Freedom's a Long Time Coming


Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and almost, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters—in closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow-subjects; with no means of combining against him, no power of even locally overmastering him, and, on the other hand, with the strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give him offense. In struggles for political emancipation, everybody knows how often its champions are bought off by bribes, or daunted by terrors. In the case of women, each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined. [1]

Ti-Grace Atkinson, Valerie Solanis? No—actually the above quote is from the first pro-feminist essay written by a man. The essay is also the first (and almost the only!) pro-feminist essay written by a libertarian—the author being none other than John Stuart Mill and the essay, ON THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN, written in 1861 and published in 1869. [2]

It's an ironic commentary on the state of the two "movements" that SUBJECTION and ON LIBERTY have become virtually required reading in the Women's Liberation movement [3], which largely grew out of the New Left [4], but that SUBJECTION is either unknown or ignored among libertarians! Certainly it's desirable to have feminists reading such thoughts as:

The modern conviction, the fruit of a thousand years of experience, is, that things in which the individual is the person directly interested, never go right but as they are left to his own discretion; and that any regulation of them by authority, except to protect the rights of others, is sure to be mischievous. [5]

But it would also be nice to see libertarians working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment [6] to the Constitution, the substance of which Mill argued for in 1869! In fact, it would be nice simply to see such libertarian theorists as Ayn Rand [7] and Murray Rothbard [8] consider feminism at all positively! However, Mill had encountered such situations and offered this comment:

He who would rightly appreciate the worth of personal independence as an element of happiness, should consider the value he himself puts upon it as an ingredient of his own. There is no subject [other than feminism] on which there is a greater habitual difference of judgement between a man judging for himself, and the same man judging for other people. When he hears others complaining that they are not allowed freedom of action—that their own will has not sufficient influence in the regulation of their affairs—his inclination is, to ask, what are their grievances? what positive damage they sustain? and in what respect they consider their affairs to be mismanaged? and if they fail to make out, in answer to these questions, what appears to him a sufficient case, he turns a deaf ear, and regards their complaint as the fanciful querulousness of people whom nothing reasonable will satisfy. But he has quite a different standard of judgment when he is deciding for himself. [9]

It is this currentness that makes Mill so exciting to read (if also somewhat depressing when one realizes how little has changed in 103 years!). Of course, the sections where he talks about women owning property are dated, since in the United States women may now own and dispose of property without their husbands' having any claim on it, at least if the property was acquired prior to marriage. In fact, the situation now is that a wife has considerable claim on her husband's property (due to laws passed by male legislators). Mill also deals with the question of women's suffrage, essentially a dead issue outside of Switzerland (last year women were finally permitted to vote in federal elections, but they are still disenfranchised in many cantons), and a few minor countries. However, the bulk of his essay deals with societal attitudes toward women, attitudes of women toward themselves, the effects of socialization into the feminine role, legal and professional discrimination against women, and the qualities of an ideal marriage—subjects very much under discussion today.

(However, Mill has an advantage over most of the feminists writing today in that he is writing from a consistently libertarian position, and, perhaps more importantly, in that he is a man and hence not the direct recipient of the attitudes that he attacks. Being the victim of discrimination is very frustrating but righteous indignation per se has never convinced anyone; indeed, it seems to amuse most people! Unless one possesses a particularly cool vindictiveness, anger only seems to interfere with rational argumentation.)

One of the first issues Mill considers is the question of feminine nature. Can one say what is feminine or unfeminine? Mill answers with a thorough NO!

Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. [10]

Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character. Whatever any portion of the human species now are, or seem to be, such, it is supposed, they have a natural tendency to be: even when the most elementary knowledge of the circumstances in which they have been placed, clearly points out the causes that made them what they are. [11]

In this Mill gets at the crux of much of the controversy surrounding Women's Liberation: namely, feminists' contention that not only are certain laws and employment practices discriminatory but that the whole social structure needs overhaul to the extent that it represses the rational, and the independent, and the productive in women and encourages irrational, dependent, and non-productive personalities. Not surprisingly, many women view socialization into what is now defined as the feminine role as oppressive [12] because it goes against their needs as persons. However, as Mill indicates, ignorance compounds the inherent difficulty of the situation. When the people you're trying to convince think everything is right and natural now, change is hard to accomplish!

To use an illustration, anyone who has ever tried to use reason in a milieu (religious or otherwise) where faith or conformity is the norm should appreciate the feeling of being pressured in an unconscionable direction. And there's not even any one person or situation that one can blame or say "STOP!" to! A set of expectations, emotional responses, etc. is disturbingly vague, and challenging it is very difficult, especially if one has been exposed to these pressures since infancy. And then to be told that it is normal and human to have faith (with, of course, the implication of sickness in the opposite) because everyone does, when it is obvious they have faith because it was one of the first lessons taught in infancy; with the reply that nothing was taught, the infant was just treated like a human being—is a rather frustrating experience!

(That's if a person bothers to question. Objectivists and other libertarians should be among the first to concede that most people are happy with the status quo. If people can accept the role of the FDA and FCC as natural and right when these agencies have existed less than 70 years, it should come as no surprise that people would be hostile towards changing customs and attitudes that have existed far longer—and possibly with no more justification.)

In discussing femininity Mill does not consider the Argument from Underwear—disappointing in view of the Argument's prominence in current discussions of feminism but understandable in view of the bra's not having been invented until 1922! [14] One can only wonder what his reaction would be to a society that takes an event that never occurred [15], elevates its imagined occurrence into a symbol denoting a mixed bag of psychological, philosophical, and sociological ideas, and then by means of one element of that symbol attempts to define any particular person's sexuality and views on a very complex issue! "well, I wear a bra!"—"So? Are you a better person for it? Does it make you feminine? Do you perhaps own stock in Maidenform? However, now that we've determined your tastes in undergarments perhaps we can discuss more important issues."!

Mill does, however, deal with two other issues that always seem to crop up when the nature of women is being discussed. The first has to do with women's supposed emotional fragility [16] which is said to send them into a dither at the slightest disturbance. One of the most famous recent exponents of that doctrine was Dr. Edgar Berman, Hubert Humphrey's physician, who got considerable publicity last year when he asserted in a speech to the Democratic Party's Committee on National Priorities that hormonal imbalances resulting from the menstrual cycle and menopause rendered women unfit for positions of high responsibility. In particular he questioned if a menopausal woman would have been able to handle the Bay of Pigs incident! [17]

Hormones were unknown in Mill's time—the syndrome attributed now to "female problems" was then called "nervous sensibility." Mill considered that a nervous temperament could be inherited and conceded that women were probably more prone to such a temperament than men.

We will assume this as a fact: and let me then ask, are men of nervous temperament found to be unfit for the duties and pursuits usually followed by men? If not, then why should women of the same temperament be unfit for them? The peculiarities of the temperament are, no doubt, within certain limits, an obstacle to success in some employments, though an aid to it in others.…

It is evident that people of this temperament are particularly apt for what may be called the executive department of the leadership of mankind. They are the material of great orators, great preachers, impressive diffusers of moral influence. Their constitution might be deemed less favorable to the qualities required from a statesman in the cabinet, or from a judge. It would be so, if the consequence necessarily followed that because people are excitable they must always be in a state of excitement. But this is wholly a question of training. [18]

In other words, are there People or are there Men and Women? And is any particular characteristic one has because of one's sex to be a handicap by definition or is it something one has a person and hence learns to cope with as part of reality? Many more men than women get gouty arthritis and only men are hemophiliacs—does that not suggest, if women are to be disapproved for positions of responsibility because they are "nervous," that men shouldn't be surgeons, since they are so prone to disabling arthritis and might bleed to death if a knife cut them, besides? Women are also discriminated against in business because they have wombs and hence might have children [19] which would prevent them from working for a few months—but men in all age groups have a higher accident and coronary death rate than women. Certainly a dead employee is a greater loss to a company than one in temporary absence!

One of the accusations often hurled against feminists is that they are all lesbians and would like to form an all-female society. I've always been pleased with the consistency (if not with anything else) of the sort of men who would make such accusations—they also seem to be the ones who emphasize how different and emotional and mysterious and irrational and incompetent women are: i.e., how unlike men women are! If a man has been telling a woman for years how she is almost a different species from him, it shouldn't surprise him (and it doesn't, really: he's just outraged) that she should decide that maybe he is right and that she should seek companionship among her own kind, just as he does among his (up to now there has been no female equivalent of the "jock" or "man's man")!

Another issue concerning femininity that comes under Mill's scrutiny is that of woman's function in life:

The general opinion of men is supposed to be, that the natural vocation of a woman is that of a wife and mother. I say, is supposed to be, because, judging from acts—from the whole of the present constitution of society—one might infer that their opinion was the direct contrary. They might be supposed to think that the alleged natural vocation of women was of all things the most repugnant to their nature; in so much that if they are free to do anything else…there will not be enough of them willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them.…I should like to hear somebody openly enunciating the doctrine (it is already implied in much that is written on the subject)—"It is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children. They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them." The merits of the case would then be clearly defined. [20]

Lest one think Mill is talking through his hat, consider the laws forbidding abortion and, in many states, forbidding the sale of contraceptives, at least to younger women (Connecticut's law against using contraceptives was overturned in 1965 and then only on the grounds that it violated marital privacy). Tax laws favoring the married are marriage incentives to both sexes. So are public schools, the existence of which makes all the anti-feminist hoopla over day-care centers seem almost superfluous—if a child can be baby-sat at public expense from age 6 to 26, why quibble over a few more years at the lower end of the scale? [21]

In states without community property laws, a wife in a divorce action often gets nothing except the children (which the law virtually requires her to bear if the husband wants them, since she has no legal grounds for refusing intercourse with her husband save severe illness on her part, and she cannot get sterilized without her husband's permission), some child support, which is often abandoned, and some alimony, which is even oftener abandoned. In general she's been out of the job market for many years or, if working, has been in a low paying position. Not all of that is due to alleged female unambitiousness. A wife in virtually all states is required by law to maintain the home and children first, and then if she has the time and energy she may take a job. [22] Mother-love aside, the result of a divorce is very often that the partner least able economically to maintain a family is the one required to do it. Certainly such situations tend to keep bad marriages together. [23]

Then there are the pressures to get married. Keeping one's virginity for one's husband is still a popular idea ("Is it safe for young girls to use Tampax?"); contraceptive information and, with the exception of foam and rubbers, the contraceptives are hard to obtain for minors; and abortions and the morning-after pill are even harder to obtain. Essentially, a society that considers a 16 year old too irresponsible to vote expects the same teenager to keep very strong passions under control. A lot of kids accept the rules—they get married so they can have sex (marriage is quite easy for the girls—the age of consent is generally less than 16: if they are consenting to marriage. The age of consent for intercourse is usually at least 16!). Certainly this is true of the girls—a girl who has sex without marriage faces pregnancy and/or a trip to Juvenile Hall [24] for "being out of control," "lascivious carriage," "sexual misbehaviour," and "promiscuity" (meanwhile her partner gets prosecuted for statutory rape)! [25]

One of the most telling events supporting the suspicions Mill raises is the sound and fury generated by the possibility of the Equal Rights Amendment [see Note 6] becoming part of the United States Constitution. Sam Ervin, the great civil libertarian of the Senate has vowed to do all he can to kill the motion. Emanuel Celler has fought it tooth and claw in the House for the past twenty years. The gist of their arguments is that the Amendment rocks the boat. [26] One complaint is that the Amendment would wipe out all of the "protective" legislation women have in various states. A retort might be made that the legislation "protects" men, since in virtually every state women are forbidden to work more than a certain number of hours (however, housewives aren't included under these laws), lift more than a certain weight (generally less than that of a young child), stand more than a certain number of hours, or indulge in certain "hazardous occupations." The passage of this legislation 70 years ago is now thrown in the face of women who agitate for an equal wage [27]—employers maintain that since women can't by law do the same work as men and require extra facilities they shouldn't be paid the same as men. There is a certain logic, however frustrating, in this—but it will be interesting too see what excuses are trotted out if the protective laws are wiped out. Women chemists, at all levels of experience and academic degree (and at high enough level jobs to be "exempt" from much labor legislation), get, on the average, 75% of the salary of their male co-workers. [28] But in my six years as a lab chemist I never noticed the women doing any less work than or different work from the men. We did have a cot in our restroom, though!

In reply to the contention that there are just some things a lady shouldn't do [29], Mill provides a good answer:

If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter. [30]

The gallant gentleman approach, when one gets right down to it, is simply meddling in others' affairs! And what's always paraded out as the telling blow to the Amendment is the Draft Argument—"Well, if we pass that amendment, we'll have to draft women"—and all hearts melt at the thought of tender young girls slogging through the mud in Vietnam. Amendment advocates are accused, "You don't want to draft women, do you!?" What never seems to occur to anyone is that equality under the law works both ways, and there are in fact situations where women have a better deal than men! This is one situation where the men can be made equal to the women—i.e., draft neither! People's repugnance to women warriors goes rather deep, and it's surprising that anti-draft forces haven't been pushing the Equal Rights Amendment as a round-about way of achieving their goal!

Certainly none of this is to imply that feminism requires special privileges for women! Having control over one's own body isn't a special privilege, nor is being paid a non-discriminatory wage. Being taken seriously when saying serious things shouldn't have to count as a special privilege, nor should being raised to be rational and productive be something special. To all those people puzzled over the question "What do feminists want?"—try: to be treated as a person, with all the dignity that implies. Or, to use a phrase that far predates John Stuart Mill, Laissez-faire!


[1] ON THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN, Fawcett edition, p. 26. All references to this edition.

[2] Now available in paperback from Fawcett World Library, with an introduction by Susan Brownmiller, copyright 1971.

[3] Mill was first mentioned prominently in Kate Millet's SEXUAL POLITICS (Avon Books, 1971, pp. 88-108). She compared Mill's rationalism with Ruskin's chivalry and not surprisingly found the latter a sham. Mill himself commented on chivalry "…[women] are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment, which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order and is considered quite natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse." (Mill, p. 99.)

[4] Which is not to imply that all feminists are leftists! In fact, my guess is that many feminists are with the Left simply because there's no place else to go, much as atheists had trouble finding a place in the Right before Objectivism became popular.

[5] Mill, p. 33.

[6] "Equality of rights under the law should not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

[7] Ayn Rand, "The Age of Envy," THE OBJECTIVIST, August 1971, pp. 3-4.

[8] Murray Rothbard, "The Great Women's Liberation Issue," THE INDIVIDUALIST, Vol. 2, No. 5, pp. 1-7.

[9] Mill. p. 122.

[10] Mill. p. 37.

[11] Mill, p. 38.

[12] For a definition of this role at its most extreme, and instructions on how to achieve that "femininity," see Helen Andelin's FASCINATING WOMANHOOD.

[13] Mill, p. 41.

[14] At which time it was considered quite scandalous and sexually provocative!

[15] See SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL. ed. Robin Morgan, Vintage Books, 1970 p. 521. Sorry folks, the Atlantic City Fire Department wouldn't issue the Miss America Pagent demonstrators a burning permit…Honest!

[16] Its companion, the physical fragility issue, has largely become obsolete as research has shown that except for raw muscle power women (on the average) are hardier than men (on the average).

[17] An unfortunate example for him to choose, since the man who handled it is said by some people to have blown it. It was later revealed by Kennedy's physician (a woman!) that he was suffering from Addison's disease and that during the period of the Bay of Pigs invasion he was being treated with cortisone, a powerful and un-predictable hormone that can produce a manic psychosis as a side-effect. Women aren't the only people who have hormones!

[18] Mill, pp. 82-83.

[19] I haven't been to a job interview yet where the fact that I'm married and childless is not regarded with great suspicion, regardless of what I say my plans are. When I get sterilized (at my age I would need about three kids for a hospital sterilization committee to take me seriously, so I have to wait a few years and hope the Pill neither fails nor kills me in the meantime), I certainly plan to get a note from my doctor for inclusion with my resume!

[20] Mill, p. 44.

[21] Obviously a libertarian could and should quibble over public schools in general, but there seems no more cause to single out a day care center than a junior high school.

[22] This wouldn't be so bad if more women realized that they are under no legal obligation to give any money earned by them to their husbands or families, since the husband's obligation is to support his family by himself.

[23] One might say that I describe one of the worst possible cases, but in any case of injustice the truly oppressed are a minority—the rest just could be oppressed (how many people are truly oppressed by taxes, the draft, a wage and price freeze, anti-drug laws, etc.?).

[24] Paul Lerman, "Child Convicts," TRANSACTION, July/August 1971, pp. 35-44.

[25] Connecticut had a beaut of a female juvenile offense until very recently—"Being in danger of falling into bad company," good for a lock-up until age 21!

[26] A spectrum of opinion is presented in last year's House debate: CONGRESSIONAL RECORDS, 10 August 1970, H7948-7983.

[27] Or "Equal Pay for Equal Work" as the slogan now goes. Some feminist groups are lobbying for an equal pay law, which is of course a legal interference in the employer-employee relationship. Such lobbying efforts have no connection with the Equal Rights Amendment at all, as one can see from reading the proposed amendment. Some libertarians, such as Gary North in the January 1971 FREEMAN (pp. 3-14), seem to confuse the unjustness of an equal pay law with the moral justness of paying people on the basis of skills and productiveness, rather than on the basis of sexual equipment, and seem to be saying that a woman shouldn't fight bigotry because that's the way things are and their lower wages are the result of valid market operations!

[28] "Women Chemists: concerned over rights," CHEMICAL AND ENGINEERING NEWS, 26 October 1970, pp. 26-28.

[29] In Washington she shouldn't be a bellhop; in Ohio a crossing watchman, pinsetter, bellhop, deliveryman, teamster, or a gas or electric meter reader! Most states, of course, have some restrictions on women working in the vicinity of alcoholic beverages.

[30] Mill, p. 44.