The autonomy of the human being is a common central value in ethics and political theory and a political theory is devoid of moral purpose unless it seeks to increase a person’s autonomy. More, “the true virtue of human beings is fitness to live together as equals; claiming nothing for themselves but what they as freely concede to every one else” (p. 633). A society evolves towards a liberal democracy when it creates the norms, institutions and practices that give its people the chance to develop and manifest themselves as fully and freely as possible. As women’s roles have been (and are) prescribed and more predetermined than men’s, their path to autonomy and self-assertion is even harder, and longer.
In the development of liberal feminism, a crucial role was played by John Stuart Mill, implicitly through On Liberty, but especially by writing On The Subjection of Women (1869). Mill considered that “the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement” (p. 625) and campaigned demanding not only equal education, but also equal civil and political rights of women with men.
The main assumptions of John Stuart Mill’s work are consistent with his utilitarianism, with the idea of a liberalism in which people have a moral duty to pursue their own happiness.
For Mill, the faculty of reason is the same in both sexes, there is no intellectual superiority other than that given by women’s lack of access to education. Women, like men, are able to pursue their own interests, to govern themselves, are autonomous beings. There is no reason other than the artificial obstacles created by traditional society for women to access professions and politics.
After Mill, male domination of women began with the development of forms of social organization in patriarchal societies, which implemented the women subjection “was the arrangement most conducive to the happiness and well-being of both” (p. 625). Subjection is a word used in leadership whereby people are forced or made to do something beyond their control. John Stuart Mill tried to compare women’s subjection to men with how the government treats its people and forcing them to do the thing that disrupts happiness. In a relationship between a man and a woman, the woman must be submissive to the man since they are believed to be the family’s leaders and head. Mill also wondered why this supremacy of men over women had not been removed throughout human existence (as slavery was abolished for example).
Mill’s answer is simple: the subjection of women by men has been transformed over time into a form of addiction (p. 625), they are compelled to circumscribe the private sphere of the family and to depend on men as protectors. “All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men” (p. 627). For this condition to be changed, Mill says, it is necessary for women to benefit from autonomy, right to property, the same rights to divorce, to have equal rights to education and work, to political representation and to vote.
Therefore, for Mill, equality between women and men means: a) equal access to all levels and to all forms of education; b) partnership between women and men, at work, at gains, losses, risks; c) equal division of responsibilities in the creation and administration of laws, in governance at all levels.
Today, due to many campaigns that have been organized, education is nowadays open and free for women. However, additional rules have been added to protect the rights of women from exploitation. The development of feminism in in the 20th and 21st centuries created a great revolution in the political field. Many women have presented themselves as tough competitors, therefore, challenging men in parliamentary seats. A lot of laws have changed to accommodate the presence of women in society. In many government systems in the world, through the formation of women empowerment programs, they have gained a lot of power and energy, enabling them to shine and prosper. There are equal chances of participation and survival without subjection.
It is noted that classical liberalism has not been exempted from conservatism in terms of gender. Consequently, the image of women does not overlap with that of the rational and autonomous individual, the prototype to which all freedoms and rights were recognized and protected. Women are more emotional, more dependent on immanence and on nature, even if these characteristics are not innate, but induced by education. Women are more vulnerable and dependent. In other words, full freedoms and rights have a sex barrier – they are accessible only to one, namely the one that coincides with the image of the complete human, the man.
Liberal feminism, however, argues and advocates, at the level of political theory and action, for equality in rights between women and men, for the full recognition of women’s rights as human rights, including the extension of the exercise of those rights in private life as well.
The rule of men over women is prevalent in society, and therefore, according to the Mill’s suggestions, women should be left to enjoy their rights. Whatever they want since they are the same as men except for sex. Women are given the least chances of trying, and therefore, they have fewer chances of showcasing their courage and leadership skills. However, in modern society, women have been given many responsibilities, and therefore, the past norms followed may fade with time to allow the equal representation of all genders.
Cohen, Mitchell (ed.) Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Tests from Plato to Populism. Second Edition. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford, 2018, Retrieved from https://1lib.eu/book/5237908/1f040f