Sometimes in the debates about how to improve equality in our society, the reason why we should desire equality gets lost. In his classic text The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill explains why equality is critical for solving the world’s problems—because it allows everyone to decide how they can best contribute to society.
“The loss to the world, by refusing to make use of one-half of the whole quantity of talent it possesses, is extremely serious.”
The Subjection of Women was released in 1869, a time when, in most of the world, women were considered the legal property—objects, not subjects—of men, specifically their fathers and husbands. John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century British philosopher who not only wrote political philosophy but also served in Parliament and advocated for many liberal reforms, challenged the status quo by pointing out the incredible cost to society of maintaining inequality between the sexes.
Mill was specifically addressing the equality of women in relation to men, but his reasoning as to why equality is desirable transcends that one case. Because his argument rests on the social cost of inequality, a modern reading of his text is easily reframed as “the subjection of people.” Even if that was not his initial intent, we can use our current understanding to adapt his ideas.
He argued that we need to give people a choice as to how they will best contribute to society. If we don’t, we prevent ourselves from accessing the best ideas and contributions. Humans face enough natural challenges, Mill thought, that to cut ourselves off from any part of the available pool of brainpower costs society timely and insightful solutions to our problems—solutions that may be better than the existing ones. People need to have equal freedom to choose the paths that they want to pursue.
Equality of opportunity
Mill was not delusional about equality and did not assume that everyone is equally capable of doing everything. His was more an equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcomes. That is, all people should be in a position to determine how they can best contribute to society. “It is not that all processes are supposed to be equally good, or all persons to be equally qualified for everything;” he explains, “but that freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes, and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it.”
In his time and place, he observed that women were not allowed to decide on how they would or could contribute to society. But, more importantly, their opinions and feelings on the subject of their lives were not even solicited.
He observed that the lack of testimony and perspective of women in both history and contemporary society, as well as the lack of access to education to enable them to contribute, meant that men’s general understanding of them was weak at best. Most men derived their opinion of women based on their feelings about the women with whom they had direct contact and the opinions of other men. “Accordingly, one can, to an almost laughable degree,” Mill wrote, “infer what a man’s wife is like from his opinions about women in general.”
The cultural conditioning of the time rendered women obscure. Mill notes that men often criticized women for possessing the qualities that men insisted they have:
“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.”
For women, it is a catch-22. You must be what you are expected to be in order to be seen, but then you are seen only for what has been culturally prescribed.
The lack of access to women’s perspective often means that cultural stereotypes continue. Mill asks, “Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers belong to a woman by suggestion?” To give just two of many examples, Zelda Fitzgerald probably contributed a fair amount of ideas to the books attributed only to her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And William Wordsworth reputedly used passages from his sister Dorothy’s writing journal in his own works. Not to mention the many male writers whose wives were their editors, typists, and critics. The question Mill asked is still relevant today. The history of the Nobel Prize alone demonstrates how often men are given credit for the ideas of women. Aside from being an annoying injustice, the problem is that it obscures the contributions of women and reinforces antiquated notions of women’s capabilities.
For most of history, Anonymous was a woman
Mill was fully aware of the reinforcing feedback loop that made it hard for women to challenge the status quo. He supposed that women did not write more about their true feelings and perspectives because the power difference made it almost impossible. “As yet very few of them dare tell anything,” he writes, “which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.” Thus, the feedback loop is that women could only express those opinions that men would support in order to achieve literary success, but then that success simply reinforced those opinions.
“But in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds.”
The fact of cultural bias, and how it perpetuates itself, is easily extrapolated from the specific case Mill was arguing against to many similar power dynamics throughout history. One group has power. They justify that power as being natural in order to keep it. That idea of naturalness becomes part of the cultural rhetoric and becomes the lens through which the powerless are viewed. The powerless struggle to change because before they can attain rights they have to change the cultural narrative.
When we take away someone’s freedom to choose where they can best contribute based on cultural biases, it does not benefit society as a whole. It does us no good “to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all of life.”
When we don’t organize society on the premise of equality, we miss opportunities for improvement and development. We hold everyone back.
No one wants to be at the bottom
Mill was aware that to promote equality one had to deal with overcoming the influence of legalized power, which can be understood as one group having the power to direct the lives of another powerless group. His conclusions about the role and expression of power are applicable to any instance of systemic inequality.
“For everyone who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences.”
It is an argument we have all heard time and time again: because the inequality is assumed to be just the way things are, the power difference must be normal as well. Mill exposes the fallacy in this type of thinking when he asks, “But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” The exercise of power by one group over another certainly does not feel natural to those who are being dominated, even if they may have internalized the same oppressive beliefs about themselves.
In the case of women in Mill’s society, the power to dictate their choices and options in life was not given to select men, but all men. In many cultures, the legal subjection of women to men is still the norm. In both cases, there is no evaluation of any man’s ability to exercise their power. As Mill pointed out, no one verified if a husband would be any good at being a husband.
In systems in which women have no power, there are fewer incentives for men to treat them well. He explains the backwardness of, for example, requiring marriage to a man to be the sole role for women when he says, “Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them lay themselves open to a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women as to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations.” When something is desirable, people want it for themselves. If the choice is between some degree of liberty or total subjugation, people will choose the former. Thus, for the power to enforce the latter to exist, it has to be mandated and justified as “natural.”
Mill argued that “it is perfectly obvious that the abuse of the power cannot be very much checked while the power remains.” It is very unlikely that people who have power are inclined to give it up. In order to justify power accorded solely because of who you happen to be born as, the power must be conceived of as earned.
It’s often a case of making up arguments in order to justify the status quo, rather than deciding on a status quo based on objective observation and evidence.
For the same reasons that the way we justify our actions on an individual level makes it hard for us to admit we are wrong and change our minds, the justifications that a society produces to maintain a power structure are very hard to dislodge. Mill observed, “So long as the right of the strong to power over the weak rules in the very heart of society, the attempt to make the equal right of the weak the principle of its outward actions will always be an uphill struggle.”
Why bother to try to change power structures? For Mill, when power is concentrated in the hands of a section of the population, the people in the society with that power imbalance cannot exercise freedom. “The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism,” Mill writes. “Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous.”
According to Mill, liberty is the goal. His idea of liberty is incompatible with systemic inequality. To legislate inequality, to make it part of the social fabric, has two problematic effects. First, those who are considered “less than” cannot have liberty. But those who run the show do not have liberty either, because of the effort required to maintain inequality.
An accident of birth
The real problem is not that inequality works as the best state of affairs for everyone, but that there is fear of what an equal society might look like because we have yet to experience one. Essentially, there exists a fear of the unknown. Because an equal society would necessarily function differently, there is, of course, a hesitation regarding what one might be giving up.
Mill argued against the idea that the various states of inequality that he saw around him, the ownership by one group of people over another, were the result of careful decisions. “Experience cannot possibly have decided between two courses, so long as there has only been experience of one.”
Inequality is often explained by some version of “that’s just the way things are.” Certain groups of people are assumed to have certain intrinsic, unchangeable qualities and thus must be treated accordingly. Mill, however, felt that a lot of what we attribute to biology was actually a product of cultural conditioning. We inaccurately assume that what is common practice represents objective truths about the world, as opposed to being deliberately created and perpetuated because it benefits certain groups. Mill writes, “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.”
The dishonesty of conflating the privileges you happened to be born to with your right to have those privileges was observed by Mill. He saw all around him evidence of those who were unable to acknowledge the extent to which their achievements were a result of the accident of birth. “Those whom privileges not acquired by their merit, and which they feel to be disproportioned to it, inspire with additional humility are always the few, and the best few,” he wrote. “The rest are only inspired with pride, and the worst sort of pride, that which values itself upon accidental advantages not of its own achieving.” It’s like congratulating yourself for winning a race without acknowledging, or even being aware, that you started closer to the finish line than all the other participants.
Mill suggests that maintaining inequality distracts us from addressing more pressing challenges:“One feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth,” Mill explains, “there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another.” There are struggles that we have to face together because they affect all of us.
In Mill’s time, he might have been thinking of the vulnerability of humans to disease, or the environmental and social effects of the Industrial Revolution. These same struggles frame the challenges we face today. We conquer one disease only to become vulnerable to another, and we are now trying to figure out how to not destroy our environment so much that we cause our own extinction. Reading his polemic suggests that expending any effort to maintain “prejudiced restrictions on one another” is a waste of energy that could be more effectively spent dealing with the very real threats we face as a species.
The greater good
Although Mill was writing about the specific case of the subjection of women in the society in which he lived, his arguments about the detriment of inequality to society are more broadly applicable. Thus, when he observes: “Is it not a mere truism to say that such functions are often filled by men far less fit for them than numbers of women, and who would be beaten by women in any fair field of competition?” we can say we agree that fitness for a position matters far more than the cultural attributes of the person filling it.
And when he questions: “Is there so great a superfluity of men fit for high duties that society can afford to reject the service of any competent person?” we can easily answer no.
When we limit people’s access to society based on assumptions about broad categories of attributes, we hurt everyone. Mill writes:
“To ordain that any kind of persons shall not be physicians, or shall not be advocates, or shall not be member of Parliament, is to injure not them only, but all who employ physicians or advocates, or elect members of Parliament, and who are deprived of the stimulating effect of greater competition on the exertions of the competitors, as well as restricted to a narrower range of individual choice.”
Just as monopolies on goods distort the value and availability of a commodity, a monopoly on choice by one social group distorts competency and achievement.
Mill suggests that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Regardless of how we go about promoting equality, it’s important to always remember why equality is desirable. The more equal we are in our freedom to choose how we can contribute to society makes it more likely that the best contributions will be realized.