J.S. Mill in The Subjection of Women argued that every form of oppression seems perfectly natural to those who live under it (1869)

John Stuart Mill

In The Subjection of Women (1869) John Stuart Mill argues that every form of oppression seems perfectly natural to those who live under it, whether it be slavery in the southern states of America or the lack of property and civic rights for women in 19th century Britain:

Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it? There was a time when the division of mankind into two classes, a small one of masters and a numerous one of slaves, appeared, even to the most cultivated minds, to be a natural, and the only natural, condition of the human race. No less an intellect, and one which contributed no less to the progress of human thought, than Aristotle, held this opinion without doubt or misgiving; and rested it on the same premises on which the same assertion in regard to the dominion of men over women is usually based, namely that there are different natures among mankind, free natures, and slave natures; that the Greeks were of a free nature, the barbarian races of Thracians and Asiatics of a slave nature. But why need I go back to Aristotle? Did not the slaveowners of the Southern United States maintain the same doctrine, with all the fanaticism with which men cling to the theories that justify their passions and legitimate their personal interests? Did they not call heaven and earth to witness that the dominion of the white man over the black is natural, that the black race is by nature incapable of freedom, and marked out for slavery? some even going so far as to say that the freedom of manual labourers is an unnatural order of things anywhere. Again, the theorists of absolute monarchy have always affirmed it to be the only natural form of government: issuing from the patriarchal, which was the primitive and spontaneous form of society, framed on the model of the paternal, which is anterior to society itself, and, as they contend, the most natural authority of all. Nay, for that matter, the law of force itself, to those who could not plead any other, has always seemed the most natural of all grounds for the exercise of authority.

In this quotation Mill raises the very important point that, to the people who were born into and raised up in a society with appalling injustices, these injustices seem perfectly “natural” and “normal.” In fact, it is the people who wish to change the status quo, often dramatically, who are considered to be the “abnormal” dissidents and trouble makers. Historically, this has been true of those objected to slavery (only a few fringe religious groups initially opposed slavery and even several of the American Founding Fathers were slave owners), to absolutist kings (republicans who executed King Charles in the 1649 were persecuted and executed after the Restoration in 1660), and to the legal and political restrictions on women until the 20th century. This passage from Mill shows how hard it is to bring about fundamental change of any kind.