The Subjection of Women: The Subjection of Mothers?
At the end of the second chapter of The Subjection of Women, Mill makes a statement that seems to contradict the overall message of the rest of the essay. After spending 27 pages refuting the idea that women should be subordinate to men, he says, "in an otherwise just state of things, it is not, therefore, I think, a desirable custom that the wife should contribute by her labour to the income of the family." (Wootton 701) How can Mill advocate the equality of women and men, but still restrict the wife to staying home and raising the children? How is it liberal to not allow women to work? To make sense of his peculiar statement, it is necessary to look at it without the preconceptions of modern feminism and notions of equality, and carefully examine Mill's actual argument. In doing so, it is not difficult to reconcile this statement with the rest of the essay.
The first paragraph introduces the problem in the author's own words and motivates with a few, concise questions. The thesis, expressed in the final sentence, is equally concise, although it could have been even more specific, saying how the author plans to reconcile the statement. (Very common error in student papers is to make the thesis totally vague: "I will analyze Mill's position," or something similar.)
It is first crucial to first discuss what the overall argument of this essay is. Mill does not argue that men and women are fundamentally equal. He pinpoints the source of female subjection to be physical strength, but quickly discredits this law of the strongest. (Wootton 676) He acknowledges certain differences, such as mental acuity (Wootton 707), morality (Wootton 718) and even brain size (Wootton 710), but none of these constitute legitimate reasons for the enslavement of one sex to the other. He also points out that it is difficult to really validate these differences, as the true nature of women has been distorted by society. Instead of supporting pure and fundamental equality of the sexes, Mill argues for complete equality within marriages, and legal and social equality of opportunity between the sexes. The word "opportunity" is essential to his argument. Because the differences between men and woman are largely unknown, equal opportunity coupled with competition safeguards the legitimacy and practicality of this system.
The second paragraph is exemplary in its use of the text. It shows that the author has carefully read the text and understood Mill's position. At the same time, it does not use valuable space for quoting, but quickly summarizes the main points, giving the reader the opportunity to go check the claims made. The only formal quibble one could have is that it would be better to cite the text as "Mill," instead of referring to the editor of the textbook, David Wootton.
There are a few assumptions that must be made about the author's mindset and the social climate during which he is writing. First of all, that children necessarily follow marriage was a key factor in defining the roles of husband and wife. He does not discuss the possibility of marriage without children, in which the domestic responsibilities and demand on income would be very different than in marriages with children. Additionally, marriage was the only respectable option for women, and to be married was to be legally bound, subordinate, and "in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined" (Wootton 679) to their husbands. Consequently, women got married to become wives, mothers, and slaves. Mill's background as a utilitarian must also be taken into consideration when attempting to combine the notions of the biological necessity of women to give birth to children and the liberal idea of a women acting as the primary breadwinner.
When Mill confines wives to child rearing in "just" marriages, he is not referring to a marriage of enslavement, but a new concept of marriage, where it is "a school of obedience for the children, ... a school of sympathy in equality, of living together in love, without power on one side or obedience on the other... between the parents." (Wootton 699) This makes husbands and wives equal in marriage, and therefore marriage more desirable to women. What is also necessary is a division of labor within the marriage to maximize its efficiency. One parent has to earn money, and the other has to take care of domestic affairs. However, the income is shared between the husband and wife, with neither having complete jurisdiction over the way it is spent. The parent in charge of the home is responsible for using portion of the income allotted to the family's needs and maintenance. (Wootton 700-1)
One of the conceptual difficulties with this topic is the question of ideals as opposed to the social reality of the time. Mill is explicit about talking about "otherwise just state of things," that is, what he imagines marriage relations to be once the egalitarian ideals have been reached. Many students did not sufficiently appreciate this fact, arguing that Mill was simply buying into the prejudices of his time. In a way, he is, but since most of the essay is an argument against taking existing beliefs as normative, one needs to explain why or how he shares those prejudices. Here, in the paragraph above and below, the author offers a plausible reading.
Mill's restriction of the wife to child care is also an argument of utility. In a time before formula and day care, and due to the biological imperative that women must be the one to give birth, the greatest utility for all is that the woman be the one to stay home and raise the children and deal with household activities. If the wife supplied the primary source of income, she would be required to take time off of work to give birth, and this would take away from the family income and the overall wealth of the family. This would also raise the problem of requiring maternity-leave safeguards within the workplace, which would then give women special treatment. Besides that, any climbing of the "corporate ladder" would be slowed significantly each time the woman had to take time off. With the husband acting as the primary breadwinner, these problems are avoided altogether: no time off is needed, no special treatment is necessary, and maximum job potential is realized.
It may be said that all this does not reconcile the fact that men and women are still given defined roles in marriage, which goes against Mill's liberal belief that sex or any other consequences of birth should determine a woman's social function. To this I would point out the distinction between wife and woman, and husband and man. In Mill's just society, a woman would no longer be limited to marriage, but have the whole working world open to her. Marriage becomes only one of many choices, so to have gender-defined roles within marriage is not inconsistent with the rest of Mill's argument. Additionally, it is not only wives that have defined roles in marriage, but husbands also a defined role: to support the family financially. Therefore marriage, which is itself a choice, has defined roles for both husbands and wives, so both men and women are restricted by the institution of marriage; neither is given preferential treatment.
One could charge the author for being too sympathetic with Mill here. Sure, marriage does assign roles to both husbands and wives and thus constrain their choices. But one could argue that the constraints are still significantly different.
Given the fact that wives have this defined role, Mill does address the possibility of being a working mother. He does not support this as general custom due to the fact that child rearing and overseeing domestic affairs is essentially a full-time job, which requires significant mental and physical energy. To then take on an additional profession would so be taxing that it would prevent the wife from performing her duties at home and to her children to the fullest of her ability. The children and home would become neglected, the family would suffer, and overall utility would decrease. In fact, requiring a mother to work would be unfair. The husband should be solely responsible for income, and the wife should be solely responsible for running the household.
As a true liberal, though, Mill does not overlook exceptions. In his statement at the end of chapter two, it should be noted that he is asserting his opinion about what custom should be. He is not saying that laws should require wives to stay at home, but that in general, based on the hope of maximizing the utility of the family, women should not work. His important disclaimer comes further down the paragraph, when he says that "the utmost latitude ought to exist for the adaptation of general rules to individual suitabilities; and there ought to be nothing to prevent faculties exceptionally adapted to any other pursuit." (Wootton 701) He recommends that wives should stay home for the good of the family, but that no legal or social restrictions can equitably be put on women who attempt to deviate from the norm.
While Mill's recommendation that wives remain at home should not sit well with the modern-day feminist, it is not inconsistent with Mill's overall message, nor does it take away from the validity of his argument. It instead makes his argument more applicable and practical to society during his lifetime. Maybe if Mill lived in a time of formula, day-care and nannies, he would have omitted his recommendation, but without the ideas that Mill proposes, society would not have progressed to a time such as that. Either way, this does not make his proposal for complete legal and social equality for women any less relevant for society today.
The concluding paragraph briefly summarizes the problem and the author's argument and also puts it in a slightly larger context. The summary is deftly executed; it does not repeat what has been said, but captures the paper in a way that ties things together for the reader.