By Sofia Vegas
John Stuart Mill on Gender Equality
After almost a century since the equal rights movement in the United States, women still seem to be subject to subordination and unfair treatment by their male counterparts. Although advancements have undoubtedly been made, perfect equality seems to be far from the reality that we live today. Arguments for equality are not new, John Stuart Mill argued for legal gender equality to promote social harmony over a century ago. While Mill believes that men and women should be seen as equal, and he presents a clear argument for legal equality, it is evident that legal equality is not enough to end the social constructs that enforce inequality.
Mill views the subordination of women to have been arbitrarily imposed in society as an unethical standard. He claims that in the beginning of time women were compelled to be obedient to men because of their physical differences. These actions unfortunately made a norm become a forced reality. “Those who had been already compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound to it” (127). Mill explicitly believed that this reality interfered with society’s ability to better itself; by forcing women into specific social relations, society was being robbed of the possibility of evolving and improving.
According to Mill it was crucial that women be given the freedom to choose what they wished to do with their lives by giving them a status of legal equality. In other words, legal equality is the solution to women’s subordination. Mill believed that if women are provided a legal status of equality their lives would change, thus improving society overall.
Although it is true that legal equality would improve the treatment of women and provide them with certain freedoms under the law, this term should not be taken as one that would instantly change the status of women in society. Giving women rights and freedoms should not be seen as the final solution to inequality. Although it would ideally create perfect equality, this could take years, or even centuries to achieve. As Mill put it, “what [women] can do but not as well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them” (150)—even if equality was awarded and women were allowed to freely choose what industry they would work in, men would not see their position in society compromised; simple competition and lack of practice would instantly diminish women’s equality in relation to men’s. Furthermore, Mill claimed that reaching the level of complete equality would not be easy because society had never seen such a construct. Providing legal rights for women would disrupt long standing societal practices, and reaching full equality would not be an easy movement to undertake. In this way, people should believe that legal equality entails complete and perfect equality.
As seen in the United States after the equal rights movement, women were provided legal equality under the constitution, but they were not treated as equals in society. The 19th amendment to the constitution written in 1923 stated that "men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction” (Milligan). However, when one looks at present time, it is evident that complete equality is not yet a reality. Subordination of women is so deeply ingrained in society, that people fail to see what is wrong with it. In this way young girls are raised with a mentality of inferiority, causing them to feel as such and see nothing wrong with it in the future. Moreover, some women are still forced by their fathers, husbands, or male counterparts to remain in positions of subordination. Many are afraid to bring these cases to court, thus removing the possibility for the legal framework to work in their favor. Although these cases are enforced in the privacy of people’s lives, cases such as wages prove that the law has failed to be enforced to its highest degree. In average, women make 79 cents to each dollar made by a man. Many justify this by stating that women are more likely to take breaks from work to care for their family. Still, the law should not allow this to happen, even less after the equal pay act was passed in 1963 (Sheth). These events enforce the subjugation of women and prove that equal rights under the law are yet to become perfect equality.
Thanks to Mill the concept of legal equality was introduced early to society and progress was slowly made. Unfortunately, however, equality under the legal system does not entail that society has changed and women and men are treated equally. Even though one would see a great improvement in the state of women rights by comparing the state of women during Mill’s time to their state in the twenty first century, this should not be deemed a successful and finished movement. Societal ideas do not change overnight. Therefore the movement which has been underway for almost a century must continue until all women can enjoy complete freedom over their own lives.
Milligan, Susan. “Stepping through History; a timeline of women’s rights from 1769 to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.” US News. US News and World Report. Jan 2017. Web Accessed, 04 Feb 2018.
Sheth; Gould, Skye. “5 Charts Show How Much More Men Make Than Women.” Business Insider. Business Insider. March 2017. Web Accessed, 04 Feb 2018.
Mill, John S. “The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill; On Liberty, The Subjection of Women and Utilitarianism.” Modern Library. New York. pp. 123-152.