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“The profoundest knowledge of the laws of the formation of character”

Notes on J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, chapter 1

[The “feeling” Mill addresses is that the legal subordination of women is somehow justified.]

…So long as opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses instability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach; and while the feeling remains, it is always throwing up fresh intrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old. And there are so many causes tending to make the feelings connected with this subject the most intense and most deeply-rooted of those which gather round and protect old institutions and custom, that we need not wonder to find them as yet less undermined and loosened than any of the rest by the progress the great modern spiritual and social transition; nor suppose that the barbarisms to which men cling longest must be less barbarisms than those which they earlier shake off.

[But among our “barbarisms” are some that do have a deeper foundation, one that even reason must take account of: for the assumption Mill is making here (and he is scarcely alone) is that there is only one natural kind of human being. But human normativity has the character it does because it is rooted, consciously or not, in the fact that this is not true, however much an arrogant reason, impatient to reach simple universal conclusions, may be inclined to think otherwise. But the surprising consequence (to some) of the fact that there are two and only two kinds is that this fact does not condone simple minded prejudices about women or men. In fact, it implies a radical reassessment of the complete field of human value that will result not so much in equality with its tendency to ignore meaningful difference, so much as parity: or the recognition that because there are these two types of human beings, where the interests of one cannot represent the other, power and liability must be divided accordingly. There can be difference without hierarchy. This seems to have escaped Mill and some early (equality) feminists.]

…If ever any system of privilege and enforced subjection had its yoke tightly riveted on the necks of those who are kept down by it, this has. I have not yet shown that it is a wrong system: but everyone who is capable of thinking on the subject must see that even if it is, it was certain to outlast all other forms of unjust authority. And when some of the grossest of the other forms still exist in many civilized countries, and have only recently been got rid of in others, it would be strange if that which is so much the deepest rooted had yet been perceptibly shaken anywhere. There is more reason to wonder that the protests and testimonies against it should have been so numerous and so weighty as they are.

Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it? There was a time when the division of mankind into two classes, a small one of masters and a numerous one of slaves, appeared, even to the most cultivated minds, to be natural, and the only natural, condition of the human race. [As, for example, today, in the opinions of most concerning the “naturalness” of eating meat.]

[Mill discourses on how the “naturalness” of political arrangements amounts to how customary they have been perceived.

Aristotle is adduced on the side of finding slavery and other roles natural.]

The independence of women seemed rather less unnatural to the Greeks than to other ancients, on account of the fabulous Amazons (whom they believed to be historical), and the partial example afforded by the Spartan women; who, though no less subordinate by law than in other Greek states, were more free in fact, and being trained to bodily exercises in the same manner with men, gave ample proof that they were not naturally disqualified for them. There can be little doubt that Spartan experience suggested to Plato, among many other of his doctrines, that of the social and political equality of the two sexes.

[Mill, as others, takes Plato to be more friendly to women than, say, Aristotle. Compare, say, Sylviane Agacinski’s critique of Plato in Parity for a different opinion.]

But, it will be said, the rule of men over women differs from all these others in not being a rule of force: it is accepted voluntarily; women make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it. In the first place, a great number of women do not accept it. Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition: and recently many thousands of them, headed by the most eminent women known to the public, have petitioned Parliament for their admission to the Parliamentary Suffrage. The claim of women to be educated as solidly, and in the same branches of knowledge, as men, is urged with growing intensity, and with a great prospect of success; while the demand for their admission into professions and occupations hitherto closed against them, becomes every year more urgent. Though there are not in this country, as there are in the United States, periodical conventions and an organized party to agitate for the Rights of Women, there is a numerous and active society organized and managed by women, for the more limited object of obtaining the political franchise. Nor is it only in our own country and in America that women are beginning to protest, more or less collectively, against the disabilities under which they labour. France, and Italy, and Switzerland, and Russia now afford examples of the same thing. How many more women there are who silently cherish similar aspirations, no one can possibly know; but there are abundant tokens how many would cherish them, were they not so strenuously taught to repress them as contrary to the proprieties of their sex. It must be remembered, also, that no enslaved class ever asked for complete liberty at once…. It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise. There is never any want of women who complain of ill-usage by their husbands. There would be infinitely more, if complaint were not the greatest of all provocatives to a repetition and increase of the ill-usage. It is this which frustrates all attempts to maintain the power but protect the woman against its abuses. In no other case (except that of a child) is the person who has been proved judicially to have suffered an injury, replaced under the physical power of the culprit who inflicted it. Accordingly wives, even in the most extreme and protracted cases of bodily ill-usage, hardly ever dare avail themselves of the laws made for their protection: and if, in a moment of irrepressible indignation, or by the interference of neighbours, they are induced to do so, their whole effort afterwards is to disclose as little as they can, and to beg off their tyrant from his merited chastisement.

[What Mill describes well here is the endemic and moral failure of men. It says very little about the complexity of what women want, however. The reason battered women don’t complain may well be as he gives it. But why so many women who have not been battered and who do not see themselves in any danger of it should also have acquiesced for so long with inferior political status is revealing of the fact that the privileges women want are not necessarily the same as those men want—in fact rarely, if ever, are. In many cases they are obviously different (e.g., abortion). But even where they may appear to be similar (e.g., a comparable political say) the ends and nuances of the desire reveal utterly different sensibilities, ones that a better grasp of which would explain many anomalies in human culture that cry for better understanding (the overwhelmingly masculine character of criminality and destructiveness, for example).]

All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. [And can we not say the same for her, that she has wanted, not a cruel master, but a sympathetic one?] They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. [To the extent the minds of women have been susceptible to “education” (particularly so or more so than men) does not speak well of their natural capacity for independence. Or is it, again, that they have, to no insignificant extent, been willing to be so educated because of the value and importance to them of relationship before independence? This seems more plausible to us. Again, the different character of feminine normativity has given the impression—to men—of incapacity.] All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have—those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things—first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. Can it be doubted that any of the other yokes which mankind have succeeded in breaking, would have subsisted till now if the same means had existed, and had been so sedulously used, to bow down their minds to it? If it had been made the object of the life of every young plebeian to find personal favour in the eyes of some patrician, of every young serf with some seigneur; if domestication with him, and a share of his personal affections, had been held out as the prize which they all should look out for, the most gifted and aspiring being able to reckon on the most desirable prizes; and if, when this prize had been obtained, they had been shut out by a wall of brass from all interests not centering in him, all feelings and desires but those which he shared or inculcated; would not serfs and seigneurs, plebeians and patricians, have been as broadly distinguished at this day as men and women are? and would not all but a thinker here and there, have believed the distinction to be a fundamental and unalterable fact in human nature?

[Is this merely her ruse for acquiring the same thing and to a comparable degree as men, i.e., material wherewithal and social influence, in a word, power? Were there, instead of women, a race of men, physically weaker, but who bore children and were inclined to an “indefeasible” affection for them, but who could only exert their influence in society through capturing the affections of one of the stronger kind of men, Mill’s description might be more apt. We are assuming the race of softer, procreative and nurturing men would still share the same fundamental values and outlook on life, that they only wanted a share of the same things as the stronger men do. Is this picture plausible? To find it so requires this assumption: that being softer, more procreative and nurturing should have no radical effect on the character of the power sought or the use to which it might be put.

Wouldn’t it be desirable that the persons most intimately involved in bringing into the world offspring and in nurturing them have certain essential, relatively unacquired, first-nature characteristics such as a tendency to yield to the needs of others, and to seek accommodation whenever possible in the interest of establishing and maintaining the positive immediate environment critical for the early development of these new persons? With each generation the first human environment a child enters is supposed to be conducive to a new beginning, a fresh attempt at starting over and getting it right—that is, if human aspiration for progress in the direction of instantiating its deepest values is not vain. The first and necessary human environment is that between mother and child; later, it may include a father, then siblings, then larger communities. It should be no accident that yieldingness or amenability should be traits highly valued in those saddled or privileged with the responsibility of managing the first critical stages of entry into material and social existence. The place for competitions and strife, one would hope, might be kept at bay, if not forever, at least for as long as necessary to make time to infuse a basic need for connection and appreciation for relationship in the individuals who shall eventually comprise larger communities and concentrations of power.

Women are not yielding or always seeking peace in their relationship with others merely because they are physically weaker than the others. Mill was seriously remiss to have suggested this. If humans are, as they say, “social animals” and if successful interpersonal relationships form the foundations of harmonious societies, then those who set the agenda of what it means for one human being to relate to another in a manner that is not geared toward the destruction or exploitation of the other is or ought to be in a highly valued position. The recognition of this, when it happens, is also a recognition that such a person is in a position of power. It is a contingent but incontrovertible fact of existence that it is she who is in this position as much as it is that he is typically the physically stronger but only as an individual. For she, through a careful feat of psychological engineering, makes the very possibility of aggregate power possible. The world might have been different but it is this way.

This is the root of the impulse to chivalry. Women are not weak in any absolute sense. At least domestically and in all but the most distorted cultural environment, they have had and continue to have their purview. Hers is a proprietary psychological, soul-forming power that, for good or ill, is every bit as real as that with which he may usually defeat her at arm wrestling. In their more chivalrous moments men admit this, though not always with the full realization of why they feel compelled to be chivalrous. No, they are not merely patronizing her as, indeed, they themselves may sometimes think. Nor is it just that, as Mill later suggests in chapter 4, she inspires nobler, more civilizing, sentiments in his brutish soul. Men are not being magnanimous as only the well-endowed may be, secure enough in their innate superiority that they can afford to be gracious. They are fooling themselves to think that they do not owe her, in the strongest moral sense of debt, at least this much for the very possibility of their own relatively unbridled existence, one upon which they have gone on to base an array of weighty notions, “holy ghosts” (as Mary Daly put it), such as an inviolable autonomy and human dignity. Men deceive themselves to think, further, that they are not continually in debt to her indulgence at these moral antics. She is right to look at them askance on occasion when they threaten to usurp more cosmic significance than is their due.

Certainly Mill’s heart was in the right place to point to the abuse of masculine power, but his conception of why it is abuse and exactly what is being abused is barely rudimentary. It has a place in the history of ideas, but we no longer have his excuse for resting at this level of understanding.

We can now call the one time heuristic of asserting equality of the sexes facile and averse to the real goals of intersex justice. The acknowledgment of essential sex differences need not affirm hierarchy. Essentialism, pressed into petty service, has come to be bandied about as an epithet in certain philosophical discussions as though it were on a par with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and any number of other species of xenophobia. A metaphysics that posits female and male and natural kinds does not require the diminution of either. That this has happened historically, is due to the self-interested myopic tendencies of the species, at best, if not a depraved penchant for willful stupidity. For the essential difference precludes cross-type representation. Precisely because they are not interchangeable with each other, women and men cannot represent each other’s interests. Women clearly have, or ought to have, as great an interest as men in political conditions and forces external to the immediate interpersonal environment—that one of special concern to her—because these alien conditions and forces impinge on the security, well-being and capacity to flourish within that intimate environment. Not just in spite of but because of her intimate focus, she has a moral imperative to be so engaged in the deepest way in the world that for so long she has not only eschewed, of necessity—because it has conveniently served his interests that she defer, but also, more culpably for her, because the impulse to deference afflicts her in particular. Not to see this necessity is her peculiar bane, and it is seldom noticed that in his aiding and abetting her in this deference to him on external matters there is further aggravation of his own already rich culpability. He has taken advantage of a weakness in her and she, for her part, has found more accommodation with this than she should have. Her proprietary strength was used against her. It has been a moral conspiracy compassing both from the start.

This is not a defense of keeping domesticity and concerns surrounding it exclusively or even predominantly within a feminine purview, as no doubt it will seem to some. Justice requires that authentic interests be accounted for, not ones imposed from without. A woman should be as free as a man to do as she pleases and what should please her should range far outside traditional domesticity. But does it? To the extent it does not, there is moral work to be done. The point is not that women should not seek to do and value the same things as men. Or that men should do no more than pay lip service to their domestic responsibility. It is that whatever interests women or men pursue they must stem from the kind of beings they essentially are. There is supposed to be overlap. There had better be overlap. But though the larger sphere should occupy the attention of both, there is every reason to believe her agenda shall not be his, and that, as even Mill would agree (at least to judge from some of his remarks in chapter 4), is supposed to be a salutary thing. But this also means that values served will be colored according to whether they stem from feminine or masculine principles. This means, for example, that when we speak of liberty or emancipation or freedom (a concept so dear to Mill), we must take care not to think that these expressions, or any other expressions of value for that matter, reverberate with the same tonality for her as for him—that freedom from will be weighted as freedom to (recurring to Berlin’s distinction) or that the freedom to yield will be viewed with the same diminished honor for her as it too often is for him.

This fundamental difference—both of style and of object—in the way value is instantiated in the world or how its contingencies are viewed entails, once again, that power must be divided in proportion to sex: that is in half. She can never expect that he could—even with the best will in the world (as scarce as that might be)—succeed in representing her political interests. He must counter his innate presumption and she her innate deference to even the scales of political responsibility. The order is tall, but nothing less is morally required of each.]

…Hence, in regard to that most difficult question, what are the natural differences between the two sexes—a subject on which it is impossible in the present state of society to obtain complete and correct knowledge—while almost everybody dogmatizes upon it, almost all neglect and make light of the only means by which any partial insight can be obtained into it. This is, an analytic study of the most important department of psychology, the laws of the influence of circumstances on character. [Minus the empiricist bias, Otto Weininger would later take on such a study.] For, however great and apparently ineradicable the moral and intellectual differences between men and women might be, the evidence of there being natural differences could only be negative. Those only could be inferred to be natural which could not possibly be artificial—the residuum, after deducting every characteristic of either sex which can admit of being explained from education or external circumstances. The profoundest knowledge of the laws of the formation of character is indispensable to entitle anyone to affirm even that there is any difference, much more what the difference is, between the two sexes considered as moral and rational beings; and since no one, as yet, has that knowledge (for there is hardly any subject which, in proportion to its importance, has been so little studied), no one is thus far entitled to any positive opinion on the subject. [Emphasis added. We would have to wait for Weininger’s Sex and Character for this.] Conjectures are all that can at present be made; conjectures more or less probable, according as more or less authorized by such knowledge as we yet have of the laws of psychology, as applied to the formation of character.

Even the preliminary knowledge, what the differences between the sexes now are, apart from all question as to how they are made what they are, is still in the crudest and most incomplete state. Medical practitioners and physiologists have ascertained, to some extent, the differences in bodily constitution; and this is an important element to the psychologist: but hardly any medical practitioner is a psychologist. Respecting the mental characteristics of women; their observations are of no more worth than those of common men. It is a subject on which nothing final can be known, so long as those who alone can really know it, women themselves, have given but little testimony, and that little, mostly suborned. It is easy to know stupid women. Stupidity is much the same all the world over. A stupid person’s notions and feelings may confidently be inferred from those which prevail in the circle by which the person is surrounded. Not so with those whose opinions and feelings are an emanation from their own nature and faculties. It is only a man here and there who has any tolerable knowledge of the character even of the women of his own family. I do not mean, of their capabilities; these nobody knows, not even themselves, because most of them have never been called out. I mean their actually existing thoughts and feelings. Many a man thinks he perfectly understands women, because he has had amatory relations with several, perhaps with many of them. If he is a good observer, and his experience extends to quality as well as quantity, he may have learnt something of one narrow department of their nature—an important department, no doubt. But of all the rest of it, few persons are generally more ignorant, because there are few from whom it is so carefully hidden. The most favourable case which a man can generally have for studying the character of a woman, is that of his own wife: for the opportunities are greater, and the cases of complete sympathy not so unspeakably rare. And in fact, this is the source from which any knowledge worth having on the subject has, I believe, generally come. But most men have not had the opportunity of studying in this way more than a single case: accordingly one can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man’s wife is like, from his opinions about women in general. To make even this one case yield any result, the woman must be worth knowing, and the man not only a competent judge, but of a character so sympathetic in itself, and so well adapted to hers, that he can either read her mind by sympathetic intuition, or has nothing in himself which makes her shy of disclosing it. Hardly anything, I believe, can be more rare than this conjunction. It often happens that there is the most complete unity of feeling and community of interests as to all external things, yet the one has as little admission into the internal life of the other as if they were common acquaintance. Even with true affection, authority on the one side and subordination on the other prevent perfect confidence. [Mill here seems to confess intersex opacity. In this he is correct and it ironically reveals how impossible it is for a man to liberate a woman. The best he will ever do is step out of her way—and concentrate on getting clear on his own liberation… Yes, if he typically perceives himself in competition with her for a finite liberty, he has precious little understanding of what that consists of.] Though nothing may be intentionally withheld, much is not shown. In the analogous relation of parent and child, the corresponding phenomenon must have been in the observation of everyone. As between father and son, how many are the cases in which the father, in spite of real affection on both sides, obviously to all the world does not know, nor suspect, parts of the son’s character familiar to his companions and equals. The truth is, that the position of looking up to another is extremely unpropitious to complete sincerity and openness with him. The fear of losing ground in his opinion or in his feelings is so strong, that even in an upright character, there is an unconscious tendency to show only the best side, or the side which, though not the best, is that which he most likes to see: and it may be confidently said that thorough knowledge of one another hardly ever exists, but between persons who, besides being intimates, are equals. How much more true, then, must all this be, when the one is not only under the authority of the other, but has it inculcated on her as a duty to reckon everything else subordinate to his comfort and pleasure, and to let him neither see nor feel anything coming from her, except what is agreeable to him. All these difficulties stand in the way of a man’s obtaining any thorough knowledge even of the one woman whom alone, in general, he has sufficient opportunity of studying. When we further consider that to understand one woman is not necessarily to understand any other woman; that even if he could study many women of one rank, or of one country, he would not thereby understand women of other ranks or countries; and even if he did, they are still only the women of a single period of history; we may safely assert that the knowledge which men can acquire of women, even as they have been and are, without reference to what they might be, is wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.

[Mill, I suppose, was performing a service for a certain class of near-numbskulls he had to contend with and that has scarcely disappeared in the intervening century and a half. I have to remind myself that there are still plenty who need to hear this. But I fear the situation may have gotten worse not better since his time. Add to these now a whole new class of the sentimentally educated, quick to cite this or that empirical study to show either that there are no essential (usually implying political and moral) differences between women and men or—that there are.

Have it anyway you want empirically. It is beside the point. If I need to rely on “objective” measure to inform me of so basic a perception as that women and men are different—as different as can be while still capable of interbreeding—and that this has profound implications on experience and judgment both in and of the world, it is unlikely I have the mental wherewithal to understand that measure.

Two points: men might do well, then, to seek understanding of themselves, their own proprietary moral imperatives and liabilities, and second give her the space to do the same. I fear that, even after that, things will not get much better empirically, but we should have cleared the ground for at least conceiving of a better world: all current aspiration in that direction is a moral waste.]

…One thing we may be certain of—that what is contrary to women’s nature to do, they never will be made to do by simply giving their nature free play. The anxiety of mankind to interfere in behalf of nature, for fear lest nature should not succeed in effecting its purpose, is an altogether unnecessary solicitude. What women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing. What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from; since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled. If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter. Whatever women’s services are most wanted for, the free play of competition will hold out the strongest inducements to them to undertake. And, as the words imply, they are most wanted for the things for which they are most fit; by the apportionment of which to them, the collective faculties of the two sexes can be applied on the whole with the greatest sum of valuable result.

[Mill’s social Darwinism here again is beside the point. It may turn out that laws and the role of societal authority in general will necessarily be altered as a result of her commensurate political involvement. It may be that Mill’s monomaniacal obsession with freedom from shall suffer supplementation with a distinctly un-Millian freedom to. (See notes on Isaiah Berlin and Lorenne Clark.)]

Chapter I | Chapter IV

Posted by luno in political philosophy, philosophy and sex, sex differences, Mill, J. S., feminism (Friday August 31, 2007 at 12:27 pm)
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