The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill is recognized in modern philosophy chiefly for two reasons. He refined the Utilitarianism tradition of philosophy established by Jeremy Bentham and reemphasized the importance of individual liberty and self-determination against the inroads of the majority in democratic societies. One part of Mill’s contribution has been largely overlooked, however. It is his call for legal and social equality for women in an 1861 volume entitled The Subjection of Women.
More Notes: Shakespeare’s Sister
Mill lived in an era when women were subordinate to men by law and custom. They were expected to marry, rear children, and devote themselves to their families. In most cases, they could not pursue a formal education, own property or amass wealth, vote, serve on juries, practice a profession or trade, seek a divorce, even from an abusive husband, or travel alone. Women lived in the shadow of their de facto masters, their husbands.
In a nutshell, Mill argued nearly 150 years ago that women’s liberation would produce two critical results. It will benefit society by triggering the contributions of women in many fields, and it will help women by granting them the autonomy essential to happiness.