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The Liberation Of Women


John Stuart Mill remains an inspiring name for the people working for the liberation of women. Mill’s easy on “the Subjection of Women (1861)” is an enduring defense of gender equality. Mill in this essay examined the question of the legal suppression of women and their exclusion from politics:

“We may safely assert that the knowledge that 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 until women themselves have told us all that they have to tell.”

This classic work said to have opened a new window for the thinkers at time. Though over a century of protest and changed social attitudes the concept of equality has been changed, Mill’s concept of equality still attracts social, political and philosophical analyses. The present essay will explore Mill’s philosophy of liberal feminism and its impact on the present society.

What Is Feminism?

It is impossible to give a brief and comprehensive definition of feminism. Feminism may be said to be concerned principally with the subordination of women. Clare Dalton states that feminism is a: “range of committed inquiry and activity dedicated first, to describing women’s subordination – exploring its nature and extent; dedicated second, to asking both how – through what mechanisms, and why – for what complex and interwoven reasons – women continue to occupy that position; and dedicated third, to change.” John Hoffman argues that “it is necessary to define feminism in a way that accepts not only that views about women will differ, but that no particular feminist will be free from inconsistency. The point is not that either Wollstonecraft or Mill and Taylor had wholly defensible views of woman’s autonomy and equality. Rather it is that they – like numerous other writers throughout history – have contributed to the movement towards female equality, and thus to the development of a post-patriarchal society. Each contribution made by particular writers is partial and flawed, but to the extent that it adds something to the case for women’s freedom and equality, it is one of many feminisms, all of which contribute to feminism as a dynamic notion that has no ‘final’ resting place or ‘ultimate’ destiny.”

Subordination Of Women:

Mill in his essay pointed out that the law has not treated men and women equally. Women are subordinated to men in many respects of their rights and privileges. Mill argued that the subjection of women-legal and social was indefensible. He emphasised the historical nature of the patriarchy that was the status quo, and pointed out that this status quo had become sanctioned by its very longevity-so embedded in custom and prejudice that it became presumed to be natural. The main subordination of women with among other indicators are the following: (1) British women had fewer grounds for divorce than men until 1923; (2) Husbands controlled their wives personal property (with the occasional exception of land) until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882; (3) Children were the husband’s; (4) Rape was impossible within a marriage; and (5) Wives lacked crucial features of legal personhood, since the husband was taken as the representative of the family (thereby eliminating the need for women’s suffrage).

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Feminism And Equality:

In general, the feminist concern with equality involves the claim that equality must be understood not simply as a formal concept that functions rhetorically and legally. Equality must be a substantive concept which can actually make changes in the power structure and the relative power positions of men and women generally. Although equality is examined in a wide variety of specific applications, the major concern is the goal of making equality meaningful in the lives of women. But for many feminists, concerns with equality cannot be addressed without also attending to rights. Because the liberal tradition figures rights as the hallmark of equality, it is in terms of rights that we are expected to see ourselves as equals before the law. Further, rights discourse has structured both our understanding of equality, and our claims to it.

Examinations of equality are, therefore, often framed by particular substantive issues. For example, much feminist jurisprudence regarding equality is framed in terms of concerns about work. If women are equal, then how will this be expressed in workplace law and policy? One of the key issues in this field has been how to treat pregnancy in the workplace: Is it fair for women to have extended or paid leave for pregnancy and birthing? Under what circumstances, or limitations? Are women being given “special” rights if they have a right to such leave? The struggle over the proper understanding of pregnancy and work raises questions about whether women should be treated in such law as individuals or as a class. As individuals, it has seemed relatively easy for workplaces to claim that not all employees are given such leave, and thus that women who do not are being treated “equally”. One feminist strategy has been to attempt to revise such law to recognize the particular difference of women as a class. Herma Hill Kay argues “(t)hat pregnancy can be seen as an episode which affects women’s ability to take advantage of opportunities in the workplace, and that pregnant workers must be protected against loss of equal opportunity during episodes of pregnancy.”

Equality And Associated Problems:

It was recognised in the 1960’s and 1970’s that formal equality was not the solution. Formal equality could do nothing about the discrimination that existed on other side of the earth. The problem was not simply one of equal opportunities to work, to pay, to promotion etc. but of society’s perception of the nature of women. Whatever opportunities women might have been said to have, they were simply not perceived as the equals of men and men did not perceive themselves as sharing in the same responsibilities, those of childrearing for example.

Mill’s Arguments Of Liberal Feminism:

“The Subjection of Women” (1869) offers both detailed argumentation and passionate eloquence in opposition to the social and legal inequalities commonly imposed upon women by a patriarchal culture. Mill defends the emancipation of women on utilitarian grounds. Mill’s liberal feminism sees freedom primarily as the absence of legal constraints, stressing the right of married women to own property, and enter into contracts, and the right of defendants to have women on juries, as well as the crucial right to vote. This he believed was, together with education, the key to overturning the discrimination to which he clearly saw women subjected. His emphases on admission to education and the vote may be seen as the first stage of the achievement of equal civil rights. What The Subjection of Women highlights in particular is the crucial role that views regarding the nature of women play in underwriting arguments concerning sexual equality. Mill perceived that feminine character was the outcome of an artificial system of cultivation via education, and that cultural conditioning produces sexual temperament appropriate to a culturally customary sexual role. Mill was thus describing what Kate Millett14 has termed “sexual politics” in depicting the relative status of men and women as a deliberate, perpetuated construction, though he did not use the term. Similarly, he was describing patriarchy in stating the actual position of women in a situation of legal bondage, and was pointing out that the family, too, is a political institution, with potent potential as a source of domestic slavery. These insights are still relevant today.

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Mill argues that women were generally subject to the whims of the husband and/or father due to social norms which said women were both physically and mentally less able than men and therefore needed to be “taken care of.” According to Gail Tulloch “Recognition of women as potentially progressive beings also forces recognition of the associated conclusion that sex is not an appropriate discriminating factor in contexts where legal, political and social equality are involved. Nor is strength; nor is birth; nor is wealth; nor is colour. Society and the law must be reformed accordingly. Just how well women would do in open competition remains unclear, but Mill does believe that they have potential enough so that they should not be treated like children.” Mill also argued that inequality of women was a relic from the past, when might was right; but it had no place in the modern world. Mill saw this as a hindrance to human development, since effectively half the human race were unable to contribute to society outside of the home.

“… The legal subordination of one sex to another — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

Gail further pointed out that “it has been shown that it was part of the novelty and force of Mill’s case to emphasise the narrow channelling of females, in that their horizons were constricted by socially customary notions of women’s nature and the “feminine”, and by an education of the sentiments rather than the understanding. It has been emphasised that Mill, in common with other enlightenment feminists, relied on education as the solution.”

There is nothing about being a woman per se that should be a disqualification, and whereas being a woman may be a disadvantage in a discriminatory society, it need not be if social conditions are modified. It is the determination to modify discriminatory social conditions- that is, unjust differential treatment – that is central to Mill’s liberal feminism.

Women are brought up to act as if they were weak, emotional, docile – a traditional prejudice. If we tried equality, we would see that there were benefits for individual women. They would be free of the unhappiness of being told what to do by men. And there are benefits for society at large – doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The ideas and potential of half the population would be liberated, producing a great effect on human development.

The main aim of the liberal feminists is the creation of equal opportunities, particularly in education and work. Probably the most positive thing liberal feminism has for itself is the fact that it has contributed to considerable social change, especially in relation to employment opportunities and conditions, and social policy.


Liberal feminist theories have been subject of intense discussion and criticism in current debates among feminist scholars. Some argues that the liberal feminism flawed in terms of values of individualism and human nature and the relation of self to the community. Moreover, law is treated by liberal feminists as a theoretical given. There was no attempt to reconceptualise law because the insights of liberal feminists were premised on a liberal political foundation. Just as critical race theorists argue in the case of racism, liberal legalism deals with discrimination against women on the basis of such instances being individual and isolated cases. However, asserting that women were somehow different, that women were to be treated as a special case is contrary to the notion of formal equality. Liberal feminists do not seek revolutionary changes in society, but rather reforms that take place within existing social and political structures. If there are any weaknesses to the liberal feminists this may be it. Other feminist may argue that the liberals are not aggressive enough and rely too much on hope. Jenifer Ring argues that “The Subjection of Women” is presented as a test case in which Mill wishes to argue for the justice and utility of the emancipation of women. His efforts are thwarted by his inability to argue from anything but an empirical basis, grounding his evidence in historical data which serve both to stereotype women’s “good” qualities and to judge women’s potential by what is observable from an admittedly unjust history.” Another core problem is that despite the granting of the suffrage, there is still subjection of women, both socially and economically. Present social arrangements still do not reflect sexual equality, or human similarity between men and women.

Feminist Jurisprudence And Present Enactments:

***The laws affecting the rights and treatment of women in England have seen enormous change since 1869. However, the achievement of women’s rights has been the result of a gradual but inexorable application of liberal principles of individual freedom and welfare to an ever-broadening spectrum of the population. Such an extension of women’s rights did not come without struggle, some of it protracted and some even heroic-but the goal of the struggle was implicit in values long recognized in English law. Mary Lyndon Shanley argues that “There is a great deal of law that affects women in modern England and relatively little literature analyzing it from a feminist perspective. This brief look at a few legal topics suggests that there is important work to be done in two fields: reconstructing the history of women’s efforts to alter the laws and assessing the ideological nature of laws affecting women. This double agenda is necessary because traditional scholarship has ignored vast areas of the law that are of critical importance to women or has written about the law in such a way that women’s concerns are eclipsed or sub-summed under the interests of some other group.”

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***The project of feminist jurisprudence to date has mostly been to reveal the gendering of law and theory to demonstrate that law’s claims to neutrality, central to the concept of the rule of law, are untrue. By contrast, a feminist jurisprudence suggests far more. Robin West argues that we should aim for a humanist jurisprudence, one that takes account of all forms of life in order to allow for difference. The paradox suggested by the work of later theorists (such as Mary Joe Frug – a postmodern feminist theorist) is that if difference – the infinite difference that a myriad social histories create – is to be recognised, it cannot be recognised except by the kind of mechanism (equality before the law – the eradication of difference) on which liberal legalism presently rests.

At present, in UK there are 116 different pieces of equality legislation in force, including 35 acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European Commission directives. The following are few examples of the equality enactments:

(a) The Equal Pay Act 1970 (c. 41),

(b) The Sex Discrimination Act 1975,

(c) The Race Relations Act 1976,

(d) The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Part 2 & 3 of this Act,

(e) The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003/1661),

(f) The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003/1660).

(g) The Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42), etc.

Currently a new Equality Bill has been introduced which is at its second reading stage. The bill seeks to close the gender pay gap once and for all. Minister for Equality Harriet Harman said that ‘Under the Equalities Bill…firms employing at least 250 staff would be required to publish average hourly rates for men and women by 2013.” She also commented that “The economies and societies which will prosper in the future are not those that have rigid hierarchies, where women know their place and where you can’t go forward because of the colour of your skin.”


Mill’s intellect engaged with the world rather than fled from it. His was not an ivory tower philosophy, even when dealing with the most abstract of philosophical topics. His work is of enduring interest because it reflects how a fine mind struggled with and attempted to synthesize important intellectual and cultural movements. He stands at the intersections of conflicts between enlightenment and romanticism, liberalism and conservatism, and historicism and rationalism. In each case, as someone interested in conversation rather than pronouncement, he makes sincere efforts to move beyond polemic into sustained and thoughtful analysis. That analysis produced challenging answers to problems that still remain. Whether or not one agrees with his answers, Mill serves as a model for thinking about human problems in a serious and civilized way. Moreover, Mill’s powerful arguments concerning nature and women remain of striking contemporary relevance to both educational theory and practice in the current context of debate whether women’s place in society is mandated by nature or is socially constructed.

******* Yet there is ample empirical evidence” that education is still discriminatory, in terms of differential subject choices which are short-term, short-sighted, and non-serving, and which set up systematically different career paths and life options. Unequal treatment can even be seen in terms of relative teacher time spent on boys and girls. This is reflected at the tertiary

level, where female students are clustered in a narrow range of courses – mainly the humanities and education. There are disproportionately few at postgraduate level. Female staffs are similarly clustered in the same narrow range of courses, and there are disproportionately many in junior and in non-tenured positions. l8 A comparable situation pertains in the work force,I9 where women’s earnings are on average demonstrably lower, even where education and qualifications are Comparable. Women are overwhelmingly concentrated in skilled, low paid, and routine jobs in three main areas -clerical, sales, and service – which are also the most likely to disappear with the new technologies.20

In general, the workforce is constructed so as to exclude women from terms and conditions that would be seen as their due if they were male workers. Because most women break their working lives to have children, few qualify for superannuation or long service leave. Still, the view prevails that married women have only a conditional right to earn their livelihood – a view that reminds us that it was only 92 years ago that married women won the right to own their own property in England. We recall Mill’s role in this, and his refusal to take women’s subjection as part of the natural order of things, but rather as a culturally imposed limitation.

To take an even more specific example: if we find there are few women in educational administration positions, is this due to ineptitude? Is it, alternatively, due to residence difficulties presented by residential educational administration courses for women with home responsibilities? Similarly, if there are significantly fewer women at senior levels in the teaching profession, is this related to problems women have in moving around, as is necessary to climb the promotion ladder? This is quite apart from the obvious setback of taking time to have children-a setback so severe that until recently women had to resign and start again at the bottom of the career ladder.

These examples show that a very strong case can be made for social influences being, as Mill said, sufficient explanation for observed differences, particularly when we include the further strong influence, which he allowed for, of the kind of character formation that expressly discouraged girls from aspiring to be high school principals. We are still a long way from viewing sex as of no more relevance to exercising individual talents than hair colour- to cite Mill’s example in Representative Government.21 Vestiges of the Natural Complement theory remain, and need to be eradicated, in the workforce as well as in the home, without allowing fallacious arguments about women’s nature to stand in the way of this work.

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