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Blog: John Stuart Mill, Feminism and Voting

Written by Richard Feist

In 19th century Britain there was a series of parliamentary acts designed to expand the number of eligible voters in the UK. This was a sweeping series of reforms, changing much of Britain’s electoral system.

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Of particular interest is the Second Reform Act, which was tabled and debated in the British Parliament in 1867.

The Second Reform Act was to include working men in the towns and cities among eligible voters.

Agricultural workers would not be on the parliamentary agenda for another seven years.

But on June 5, 1867, the British philosopher, the “father of modern liberalism”, and Member of Parliament for Westminster, John Stuart Mill, rose and delivered a speech defending a special amendment to the Second Reform Act.

The special amendment stated that women should also be given the vote.

Mill argued that it was unjustified to deny women the vote while giving it to other classes, an argument that only works if one presupposes—as Mill did, and many did not at that time—that women are on the same moral, ontological and political level as men.

During the debates on Mill’s amendment, one of Mill’s opponents claimed that he had never met a woman who even wanted the vote.

Some argued that good women would not even want the vote.

After all, goes the argument, we all know that power corrupts.

Good women should want to remain good women, and the way to remain pure is to avoid power and thereby evade being corrupted.

Well, a petition was then taken and within a few weeks of Mill’s speech, dozens of women’s signatures were presented to Parliament showing that many women did in fact want the vote and were willing to risk being corrupted.

The Second Reform Act passed, but Mill’s amendment did not. It was defeated 196 to 73.

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Mill had long been an advocate of women’s rights—especially that of women’s suffrage. His views on this issue were well-known and he was often mocked in the press in ways that strike us as extremely sexist today—to say the least.

Not only did Mill publically support women’s rights, he put his views into practice on the personal level as well. Mill gave much credit to his wife, Harriet Taylor, for helping him with his own philosophical ideas and writings. This credit was largely ignored or dismissed by scholars but in recent years has been taken much more seriously. There are many good articles and books on the Mill—Taylor relationship today.

Mill lost his parliamentary seat in the 1868 election.

A short while later, Mill’s thinking—and Taylor’s, too, no doubt—appeared as The Subjection of Women.

In this work Mill/Taylor offer numerous arguments in favour of the rights of women.

The context of some of these arguments may (or perhaps not) strike us as antiquated today, such as the supposed need to argue that a woman is a person.

But Mill/Taylor offer an analysis that I think is extremely important and relevant today. The very nature of the objectification of women, the very system, the structure of subjection, namely the vast and sprawling matrix that we call “society”, through which women are viewed, completely distorts any idea that we may have of them.

(Now, who is the “we” here? It is men. Mill/Taylor wrote this work aimed at men, since they argued that the emancipation of women cannot happen unless men are on board.)

Not only will men have an inaccurate, twisted view of women under this oppressive structure, but the structure will also render men to have an inaccurate and twisted view of themselves as well.

In sum, the entire structure of the oppression of women blocks knowledge of ourselves.

(The argument that the oppression of one group oppresses all groups can be found in Hegel and Marx as well, but Mill/Taylor are among the first to apply it directly to the case involving women.)

Think of the consequences of this systematic ignorance. How could we construct good social policies, build a decent and just society, if we lack knowledge of who we are?

All of us will be, to use Plato’s term, trapped in the cave.
Yes, there will be a cruel power asymmetry within the cave, but nonetheless it will be within the boundaries of ignorance.

Remember Dicken’s Spirit of Christmas present, when he lifts his robe and tells us that the boy represents ignorance, the girl want; fear them both, but most of all, fear the boy!!

Mill/Taylor argued that to have real reform, to liberate women from the double oppression of ignorance and submission to power and men from ignorance, this entire distorting system has got to go.

A first step, but not the last, was to grant women the power to vote and have their voices heard and have true representation in government.

It is interesting, sobering and saddening to think of the lost opportunity of that vote back in the British Parliament in 1867. There could have been a great unleashing of abilities and skills by granting half the population the right and opportunity to participate in the life of the nation. Indeed, Mill/Taylor offered an economic argument in favour of female sovereignty, rights and suffrage: what smart organization deliberately ignores the abilities of half its population?

 



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