Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Rights of Women—and Especially with Regard to the Elective Franchise—By a Woman—Dedicated to Queen Victoria - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education
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1.: Rights of Women—and Especially with Regard to the Elective Franchise—By a Woman—Dedicated to Queen Victoria - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI - Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).
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Rights of Women—and Especially with Regard to the Elective Franchise—By a Woman—Dedicated to Queen Victoria
a great number of progressive changes are constantly going forward in human affairs and ideas, which escape the notice of unreflecting people, because of their slowness. As each successive, step requires a whole generation or several generations to effect it, and is then only one step, things in reality very changeable remain a sufficient length of time without perceptible progress, to be, by the majority of cotemporaries, mistaken for things permanent and immovable—and it is only by looking at a long series of generations that they are seen to be, in reality, always moving, and always in the same direction.
This is remarkably the case with respect to Privileges and Exclusions. In every generation, the bulk of mankind imagine that all privileges and all exclusions, then existing by law or usage, are natural, fit and proper, even necessary: aexcepta such as happen to be, just at that time, in the very crisis of the struggle which puts an end to them—which rarely happens to more than one set or class of them at a time. But when we take all history into view we find that its whole course is a getting rid of privileges and exclusions. Anciently all was privilege and exclusion. There was not a person or class of persons who had not a line marked round them which they were in no case permitted to overstep. There was not a function or operation in society, sufficiently desirable to be thought worth guarding, which was not rigidly confined to a circumscribed class or body of persons. Some functions were confined to particular families—some to particular guilds, corporations, or societies. Whoever has any knowledge of ancient times knows that privilege and exclusion was not only the general rule in point of fact, but bthat nothing else was inb accordance with the ideas of mankind. Whenever any action or occupation, private or public, was thought of, it seemed natural to everybody that there should be some persons who were allowed to do the action or follow the occupation, and others who were not. People never thought of inquiring why it should be so, or what there was in the nature of the particular case to require it. People seldom ask reasons for what is in accordance with the whole spirit of what they see round them, but only for what jars with that spirit. Even bodily freedom, the right to use one’s own labour for one’s own benefit, was once a privilege, and the great majority of mankind were excluded from it. This seems to the people of our day something monstrously unnatural, to people of former days it seemed the most natural of all things. It was very gradually that this was got rid of, through many intermediate stages, of serfage, villenage &c. Where this did not exist, the system of castes did: and that appears profoundly unnatural to us, but so profoundly natural to Hindoos that they have not yet given it up. Among the early Romans fathers had the power of putting their sons to death, or selling them into slavery: this seemed perfectly natural to them, most unnatural to us. To hold land, in property, was throughout feudal Europe the privilege of a noble. This was only gradually relaxed and in Germany there is still much land which can only be so held. Up to the Reformation to teach religion was the exclusive privilege of a male separate class, even to read the Bible was a privilege: Those who lived at the time of the Reformation and who adopted it, ceased to recognize this case of privilege and exclusion, but did not therefore call in question any others. Throughout the Continent political office and military rank were exclusive privileges of a hereditary noblesse, till the French revolution destroyed these privileges. Trades and occupations have almost everywhere ceased to be privileges. Thus exclusion after exclusion has disappeared, until privilege has ceased to be the general rule, and tends more and more to become the exception: it now no longer seems a matter of course that there should be an exclusion, but it is conceded that freedom and admissibility ought to prevail, wherever there is not some special reason for limiting them. Whoever considers how immense a change this is from primitive opinions and feelings, will think it nothing less than the very most important advance which has hitherto been made in human society. It is nothing less than the beginning of the reign of justice, or the first dawn of it at least. It is the introduction of the principle that distinctions, and inequalities of rights, are not good things in themselves, and that none ought to exist for which there is not a special justification, grounded on the greatest good of the whole community, privileged and excluded taken together.
Considering how slowly this change has taken place and how very recent is its date, it would be surprising if many exclusions did not still exist, by no means fitted to stand the test which until lately no one ever thought of applying to them. The fact that any particular exclusion exists, and has existed hitherto, is in such a case no presumption whatever that it ought to exist. We may rather surmise that it is probably a remaining relic of that past state of things, in which privilege and exclusion were the general rule. That the opinions of mankind have not yet put an end to it is not even a presumption that they ought not, or that they will not hereafter do so.
We propose to examine how far this may be the case with one of the principal remaining cases of privilege, the privilege of sex: and to consider whether the civil and political disabilities of women have any better foundation in justice or the interest of society than any of the other exclusions which have successively disappeared.[*]
In the first place it must be observed that the disabilities of women are exactly of the class which modern times most pride themselves on getting rid of—disabilities by birth. It is the boast of England that if some persons are privileged by birth, at least none are disqualified by it—that anybody may rise to be a peer, or a member of parliament, or a minister—that the path to distinction is not closed to the humblest. But it is closed irrevocably to women. A woman is born disqualified, and cannot by any exertion get rid of her disabilities. This makes her case an entirely peculiar one in modern Europe. It is like that of the negro in America, and worse than that of the roturier formerly in Europe, for he might receive or perhaps buy a patent of nobility. Women’s disqualifications are the only indelible ones.
It is also a peculiarity in the case, that the persons disqualified are of the same race, the same blood, the same parents, as the privileged, and have even been brought up and educated along with them. There are none of the excuses grounded on their belonging to a different class in society. The excluded, have the same advantages of breeding and social culture, as the admitted, and have or might have the same educational advantages of all sorts.
It is necessary to protest first of all against a mode of thought on the subject of political exclusions which though less common than it once was is still very common, viz. that a prohibition, an exclusion, a disability, is not an evil or a grievance in itself. This is the opinion of many grave, dignified people, who think that by uttering it they are shewing themselves to be sound, sage, and rational, superior to nonsense and sentimentality. Where is the grievance, they say, of not being allowed to be an elector? What good would it do you to be an elector? Why should you wish to be one? They always require you to point out some distinct loss or suffering, some positive inconvenience which befals you from anything you complain of. This class of persons are enemies of all sorts of liberty. They say to those who complain. Have you not liberty enough? What do you want to do more than you do at present? And what is strange is, that they think this is shewing peculiar good sense and sobriety. It is a doctrine however which they are not fond of applying to their own liberties. Suppose that a law were made forbidding them ever to go beyond the British isles, and that when they complained they were answered thus: Is not Great Britain large enough for you? Are not England, Scotland and Ireland fine countries? Is there not variety enough in them for any reasonable taste? Why do you want to go to foreign countries? Your proper place is at home. Your duties are there. You have no duties to perform abroad, you are not a sailor, or a merchant, or an ambassador. Stay at home.—Would they not say—“My good friend, it is possible that I may never wish to go abroad at all; or that if I do wish, it may not be convenient: but that does not give you any right to say I shall not go abroad. It is an injustice and a hardship to be told that even if I do wish to go I shall not be permitted. I shall probably live all my life in this house, but that is a very different thing from being imprisoned in it.”—What these people (who deem their notions wise because they are limited) think there is no harm in cutting off from the life of anybody, except themselves, is precisely what makes the chief value of life. They think you lose nothing as long as you are not prevented from having what you have and doing what you do: now the value of life does not consist in what you have or do, but in what you may have and may do. Freedom, power, and hope, are the charms of existence. If you are outwardly comfortable they think it nothing to cut off hope, to close the region of possibilities, to say that you shall have no carrière, no excitement, that neither chance nor your own exertions shall ever make you anything more or other than you now are. This is essentially the doctrine of people legislating for others. Nobody legislates in this way for himself. When it comes home to them personally all feel that it is precisely the inconnu, the indefinite, to be cut off from which would be unbearable. They know that it is not the thing they please to do, but the power of doing as they please, that makes to them the difference between contentment and dissatisfaction. Everybody, for himself, values his position just in proportion to the freedom of it: yet the same people think that freedom is the very thing which you may subtract from in the case of others, without doing them any wrong. The grievance they think is merely ideal: but they find in their own case that these ideal grievances are among the most real of any.[*]
“The proper sphere of women is domestic life.” Putting aside the word “proper” which begs the question, what does this assertion mean? That no woman is qualified for any other social functions than those of domestic life? This will hardly be asserted, in opposition to the fact not only of the numerous women who have distinguished themselves as writers, but of the great number of eminent sovereigns who have been women—not only in Europe but in the East where they are shut up in zenanas. The assertion therefore can only be supposed to mean that a large proportion of mankind must devote themselves mainly to domestic management, the bringing up of children &c. and that this kind of employment is one particularly suitable for women. Now, taking this for what it is worth, is it in other cases thought necessary to dedicate a multitude of people from their birth to one exclusive employment lest there should not be people enough, or people qualified enough, to fill it? It is necessary that there should be coalheavers, paviours, ploughmen, sailors, shoemakers, clerks and so forth, but is it therefore necessary that people should be born all these things, and not permitted to quit those particular occupations? Still more, is it necessary that because people are clerks or shoemakers they should have no thoughts or opinions beyond clerking or shoemaking? for that is the implication involved in denying them votes.
The occupations of men, however engrossing they may be considered, are not supposed to make them either less interested in the good management of public affairs, or less entitled to exercise their share of influence in those affairs by their votes. It is not supposed that nobody ought to have a vote except idle people. A shoemaker, a carpenter, a farmer have votes. Those who say that a scavenger or a coalheaver should not have a vote, do not say so on account of his occupation but on account of his poverty or want of education. Let this ground of exclusion be admitted for one sex just as far as for the other. Whatever class of men are allowed the franchise, let the same class of women have it.
If a woman’s habitual employment, whether chosen for or by her, is the management of a family, she will be no more withdrawn from that occupation by voting in an election than her neighbour will be withdrawn by it from his shop or his office.[†]
The feeling, however, which expresses itself in such phrases as “The proper sphere of women is private life,” “Women have nothing to do with politics” and the like, is, I believe, not so much any feeling regarding women as women, as a feeling against any new and unexpected claimants of political rights. In England especially there is always a grudging feeling towards all persons who unexpectedly profess an opinion in politics, or indeed in any matter not concerning their own speciality. There is always a disposition to say, What business is that of yours? When people hear that their tradespeople, or their workpeople, concern themselves about politics, there is almost always a feeling of dislike accompanying the remark. It seems as if people were vexed at finding more persons than they expected in a condition to give them trouble on that subject. Men have the same feeling about their sons unless the sons are mere echoes of their own opinions: and if their wives and daughters claimed the same privilege, their feeling would be that of having an additional disagreeable from a quarter they did not expect.
The truth is, everybody feels that whether in classes or individuals, having an opinion of their own makes them more troublesome and difficult to manage: and everybody is aware, in all cases but his own, that the intrinsic value of the opinion is very seldom much of an equivalent. But this is no more than the ministers of despotic monarchs feel with regard to popular opinion altogether. It is an exact picture of the state of mind of Metternich. It is much more consistent in him. He says, or would say, Leave politics to those whose business it is. But these other people say, No; some whose business it is not peculiarly may and ought to have opinions on it, but others, workpeople for instance, and women, ought not. Constitutionalists and Liberals are right against Metternich only on grounds which prove them to be wrong against those whom they would exclude. Metternich is wrong because if none but those who make politics their business, had opinions and could give votes, all the rest would be delivered blindfold into the hands of those professional politicians. This argument is good against excluding anybody, especially any class or kind of persons. It is a very great evil that any portion of the community should be left politically defenceless. To justify it in any case it must be shewn that still greater evils would arise from arming the class with opinions and votes. It may possibly admit of being maintained that this would be the result of giving votes to very ignorant or even in some cases to very poor people. But it is impossible to shew that any evils would arise from admitting women of the same social rank as the men who have votes.
Objection, “You would have perpetual domestic discussion.” If people cannot differ in opinion on any important matter and remain capable of living together without quarrelling, there cannot be a more complete condemnation of marriage: for if so, two people cannot live together at all unless one of them is a mere cipher, abdicating all will and opinion into the hands of the other, and marriage can only be fit for tyrants and nobodies.
But the proposition is false. Do not married people live together in perfect harmony although they differ in opinions and even feelings on things which come much nearer home than politics do to most people? Does it not often happen for instance that they hold different opinions in religion? And have they not continually different opinions or wishes on innumerable private matters without quarrelling? People with whose comfort it is incompatible that the person they live with should think differently from them in politics or religion will if they marry at all generally marry a person who has either no opinions or the same sort of opinions with themselves. Besides, by discouraging political opinions in women, you only prevent independent disinterested opinions. In a woman, to have no political opinions, practically means to have the political opinions which conduce to the pecuniary interest or social vanity of the family. If honest opinions on both sides would make dissension between married people, will there not be dissension between a man who has an opinion and a conscience in politics and a woman who sees what she thinks the interests of the family sacrificed to what seems to her a matter of indifference? except indeed that the man’s public spirit is seldom strong enough to hold out long against the woman’s opposition, especially if he really cares for her. Now when women and men really live together, and are each other’s most intimate associates, (which in the ancient republics they were not) men never can or will be patriotic or public spirited unless women are so too. People cannot long maintain a higher tone of feeling than that of their favourite society. The wife is the incarnate spirit of family selfishness unless she has accustomed herself to cultivate feelings of a larger and more generous kind: while, when she has, her (in general) greater susceptibility of emotion and more delicate conscience makes her the great inspirer of those nobler feelings in the men with whom she habitually associates.
A part of the feeling which makes many men dislike the idea of political women, is, I think, the idea that politics altogether are a necessary evil, a source of quarrelsome and unamiable feelings, and that their sphere of action should be restricted as much as possible, and especially that home, and social intercourse, should be kept free from them, and be retained as much as possible under influences counteractive of those of politics. One would imagine from this manner of looking at the subject, that the danger in modern times was that of too much political earnestness: that people generally felt so strongly about politics as to require a strong curb to prevent them from quarrelling about it when they meet. The fact however we know to be that people in general are quite lukewarm about politics, except where their personal interests or the social position of their class are at stake, and when that is the case women have already as strong political feelings as men have. And this wish to keep the greater interests of mankind from being thought of and dwelt on when people are brought together in private, does not really prevent ill feeling and ill blood in society, but only causes it to exist about things not worth it. Where is the benefit of hindering people from disliking each other on matters involving the liberty or the progress of mankind, only to make them hate each other from petty personal jealousies and piques? Active minds and susceptible feelings will and must interest themselves about something, and if you deny them all subjects of interest except personal ones, you reduce the personal interests to a petty scale, and make personal or social vanities the primum mobile of life: now personal rivalities are a much more fruitful source of hatred and malice than differences of political opinion.
How vain the idea that the way to make mankind amiable is to make them care for nothing except themselves and the individuals immediately surrounding them. Does not all experience shew that when people care only for themselves and their families, then unless they are held down by despotism, every one’s hand is against every one, and that only so far as they care about the public or about some abstract principle is there a basis for real social feeling of any sort? One reason why there is scarcely any social feeling in England, but every man, entrenched within his family, feels a kind of dislike and repugnance to every other, is because there is hardly any concern in England for great ideas and the larger interests of humanity. The moment you kindle any such concern, if it be only about negroes or prisoners in gaols, you not only elevate but soften individual character; because each begins to move in an element of sympathy, having a common ground, even if a narrow one, to sympathize on. And yet you would prevent the sympathetic influence of women from exercising itself on the great interests. Observe, by the way, that almost all the popular movements towards any object of social improvement which have been successful in this country, have been those in which women have taken an active part, and have fraternized thoroughly with the men who were engaged about them: Slavery abolition, establishment of schools, improvement of prisons. In the last we know that a woman[*] was one of the principal leaders, and in all three the victory was chiefly due to the Quakers among whom women are in all points of public exertion as active as men. Probably none of these things would have been effected if women had not taken so strong an interest in them—if the men engaged had not found a constant stimulus in the feelings of the women connected with them, and a necessity for excusing themselves in the eyes of the women in every case of failure or shortcoming. And will any one say that the harmony of domestic life or of social intercourse was rendered less because women took interest in these subjects? It will be said, they were questions peculiarly concerning the sympathies and therefore suitable to women. But they were also subjects which concerned people’s self interest and were therefore sources of antipathy as well as sympathy: and there have been few subjects on which there has been more party spirit and more vehement opposition of political feeling, than on West India slavery and on the Bell and Lancaster schools.[†]
“What is the use of giving women votes?” Before answering this question it may be well to put another: What is the use of votes at all? Whatever use there is in any case, there is in the case of women. Are votes given to protect the particular interests of the voters? Then women need votes, for the state of the law as to their property, their rights with regard to children, their right to their own person, together with the extreme maladministration of the courts of justice in cases of even the most atrocious violence when practised by men to their wives, contributes a mass of grievances greater than exists in the case of any other class or body of persons. Are votes given as a means of fostering the intelligence of the voters, and enlarging their feelings by directing them to a wider class of interests? This would be as beneficial to women as to men. Are votes given as a means of exalting the voters in social position and estimation? and to avoid making an offensive distinction to their disadvantage? This reason is strong in the case of women. And this reason would suffice in the absence of any other. Women should have votes because otherwise they are not the equals but the inferiors of men.
So clear is this, that any one who maintains that it is right in itself to exclude women from votes, can only do it for the express purpose of stamping on them the character of inferiors.
* * * * *
[a-a]unless indeed [first cancelled by HTM]
[b-b][first read] was in entire [altered by JSM to] was alone in [which was cancelled first by HTM and replaced, first by HTM, by interlined final version]
[[*] ]The last paragraph, especially the last line, which concludes f. 2v, is crowded in (the final word is interlined below), as though to conclude, or else to avoid disturbing what was already written on 3r.
[[*] ]The text here stops about nine lines above the bottom of f. 4v.
[[†] ]The text here stops about two lines above the bottom of f. 5v.
[[*] ]Elizabeth Fry.
[[†] ]Similar, but competing, systems, founded by Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster. The text here stops about seven lines above the bottom of f. 9v.