Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gender, Subjection, and Hegemony OH MY

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher in the fields of social theory, political theory, and political economy. The eldest son of James Mill, John Mill was an extremely precocious child with an intellectually rigorous upbringing. As an adult, he was a longtime pen-pale of August Comte, founder of positivism and sociology, and a member of Parliament for City and Westminster. In 1866 he became the first MP to call for women's suffrage.

Wife Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858) was also notable for her work in women's rights. John Mill was the first man to treat her as an intellectual equal, and they maintained a friendship for twenty-one years before marrying. Although they exchanged numerous essays, Harriet's surviving body of work is very small and she is remembered largely for her influence on her husband. This is especially evident in The Subjection of Women, published eleven years after her death.

The more I read The Subjection of Women, the more it seemed that Mill had anticipated the field of Gender History, particularly Joan Scott's seminal essay "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis." Scott opens up with a discussion on the then-recent distinctions made between gender and sex in order to "[denote] a rejection of the biological determinism implicit in the use of such terms as 'sex' or 'sexual difference.'" "Gender" also refers to normative femininity in the holistic, social sense, as an attribute defined by its opposition to normative masculinity. In short, Scott argues that you cannot understand history without taking into account the presence of women. Gender is both "a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes" and "a primary way of signifying relationships of power." Even male-dominated areas are informed by gender as an abstract category and the basis of various cultural tropes and symbols.

Both Joan Scott and John Stuart Mill are interested in the relationship between gender and political history. Mill's analysis in The Subjection of Women begins with the Enlightenment precept that humanity is ever-progressing toward a state of greater liberty and rationalism. People are ultimately the products of their society, Mill argues, and most societies are founded on force, be it of master over slave, lord over serf, monarch over subjects, and so forth. At the time of his writing (1869), England, he felt, was the most advanced nation on Earth with the "the law of the strongest" having been supplanted by the individualistic rule of law, which recognizes all (male) citizens as equals. The subordination of women, another universal institution, is one of the last remaining vestiges of that old primitive order, which is hardly surprising even in "developed" countries, as human sentiments tend toward the past. "Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognizing the relations they find already existing between individuals," Mill asserts. "They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right." At one time most males and all females were slaves, yet the gradual evolution of Europe saw men emancipated into free agents in charge of their own destinies, while women's condition has been ameliorated to a milder form of dependence. Mill goes on,
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 on the contrary it is natural. But was there every 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 a natural, and the only natural, condition of the human race. No less an intellect . . . than Aristotle, held this opinion without doubt or misgiving; and it rested on the same premises on which the same assertion in regard to the dominion of med over women is usually based, namely, that there are different natures among mankind, free natures, and slave natures; . . . But why need I go back to Aristotle? Did not the slave-owners of the Southern United States maintain the same doctrine, with all the fanaticism with which men cling to the theories that justify their passions and legitimate their personal interests? . . . Again, the theorists of absolute monarchy have always affirmed it to be the only natural form of government; issuing from the patriarchal, which was framed on the model of the paternal, which is anterior to society itself, and, as they contend, the most natural authority of all. (Chapter 1)
Marriage is particularly problematic. Until recently, women could be forcefully "sold" by their fathers to another master, the husband, whose authority they would remain under as long as he lived. Even under current English law, the two are "one person," inferring that whatever is hers is his but not the other way around, except insofar as he is responsible for her actions just as a farmer is responsible for his cattle. And, just like the worst of the American slaveholders, an especially base husband has the right to physically, emotionally, and sexually mistreat his subordinate. "Not a word can be said for despotism in the family which cannot be said of political despotism," Mill argues. Whether the issue is slavery, political tyranny, or familial tyranny, "we are always expected to judge of [it] from its best instances; and we are presented with pictures of loving exercise of authority on one side, loving submission to it on the other - superior wisdom ordering all things for the greater good of the dependents, and surrounded by their smiles and benediction." The only way to guarantee equal protection and the preservation of individual rights is for the law to account for the worst possible abuse. For every benevolent dictator there is a monster drunk on power.

But, some may ask, why do women not protest then? In fact, it seems to me that they are quite content with their lot.

The ideas Mill articulates in response to such criticisms have since been established by Marxist historians as the theory of hegemony, which refers to the process by which a dominant group maintains its superior position with the consent of the dominated. Although the Marxists spoke of social class, the concept of hegemony is also highly useful in the discussion of gender, as demonstrated, retroactively, by The Subjection of Women:
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 favorite. 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. 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 others. (Chapter 1)
Mill's thoughts on gender are far, far ahead of his time, although today's definition of the word did not exist then. He argues very strongly that what is commonly perceived as women's character is almost entirely the result of social conditioning in favor of marriage, motherhood, and servitude as the greatest and only goals in life. "It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters; . . . in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters." He agrees with Mary Wollstonecraft that arguments against women's capabilities based on experience and observation are null and void: if you think women cannot do something, it is because society does not permit them to do it, and furthermore, if you believe women have a certain traits, it is because society has molded them. In a nutshell: biology does not and should not equal destiny.

It is here that I believe Mill slips up. His position allows little room for individual female agency and can even be turned around in favor of patriarchy. It may naturally follow that, if women are collectively warped, then they must not be in their right minds and are therefore suspect. Still, his strident advocacy for women's emancipation is startling, coming as it does from a male Victorian. Are talented men in such abundance, he demands, that the fields of business and politics cannot be opened up to women? How can we justify excluding a capable woman from birth when we give complete freedom to the stupidest of men? But overall, I believe the greatest strength of The Subjection of Women is that Mill places women's oppression and liberation in the context of a global, historical movement from tyranny to freedom and boldly lays out the contradictions inherent in Liberté, égalité, fraternité when only certain groups are allowed to benefit. Not only does he make strong cases for women's rights on both moral and practical grounds, he is also laying a framework for future historians, sociologists, philosophers, and activists to move the feminist cause forward. Does society really progress or was that just an Enlightenment dream? While I'm not sure we can assign human values to the force that is history, given how much has improved since John Stuart Mill's time, I have to believe we are headed in the right direction.

A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2011, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . .

What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.


Nymeth said...

"But overall, I believe the greatest strength of The Subjection of Women is that Mill places women's oppression and liberation in the context of a global, historical movement from tyranny to freedom and boldly lays out the contradictions inherent in Liberté, égalité, fraternité when only certain groups are allowed to benefit."

Yes - perfectly put. Also, many thanks for the link to the Joan Scott essay, which I wasn't familiar with.

Michelle said...

Great post, with the links you make to the Joan Scott essay & Marx's theory of hegemony.

The way Mill couched his argument in the wider social and political ideas and changes taking place at the time he was writing, was something I particularly liked about the text too.

I think the point he made about women's inferiority being deemed more natural than other oppressions by society at large is still really relevant. So many stereotypical ideas about men and women are still excused on the basis of the biological differences between them, and women certainly still undergo a socialisation that encourages them to see themselves in relation to men and not as existing in their own right.

Just a shame there's little chance a male MP would come along and write something similar to Mill today!

E. L. Fay said...

Nymeth: I've found the Scott essay very useful for many things I've written. Do check it out.

Michelle: With the woman-hating BS going on in Congress right now, we sure could use a representative like Mill! What I was really trying to demonstrate was how not only were Mill's ideas ahead of their time, but so was the way he articulated them. He all but defines gender theory, hegemony, intersectionality, and social privilege. The Subjection of Women can be used to protest other forms of oppression as well, which effectively makes feminism relevant to men too.

Silver Threads said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful analysis. It deepened my appreciation for what Mill accomplished.

Mill has a very interesting passage somewhere about the "nature" of women in which addresses the paternalistic concern that liberating women will cause them to become unnatural (and, by implication, bad). If a characteristic is truly natural, then when we are free to express it we will. If, when free, we do not do what was previously considered natural, then it must not have been natural at all.

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