On the Equality of Women

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On the Equality of Women

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John Stuart Mill, in his essay The Subjection of Women, makes the strong case that the two sexes are, contrary to popular belief during his time, equal, a seemingly obvious and natural conclusion. Rather than simply rely on what should be apparent – a theory of natural human equality that is preexistent because we are all human – Mill delves into a moral approach to the subject, arguing that gender equality is beneficial for us all because it will “progress society.” Given the popular resentment towards the theory of inherent equality, Mill’s technique of tying gender equality to his other works on utilitarianism, most notably On Liberty, sufficiently appeals to logic and reason in a convincing fashion.

Reluctantly assuming the burden of proof in this argument – Mill believes in the “a priori presumption…of freedom and impartiality” the violation of which should indict a person to hold the burden of proof – he spends a little time railing against having to contend with the “hostility of [people’s] feelings and practical tendencies” despite those sentiments having no “logical resting”. Mill’s believed that “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.” His most eloquent and resounding argument for holding such an opinion is his appeal to societal progress. Society could be enriched, he reasoned, with the “emancipation” and education of women. Educated women would provide competition in the workforce, supporting meritocracy and bolstering the economy. Competition spurs the need to improve oneself in order to maintain a comparative advantage in a certain trade. The introduction of further competition in the labour supply would promote greater efficiency and necessitate higher skill amongst workers so they remain employable.
Higher skill and higher individual efficiency increases output and benefits the economy as a whole. Beyond the economy, Mill argues that education and free women would encourage intellectual development because “even a really superior man almost always begins to deteriorate when he is habitually king of his company” and given that “his most habitual company” is his wife, an intellectually inferior wife is the primary cause for the deterioration of a “superior” man. Therefore, it is necessary for women to be education if for no other reason than to promote intellectual development by having women engage their husbands in thoughtful dialogue and challenging preconceived ideas. Mill takes this a step further and asserts that women intellectually on par with their husbands would even better a relationship.

These arguments for educating and liberating women – which would imply equality on at least the most basic grounds – all lead to the same conclusion: societal enrichment. Such a conclusion is convincing to many because it doesn’t challenge that women are naturally equal (though Mill does, indeed, make that case). Standing alone from the essay, this train of thought appeals to men because the conclusion is a necessary betterment of life for all men (equalizing the other gender being a happy consequence). It is difficult to change one man’s pre-conceived notions on equality, it is much easier to get that man to support policies that will directly better his life. Why not allow women to be educated if it means my standard of living will increase and my marriage will be happier? Through this knowledge of his audience, Mill is able to deliver an eloquent call for gender equality, one that could be supported by many not on any philosophical grounds, but on strictly economic grounds – an appeal to bread and butter needs that so often throughout history has seen resounding success.

While it is clear and intrinsic that men and women are equal on the sole basis that they are both human, such a viewpoint was – and, frankly, still is – disturbingly uncommon. This is what makes Mill’s essay so enticing to many. He states that men and women are equal, which appeals to feminists and some of his audience; assumes the burden of proof, thereby presenting logical arguments; and doesn’t focus entirely on moral grounds – he appeals to basic economic and emotional wants and needs. Mill effectively presents arguments for all blocs of society and by doing so, creates a resonating piece that furthers the end goal of complete gender equality.

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