to a secondary place in his mind, if not entirely extinguish, those interests which she cannot or does not share.

[Yes and no. Yes, in that the level of refinement of the average man, and even perhaps most “above average” men, suffers by a contingent lack of cultivation in his feminine companion and not by anything essential about women. But the higher the level of sophistication aimed at by either of them, the more careful each has to be not to trample on the development of the other, and the less conventional that relationship must be to avoid this. So consider, among philosophers, Sartre and De Beauvoir or Crates and Hipparchia or Heloïse and Abelard…or even Mill and Taylor! Anything resembling a conventional household is anathema. This happens because of a necessary, not contingent, difference at the higher reaches of cultivation where ultimate values are more likely to be laid bare or made lucid. Forced ordinary arrangements with their tendency to gloss over, suppress, or dispense with subtle differences in the interest of harmony and at the expense of exacting authenticity or truth will simply not do.]

…It is from having intellectual communion only with those to whom they can lay down the law, that so few men continue to advance in wisdom beyond the first stages. The most eminent men cease to improve, if they associate only with disciples.

…The wife, indeed, often succeeds in gaining her objects, but it is by some of the many various forms of indirectness and management.

Thus the position is corrupting equally to both; in the one it produces the vices of power, in the other those of artifice. Women, in their present physical and moral state, having stronger impulses, would naturally be franker and more direct than men; yet all the old saws and traditions represent them as artful and dissembling. Why? Because their only way to their objects is by indirect paths.

…But the general effect on him of her character, so long as her interests are concentrated in the family, tends but to substitute for individual selfishness a family selfishness, wearing an amiable guise, and putting on the mask of duty. How rarely is the wife’s influence on the side of public virtue: how rarely does it do otherwise than discourage any effort of principle by which the private interests or worldly vanities of the family can be expected to suffer. Public spirit, sense of duty towards the public good, is of all virtues, as women are now educated and situated, the most rarely to be found among them; they have seldom even, what in men is often a partial substitute for public spirit, a sense of personal honour connected with any public duty. Many a man, whom no money or personal flattery would have bought, has bartered his political opinions against a title or invitations for his wife; and a still greater number are made mere hunters after the puerile vanities of society, because their wives value them. … In England, the wife’s influence is usually on the illiberal and anti-popular side: this is generally the gaining side for personal interest and vanity; and what to her is the democracy or liberalism in which she has no part—which leaves her the Pariah it found her? …

[Thus Harriet Mill, along with Freud and Weininger, acknowledges the dominance of Mrs Grundy in the feminine world. She suggests that women might be educated out of this mindset. Weininger, somewhat desperately agreed, to the point that girls needed to be taken out from under the educational supervision of women altogether!]

For the interest, therefore, not only of women but of men, and of human improvement in the widest sense, the emancipation of women, which the modern world often boasts of having effected, and for which credit is sometimes given to civilization, and sometimes to Christianity, cannot stop where it is. If it were either necessary or just that one portion of mankind should remain mentally and spiritually only half developed, the development of the other portion ought to have been made, as far as possible, independent of their influence. Instead of this, they have become the most intimate, and it may now be said, the only intimate associates of those to whom yet they are sedulously kept inferior; and have been raised just high enough to drag the others down to themselves.

We have left behind a host of vulgar objections, either as not worthy of an answer, or as answered by the general course of our remarks. A few words, however, must be said on one plea, which in England is made much use of for giving an unselfish air to the up-holding of selfish privileges, and which, with unobserving, unreflecting people, passes for much more than it is worth. Women, it is said, do not desire—do not seek, what is called their emancipation. On the contrary, they generally disown such claims when made in their behalf, and fall with acharnement upon any one of themselves who identifies herself with their common cause.

Supposing the fact to be true in the fullest extent ever asserted, if it proves that European women ought to remain as they are, it proves exactly the same with respect to Asiatic women; for they too, instead of murmuring at their seclusion, and at the restraint imposed upon them, pride themselves on it, and are astonished at the effrontery of women who receive visits from male acquaintances, and are seen in the streets unveiled. Habits of submission make men as well as women servile-minded. The vast population of Asia do not desire or value, probably would not accept, political liberty, nor the savages of the forest, civilization; which does not prove that either of those things is undesirable for them, or that they will not, at some future time, enjoy it. Custom hardens human beings to any kind of degradation, by deadening the part of their nature which would resist it. And the case of women is, in this respect, even a peculiar one, for no other inferior caste that we have heard of, have been taught to regard their degradation as their honour. The argument, however, implies a secret consciousness that the alleged preference of women for their dependent state is merely apparent, and arises from their being allowed no choice; for if the preference be natural, there can be no necessity for enforcing it by law. To make laws compelling people to follow their inclination, has not hitherto been thought necessary by any legislator.

[But supposing, for the nonce, it were natural (in some sense not to be argued here) for women to eschew wider social and political responsibility, would we not require positive legal measures to pressure women to take on that burden? Political conscription, for example? This is indeed what morality comes to for women to the extent it urges them to other ways of being than is their natural inclination. We know that political restrictions on men for almost opposite reasons—their over-eagerness for material power—is an ultimate consequence of their moral imperative. (Editor’s note: For related reasons Luno elsewhere suggests that if the possession of firearms is to be legal, only women should be permitted—even required—to have them.)]

The plea that women do not desire any change, is the same that has been urged, times out of mind, against the proposal of abolishing any social evil—“there is no complaint;” which is generally not true, and when true, only so because there is not that hope of success, without which complaint seldom makes itself audible to unwilling ears… Their position is like that of the tenants or labourers who vote against their own political interests to please their landlords or employers; with the unique addition, that submission is inculcated on them from childhood, as the peculiar attraction and grace of their character.

[Inculcation relies for its success on the inclination of characters to submit. Boys and men are inclined to aggression and destruction. Inculcation at best sublimates these inclinations. If successful, it transfers them to abstract realms of rule violation and subversion, forcing the consequent development of discipline (systems of laws, talk of justice). The original impulse is trained upon a trellis. We quit with that, if we get that far, and call it success.

I want to say the same thing happens with girls and women. Why wouldn’t it? Only, of course, the impulses are different. One, in particular, the one to deference—is hard to overcome. Women have to try much harder than men to assert themselves in the same realms as men. And with about as much success as men at overcoming their albatross. Let your guard down for a moment and see what happens.

Their moral tasks are never the same.]

Like other popular movements, however, this may be seriously retarded by the blunders of its adherents. Tried by the ordinary standard of public meetings, the speeches at the Convention are remarkable for the preponderance of the rational over the declamatory element; but there are some exceptions; and things to which it is impossible to attach any rational meaning, have found their way into the resolutions. Thus, the resolution which sets forth the claims made in behalf of women, after claiming equality in education, in industrial pursuits, and in political rights, enumerates as a fourth head of demand something under the name of “social and spiritual union,” and “a medium of expressing the highest moral and spiritual views of justice,” with other similar verbiage, serving only to mar the simplicity and rationality of the other demands: resembling those who would weakly attempt to combine nominal equality between men and women, with enforced distinctions in their privileges and functions. What is wanted for women is equal rights, equal admission to all social privileges; not a position apart, a sort of sentimental priesthood. To this, the only just and rational principle, both the resolutions and the speeches for the most part, adhere. They contain so little which is akin to the nonsensical paragraph in question, that we suspect it not to be the work of the same hands as most of the other resolutions. The strength of the cause lies in the support of those who are influenced by reason and principle; and to attempt to recommend it by sentimentalities, absurd in reason, and inconsistent with the principle on which the movement is founded, is to place a good cause on a level with a bad one.

[Such cute talk of “social and spiritual union” and “a medium of expressing the highest moral and spiritual views of justice” Harriet Mill is right to suggest is an example of moral slippage and failing nerve. Whatever these expressions may mean to her they mean next to nothing to him coming from her. When he waxes in that vein he is pulled up and away by something heterocosmic. It is never rooted in the sense of aspirational union that impels her excursions into such language. In his ears it is unauthentic coming from her mouth. She might do better to demand that he live up to and get on with his otherworldliness and leave this world to her.]

Posted by luno in political philosophy, Mill, H. T., Freud, philosophy and sex, Mill, J. S., sex differences, feminism (Friday September 7, 2007 at 1:39 pm)

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