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John Stuart Mill and The subjection of women Lazenby, Arthur Laurence

Abstract

The Subjection of Women was the last book by John Stuart Hill published during his lifetime. It presented a philosophical analysis of the position of women in society, as unrecognised individuals both in public and domestic roles. Mill exposed the moral and ethical shortcomings' of a system which denied women legal status or moral equality, and he made a number of specific suggestions for reform, particularly respecting legal and educational rights for women. During the following sixty years in Britain, almost all of his suggested reforms were achieved. Because Mill' s specific pleas were answered, the Subjection of Women has come to be regarded as an out-of-date argument for conditions which have been corrected. The moral philosophy contained in the book received little or no attention. The knowledge of a present-day reader about John Stuart Mill is based chiefly upon his Autobiography and the essay On Liberty. The works which made Mill famous, his textbooks upon logic and political economy, are now read only by students of those fields. Readers of the Autobiography are not generally aware how skillfully Mill and his wife edited that book to remove most of the domestic circumstances of Mill's family, and to construct a textbook account of his education. Since the tone of the Autobiography is austere and rational, there has been a tendency to transfer these qualities to Mill himself. In fact, Mill has misled his readers. In The Subjection of Women, Mill reveals opinions about the social world and makes comments about family life which are the natural complement to his Autobiography. Like most major figures of the Victorian period, John Stuart Mill was a man of many abilities and interests—a 'generalist’, rather than a specialist—and any specialist view of his work is apt to be only a partial view of the man and his work. Often these partial views become the whole view. Even Mill's biographers have been unable to avoid this difficulty. Students of Mill's essays sometimes detect inconsistencies in thought, others assert that Harriet Taylor, later Mrs. Mill, dominated his later work. However, beyond the assumption that she suggested the topic to Mill, there is very little examination of the Subjection of Women and its ideas by modern critics or biographers. This study of the Subjection of Women argues for a line of consistent and continuous development in John Stuart Mill, and suggests that the book is pertinent to his biography. Various evidence in the thesis explains why it is not possible to accept the currently published views of the man. Accordingly Mill's family background and early training have been rehearsed from the unfamiliar domestic viewpoint, and the development of his ideas traced from his earliest writings the production of The Subjection of Women.

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