Enfranchisement of Women
[Editorial Note: When this essay first appeared in the Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, one of England's premier journals of political opinion, virtually everyone attributed it to John Stuart Mill. Mill, widely recognized as one of the most eminent British economists and philosophers, later credited the essay to his wife, Harriet Taylor. (See his letter to Paulina Wright Davis included in her address to the 1870 Anniversary Convention.) Similarly, he wrote that the views expressed in his subsequent book, The Subjection of Women, also derived from Taylor. In his Autobiography he went even further, claiming that Taylor was responsible for the key ideas in most of his work. Biographers and historians have long sought to trace the parameters of Taylor's influence upon Mill, but all agree that it was both profound and exceedingly difficult to pin down. Most scholars, however, accept Mill's claim that Taylor wrote "Enfranchisement of Women."
The essay itself had a profound effect on both sides of the Atlantic, not least of all because of the (mistaken) attribution of its authorship to Mill. It gave the woman's rights movement an immediate claim to intellectual respectability at a time when most commentators, when they deigned notice the arguments of movement spokespeople, only scoffed. It also directly affected the debate over woman's rights within the fledgling movement. The resolutions adopted at the 1851 national woman's rights convention, according to Wendell Phillips who introduced them, sought to embody the essay's central contentions.
"Enfranchisement of Women" also anticipated some of the arguments that would continue to divide advocates of woman's rights down to the present such as that between so-called "difference" feminists and "equality" feminists as the following quotation demonstrates;
Like other popular movements . . . this may be seriously retarded by the blunders of its adherents. Tried by the ordinary standard of public meetings, the speeches at the [1850 Worcester] Convention are remarkable for the preponderance of the rational over the declamatory element; but there are some exceptions; and things to which it is impossible to attach any rational meaning, have found their way into the resolutions. Thus, the resolution which sets forth the claims made in behalf of women, after claiming equality in education, in industrial pursuits, and in political rights, enumerates as a fourth head of demand something under the name of "social and spiritual union," and "a medium of expressing the highest moral and spiritual views of justice," with other similar ver[P.23]biage, serving only to mar the simplicity and rationality of the other demands: resembling those who would weakly attempt to combine nominal equality between men and women with enforced distinctions in their privileges and functions. What is wanted for women is equal rights, equal admission to all social privileges; not a position apart, a sort of sentimental priesthood. . . .The strength of the cause lies in the support of those who are influenced by reason and principle; and to attempt to recommend it by sentimentalities, absurd in reason, and inconsistent with the principle on which the movement is founded, is to place a good cause on a level with a bad one.]
[Harriet Taylor], "Enfranchisement of Women," reprinted from the Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review for July 1851, Woman's Rights Tracts, . . . . No. 4 (Syracuse, 1852 or 1853) as excerpted.
P.1: Most of our readers will probably learn from these pages [New-York Tribune, For Europe, October 29, 1850], for the first time, that there has arisen in the United States, and in the most enlightened and civilized portion of them, an organized agitation on a new question--new, not to thinkers, nor to any one by whom the principles of free and popular government are felt as well as acknowledged, but new, and even unheard of, as a subject for public meetings and practical political action. This question is, the enfranchisement of women; their admission, in law and in fact, to equality in all rights, political, civil and social, with the male citizens of the community.
It will add to the surprise with which many will receive this intelligence, that the agitation which has commenced is not a pleading by male writers and orators for women, those who are professedly to be benefitted remaining either indifferent or ostensibly hostile; it is a political movement, practical in its objects, carried on in a form which denotes an intention to preserve. And it is a movement not merely for women, but by them. Its first public manifestation appears to have been a Convention of Women, held in the State of Ohio, in the Spring of 1850. Of this meeting we have seen no report. On the 23rd and 24th of October last, a succession of public meetings was held at Worcester, in Massachusetts, under the name of a "Women's [sic] Rights Convention, of which the President was a woman [Paulina Wright Davis], and nearly all the chief speakers women; numerously reinforced, however, by men among whom were some of the most distinguished leaders in the kindred cause of negro emancipation. A general, and four special committees were nominated, for the purpose of carrying on the undertaking until the next annual meeting.
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P.2: . . . In regard to the quality of the speaking, the proceedings bear an advantageous comparison with those of any popular movement with which we are acquainted, either in this country or in America. Very rarely, in the oratory of public meetings, is the part of verbiage and declamation so small, that of calm good sense and season so considerable. The result of the Convention was, in every respect, encouraging to those by whom it was summoned; and it is probably destined to inaugurate one of the most important of the movements towards political and social reform, which are the best characteristics of the present age.
That the promoters of this new agitation take their stand on principles, and do not fear to declare these in their widest extent, without time serving or compromise, will be seen from the resolutions adopted by the Convention . . . .[here follows a partial transcription of the resolutions. For the full text, see the Proceedings.]
It would be difficult to put so much true, just, and reasonable meaning into a style so little calculated to recommend it as that of some [P.3] of the resolutions. But whatever objection may be made to some of the expressions, none, in our opinion, can be made to the demands themselves. As a question of justice, the case seems to us too clear for dispute. As one of expediency, the more thoroughly it is examined the stronger it will appear.
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P.3: . . . After a struggle which, by many of its incidents, deserves the name heroic, the abolitionists are now so strong in numbers and influence, that they hold the balance of parties in the United States. It was fitting that the men whose names will remain associated with the extirpation, from the democratic soil of America, of the aristocracy of color, should be among the originators, for America and for the rest of the world, of the first collective protest against the aristocracy of sex; a distinction as accidental as that of color, and fully as irrelevant to all questions of government.
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P. 5: . . While, far from being expedient, we are firmly convinced that the division of mankind into two castes, one born to rule over the other, is in this case, as in all cases, an unqualified mischief; a source of perversion and demoralization, both to the favored class, and to those at whose expense they are favored; producing none of the good which it is the custom to ascribe to it, and forming a bar, almost insuperable while it lasts, to any really vital improvement, either in the character or in the social condition of the human race.
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P. 6: . . . Throughout history, the nations, races, classes, which found themselves the strongest, either in muscles, in riches, or in military discipline, have conquered and held in subjection the rest. If, even in the most improved nations, the law of the sword is at last discountenanced as unworthy, it is only since the calumniated eighteenth century.1 Wars of conquest have only ceased since democratic revolutions began. The world is very young, and has only just begun to cast off injustice. It is only now getting rid of negro slavery. It is only now getting rid of monarchial despotism. It is only now getting rid of hereditary feudal nobility. It is only now getting rid of disabilities on the grounds of religion.2 It is only beginning to treat any men as citizens, except the rich and a favored portion of the middle class.3 Can we wonder that it has not yet done as much for women? As society was constituted until the last few generations, inequality was its very basis; association grounded on equal rights scarcely existed; to be equals was to be enemies; two persons could hardly cooperate in anything, or meet in any amicable relation, without the law's appointing that one of them should be the superior of the other. Mankind have outgrown this state, and all things now tend to substitute, as the general principle of human relations, a just equality, instead of the dominion of the strongest. But of all relations, that be[P. 7]tween men and women being the nearest and most intimate, and connected with the greatest number of strong emotions, was sure to be the last to throw off the old rule and receive the new; for in proportion to the strength of a feeling, is the tenacity with which it clings to the forms and circumstances with which it has even accidentally become associated.
When a prejudice, which has any hold on the feelings, finds itself reduced to the unpleasant necessity of assigning reasons, it thinks it has done enough when it has re-asserted the very point in dispute, in phrases with appeal to the pre-existing feeling. Thus, many persons think they have sufficiently justified the restrictions on women's field of action, when they have said that the pursuits from which women are excluded are unfeminine, and that the proper sphere of women is not politics or publicity, but private and domestic life.
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P. 9: Concerning the fitness, then, of women for politics, there can be no question: but the dispute is more likely to turn upon the fitness of politics for women. When the reasons alleged for excluding women from active life in all its higher departments, are stripped of their garb of declamatory phrases, and reduced to the simple expression of meaning, they seem to be mainly three: the incompatibility of active life with maternity, and the cares of a household; secondly, its alleged hardening effect on the character; and thirdly, the inexpediency of making an addition to the already excessive pressure of competition in every kind of professional or lucrative employment.
The first, the maternity argument, is usually laid most stress upon: although (it needs hardly be said) this reason, if it be one, can apply only to mothers. It is neither necessary nor just to make imperative on women that they shall be either mothers or nothing; or that if they have been mothers once, they shall be nothing else during the whole remainder of their lives.
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P. 10: . . . There is no inherent reason or necessity that all women should voluntarily choose to devote their lives to one animal function and its consequences. Numbers of women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them, no other occupation for their feelings or their activities. Every improvement in their education and enlargement of their faculties--everything which renders them more qualified for any other mode of life, increases the number of those to whom it is an injury and an oppression to be denied the choice.
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But secondly, it is urged, that to give the same freedom of occupation to women as to men, would be an injurious addition to the crowd of competitors, by whom the avenues to almost all kinds of employment are choked up, and its remuneration depressed. This argument, it is to be observed, does not reach the political question. It gives no excuse for withholding from women the rights of citizenship. . . . Even if every woman, as matters now stand, had a claim on some man for support, how infinitely preferable is it that part of the income should be of the woman's earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it, rather than that she should be compelled to stand aside in order that men may be the sole earners, and the sole dispensers of what is earned.
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P. 11: the third objection to the admission of women to political or professional life, its alleged hardening tendency, belongs to an age now past, and is scarcely to be comprehended by people of the present time. There are still, however, persons who say that the world and its avocations render men selfish and unfeeling; that the struggles, rivalries and collisions of business and of politics make them harsh and unamiable; that if half the species must unavoidably be given up to these things, it is the more necessary that the other half should be kept free from them; that to preserve women from the bad influences of the world, is the only chance of preventing men from being wholly given up to them.
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P. 12: . . . in the present condition of human life, we do not know where those hardening influences are to be found, to which men are subject, and from which women are at present exempt. Individuals now-a-days are seldom called upon to fight hand to hand, even with peaceful weapons; personal enmities and rivalries count for little in worldly transactions; the general pressure of circumstances, not the adverse will of individuals, is the obstacle men now have to make head against. That pressure, when excessive, breaks the spirit, and cramps and sours the feelings, but not less of women than of men, since they suffer certainly not less from its evils.
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P. 12: But, in truth, none of these arguments and considerations touch the foundations of the subject. The real question is, whether it is right and expedient that one-half of the human race should pass through life in a state of forced subordination to the other half. . . .
When, however, we ask why the existence of one-half the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other--why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own, that there may be nothing to compete in her mind with his [P. 13] interests and his pleasure; the only reason which can be given is, that men like it. It is agreeable to them that men should live for their own sake, women for the sake of men; and the qualities and conduct in subjects which are agreeable to rulers, they succeed for a long time in making the subjects themselves consider as their appropriate virtues.
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P. 16: . . . Our argument here brings us into collision with what may be termed the moderate reformers of the education of women; a sort of persons who cross the path of improvement on all great questions; those who would maintain the old bad principles, mitigating their consequences. These say, that women should be, not slaves, nor servants, but companions; and educated for that office; (they do not say that men should be educated to be the companions of women). But since uncultivated women are not suitable companions for cultivated men, and a man who feels interest in things above and beyond the family circle, wishes that his companion should sympathize with him in that interest; they therefore say, let women improve their understanding and taste, acquire general knowledge, cultivate poetry, art, even coquet with science, and some stretch their liberality so far as to say, inform themselves on politics; not as pursuits, but sufficiently to feel an interest in the subjects, and to be capable of holding a conversation on them with the husband, or at least of understanding and imbibing his wisdom. Very agreeable to him, no doubt, but unfortunately the reverse of improving. . . . The modern, and what are regarded as the improved and enlightened modes of education of women, abjure, as far as words go, an education of mere show, and profess to aim at solid instruction, but mean by that expression, superficial information on solid subjects. Except accomplishments,4 which are now generally regarded as to be taught well, if taught at all, nothing is taught to women thoroughly. Small portions only of what is attempted to teach thoroughly to boys, are the whole of what it is intended or desired to teach to women. What makes intelligent beings is the power of thought; the stimuli which call forth that power are the interest and dignity of thought itself, and a field for its practical application. Both motives are cut off from those who are told from infancy that thought, [P. 17] and all its greater applications, are other people's business, while theirs is to make themselves agreeable to other people. High mental powers in women will be but an exceptional accident, until every career is open to them, and until they, as well as men, are educated for themselves and for the world -not one sex for the other.
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P. 17: The common opinion is, that whatever may be the case with the intellectual, the moral influence of women over men is almost always salutary. It is, we are often told, the great counteractive of selfishness. However the case may be as to personal influence, the influence of the position tends eminently to selfishness. The most insignificant of men, the man who can obtain influence or consideration nowhere else, finds one place where he is chief and head. There is one person, often greatly his superior in understanding, who is obliged to consult him, and whom he is not obliged to consult. He is judge, magistrate, ruler, over their joint concerns; arbiter of all differences between them. . . . The generous mind, in such a situation, makes the balance incline against his own side . . . . But how is it when average men are invested with this power, without [P. 18] reciprocity and without responsibility? Give such a man the idea that he is first in law and in opinion--that to will is his part, and hers to submit; it is absurd to suppose that this idea merely glides over his mind, without sinking in, or having any effect on his feelings and practice. . . .If there is any self-will in the man, he becomes either the conscious or unconscious despot of his household. The wife, indeed, often succeeds in gaining her objects, but it is by some of the many various forms of indirectness and management.
Thus the position is corrupting equally to both; in the one it produces the vices of power, in the other those of artifice. Women, in their present physical and moral state, having stronger impulses, would naturally be franker and more direct than men; yet all the old saws and traditions represent them as artful and dissembling. Why? Because their only way to their objects is by indirect paths. In all countries where women have strong wishes and active minds, this consequence is inevitable; and if it is less conspicuous in England than in some other places, it is because English women, saving occasional exceptions, have ceased to have either strong wishes or active minds.
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P. 22: . . .In the United States at least, there are women, seemingly numerous, and now organized for action on the public mind, who demand equality in the fullest acceptation [sic] of that word, and demand it by a straight-forward appeal to men's sense of justice, not plead for it with a timid deprecation of their displeasure.
Like other popular movements, however, this may be seriously retarded by the blunders of its adherents. Tried by the ordinary standard of public meetings, the speeches at the Convention are remarkable for the preponderance of the rational over the declamatory element; but there are some exceptions; and things to which it is impossible to attach any rational meaning, have found their way into the resolutions. Thus, the resolution which sets forth the claims made in behalf of women, after claiming equality in education, in industrial pursuits, and in political rights, enumerates as a fourth head of demand something under the name of "social and spiritual union," and "a medium of expressing the highest moral and spiritual views of justice," with other similar ver[P.23]biage, serving only to mar the simplicity and rationality of the other demands: resembling those who would weakly attempt to combine nominal equality between men and women with enforced distinctions in their privileges and functions. What is wanted for women is equal rights, equal admission to all social privileges; not a position apart, a sort of sentimental priesthood. . . .The strength of the cause lies in the support of those who are influenced by reason and principle; and to attempt to recommend it by sentimentalities, absurd in reason, and inconsistent with the principle on which the movement is founded, is to place a good cause on a level with a bad one.
There are indications that the example of America will be followed on this side of the Atlantic; and the first step has been taken in that part of England where every serious movement in the direction of political progress has its commencement--the manufacturing districts of the North. On the 13 of February, 1851, a petition of women, agreed to by a public meeting at Sheffield, and claiming the elective franchise, was presented to the House of Lords by the Earl of Carlisle.
1 The reference is to the American and French Revolutions.
2 A reference to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1832 by which Parliament extended limited freedom of religion to Catholics and repealed the provisions barring them from holding public office.
3 In 1833 Parliament passed a Reform Bill which extended the franchise to males who met a specified property qualification.
4 A reference to the teaching of subjects such as drawing and music in schools for women.