Q: Explain Mill’s account of the voluntary servitude of women. Servitude can be defined as slavery or bondage in any kind. Mill wrote a critique of voluntary slavery of women as a criticism of paternalism that was present in the Victorian England. Mill portrays feministic attitudes in his book, the Subjection of Women. He takes an analysis of the historical conditions that have led to inequality within the male and female sex, the oppressive nature of marriage law in Victorian England and his proposals for marriage law reform.
Mill also talks about the injustices of excluding women from public life and also advocates for women suffrage. In the final part of his argument, Mill sets forward his vision of the ways in which equality can be achieved within society. Hence Mill’s account of the voluntary servitude of women takes a feminist approach as he advocates for equality between the sexes. Mill asserts that the adoption of this system of inequality between the sexes was never the result of deliberation or forethought or any social ideas.
It arose simply from the fact that from the earliest twilight of human society, every woman owing to the value attached to her by man, combined wither inferiority in muscular strength, was found in a state of bondage to some man (Pyle 1995:87). Mill portrays that society is responsible for creating the status of women in his society. He further advocates a principle of equality for the relations between the sexes adding by way of explanation that the principle admits no power or privilege on either side.
The main focus of his work was to portray the attitudes of society and come up with a framework that would redress the inequalities present. He notes:- “That 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 that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege over the one side, no disability on the other”. (Pyle 1995:79).
He argued that the inequality of women was a relic from the past, when “might was right,” but it had no place in the modern world. Mill argued that it was not justifiable to discriminate and oppress women as a result of nature, but that they had to be given a chance to prove themselves. Mill’s analysis of the condition of women revealed that they are brought up to act as if they were weak, emotional, and docile and their role in society lies within taking responsibilities of the household such as raising the family.
As such, women were not entitled to education as their responsibility lay in the home. He further argues that men took advantage of this situation and as a result, they used it to enslave the brains of the women to achieve maximum obedience. “… 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 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. ” (Pyle 1995:83) This was the attitude of the patriarchal society that comprised the Victorian England society. Hence women from the onset were subject to indoctrination from the early years of livelihood. Thus for Mill, reforming this structure was essential to change attitude within society and this would, as a result, achieve equality within society.
Marriage law according to Mill played a crucial role to the subjection of women in Victorian England. Mill was against the marriage law that existed and on several occasions, he worked as a Member of Parliament to influence legislation and public issues concerning women, (Skorupski 1998). The economic and social status of society gave women little alternative except to marry. In Victorian England, women were taken by force or sold of by their fathers. After marriage, the man had the power of life and death over his wife. She could invoke no law against him; he was her sole tribunal and law (Pyle 1995:37). The wife is the actual bond servant of her husband. She vows a livelong obedience to him at the alter and is held to it through her life by law. ” The wife had no right to her own property, no protection against marital rape, and no say in the education of her children. In this respect, Mil argues, the wife’s position under the common law of England was worse than that of slaves in the laws of many other countries. As a feminist, he provided sponsorship of a women’s suffrage amendment to the Reform Act of 1867 and he also supported the Married Women’s Property Bill (1868).
He was also in regular contact with women’s rights activists during his tenure as Member of Parliament. According to Mill, societal structures made it difficult for women to shun marriage as there was no other viable option available for them. Religion was one of the only ways in which a woman in Victorian England could escape the bonds of marriage by vowing to celibacy. For the others, very little option was available. Even though she belonged to the wealthy class, she could not attend university as the patriarchal society barred women from attending higher education. To Mill, reformation of marriage law was essential.
Marital laws based on equality would transform not only the domestic but also the civic characteristics of both men and women and provide a model of mutual respect and reciprocity that children would imitate in their own adult relationships, (Skorupski 1998:400). This would therefore create a new society in which Mill aspired, would be free of oppression on the part of women. Mill goes on to say that once a just and equal society has been created the best division of duties between man and wife would have the man working outside the home and the woman taking care of the family at home, (Mill 1975).
This would therefore contradict Mills aspirations of including women in the public sphere. In asserting that women ought to stay at home and run the household, Okin 1992 :228 argues that Mill is denying women the opportunity to establish themselves fully as equals with men through outside employment, [Smith 2001:185] Some feminists have however criticised Mill’s contention that men and women deserved equality before the law. (Annas 1977; Okin 1979; Goldstein 1980) assert that Mill’s vision of equality did not adequately challenge the existing social division of labour and that it subtly reinscribed gender roles.
Stefano (1991:148) argues that Mill was only prepared to grant women equality with men if they manifested traditionally male characteristics like working in the public sphere and that he did not attend sufficiently to women’s differences both from men among various class, racial and other categories of women (Skorupski 1998). Skorupski (1998:405) notes that one of the most interesting aspects of Mills writings on women was his assertion that, domestic and political life was inextricably connected. Hence to achieve change, there was need to begin by reforming the domestic sphere first as this was also connected to the political sphere.
The public exclusion of women from politics and the public sphere was to Mill, a desire for patriarchal dominance. He argued that the reluctance by men to back him up in his legislative reforms resembled fear of equality even in the household. As Member of Parliament, Mill advocated for women suffrage (the right to vote). He argued that the vote was an important tool to protection of individual rights. Since marriage law in Victorian England was unfair on women, Mill argued that this would give the women a right to say their rights and also participate in decision making that affected the whole community at large.
Shanley (1998:409) notes “suffrage would develop women’s faculties through participation in civic decisions and enable married women to protect themselves from male imposed injustices such as control of their own income and equal rights to custody of their children. ” He therefore argued that, given the opportunity to vote and participate in civic decisions, women would now be able to engage in forums that would discuss their rights and eventually this would in the future, guarantee his aspiration of equality between the sexes.
Mill argued that the vote is important to protecting the rights of the women and that women should participate in politics. Again the issue of women’s suffrage is raised. Women make up half of the population, thus they also have a right to a vote since political policies affect women too. He theorizes that most men will vote for the MPs which will subordinate women, therefore women must be allowed to vote to protect their own interests and this would help in achieving equality. Mill felt that even in societies as unequal as England and Europe that one could already find evidence that when given a chance women could excel.
He gives examples of Queen (s) Elizabeth and Victoria of England, Blanche of Castle and Margaret of Austria as symbols of women who have excelled well in politics. It is for this reason that he suggests that he based his argument that if other women can participate well in politics, then the rest of them should also participate. His central argument was that what men can do, women can also do. Mill mentions of the access to education of the female category. Mill felt that the emancipation and education of women would have positive benefits for men also.
The stimulus of female competition and companionship of equally educated persons would result in the greater intellectual development of all. He stressed the insidious effects of the constant companionship of an uneducated wife or husband. Mill felt that men and women married to follow customs and that the relation between them was a purely domestic one. By emancipating women, Mill believed, they would be better able to connect on an intellectual level with their husbands, thereby improving relationships.
However some feminists have criticised Mill for contradicting himself on the theme of education. Annas argues saying that, in as much as education is neccesaary for women, Mill seems to contradict himself. This is so in the sense that Mill, in a state of equality, suggests that there should be division of labour whereby the husband goes to work and the wife takes care of household responsibilities. Critics therefore question how feasible Mill’s notion is. How is the woman supposed to attain education whilst concentrating on household duties?
Therefore they portray Mill’s ideas as rather confused. Another aspect that was crucial to Mill for equality to be achieved was reformation of the marriage structure itself. By this, Mill advocated for a healthy marital relationship in which husband and wife view each other as equals. This would be achieved by giving women access to education, remunerative work and political representation, Shanley (1995). According to him, this would result in a situation whereby there was mutual understanding between the two sexes and hence this would create a conducive environment for equality.
Mill to a certain extent, blamed the state as the main focus for the subjection of women. He states that- “.. the state enforced male dominance in marriage not only directly by the laws of corveture but also indirectly by denying women higher education, employment, professional training and licensing thus closing of alternatives to marriage. ” [Skorupski 1998:417] Skorupski (1998) notes that this is why Mill supported reforms such as Women’s suffrage, the Married Woman’s Property Bill, the Divorce Act, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act and the opening of higher education and professions to women.
Education and career opportunities would give women an alternative to marriage and laws such as the Divorce Act would help those women that felt oppressed under marriage. This, to Mill was essential in achieving equality between the males and the females. Mill’s notion of ‘marital friendship’ was also important to theories of feminism. This is so in the sense that this would help change the way in which members of society viewed each other as equal beings and thus, would infuse a sense of equality also in children as they grew up.
Hence in the long run, Mill’s aspirations of a reformed society with equality amongst both sexes would be a success. Mill, to a greater extent, rather takes a reformist approach in his feministic attitude towards change in the Victorian England. He argues that the subjection of women could not only end by coming up with laws alone that stipulated how equality should be achieved between the sexes. Rather, reformation of the education system, opinion and access to knowledge is crucial if this idea of equality is to be achieved.
He further argues that socital reform should begin at household level as this is where all patriarchal norms and beliefs were instilled. Hence it is necessary to begin reform from the family level first so that it can reach society. In conclusion, although Mills book, Subjection of Women was written in the 19th century, it is has played a significant role in contemporary society as some of his ideas such as women suffrage have been incorporated globally. There also has been a surge in the number of women rights activists and many laws around the globe have been passed to promote these ideas of equality.
Hence it is justifiable to conclude that Mill’s works have neen succesfull and useful in the contemporary society. ? REFERENCES Annas, J, “The Subjection of Women” in Philosophy 52, 1977, 179-194 Mill, JS “ The Subjection of Women”, in Mill, JS “Three Essays”, Oxford University Press. Skorupski J, (1998), The Cambridge Companion to Mill, Cambrigde University Press. Smith E,Joun Stuart Mills “The Subjection of Women”: A Re-Examination. Vol 34 No2, 2001 Pyle A, 1995, The subjection of women : contemporary responses to John Stuart Mill, Bristol : Thoemmes,