John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft: A Philosophical Comparison on the Subject of Liberty | Teen Ink

John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft: A Philosophical Comparison on the Subject of Liberty

March 15, 2019
By alannamarie77 SILVER, Brampton, Other
alannamarie77 SILVER, Brampton, Other
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Women’s rights are a heavily disputed topic both today and throughout history. Even though scholars have hypothesized ways to ensure equality of the sexes throughout the ages, we as a society still continue to struggle in terms of creating a truly free society. This paper will seek to analyze the theories of two important thinkers whose influence on universal human rights is still evident today. Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill both argued for greater equality and opportunity for the minorities within society and offer unique perspectives on behalf of the fact that Wollstonecraft is an insider of sorts, while Mill is an outsider. While the theories put forth by Wollstonecraft and Mill are fundamentally different, these political theorists share the same general idea about individual rights and liberties. In analyzing the texts, A Vindication of the Rights of Womanby Mary Wollstonecraft and On Libertyby John Stuart Mill, this paper will explore the similarities and differences between the thoughts of these scholars and explain how their bodies of work are connected in terms of the subject of liberty.

For context, On Liberty was published in 1859 as a short essay. John Stuart Mill was the “most influential English language philosopher of the nineteenth century” (MacLeod, 2016) and sought to establish his standards on the conduct between authority of the state and liberty, with an emphasis on individual freedom. He felt as though individuality was the key to maximizing happiness, and ultimately creating a functioning society. Although he argued in favour of the liberal perspective, he vouched against democratic ideals that failed to attain individual freedom for citizens, resulting in a tyranny of the majority. Mill’s main concern lay with maximizing pleasure and doing so with the least amount of conflict and without infringing the rights and freedoms of any other person.

To compare and contrast, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft and is one of the earliest works discussing feminist ideals. In this piece of literature, Wollstonecraft made her case for the positive societal impacts of mandating education for women. The basis of her argument was that an education could provide women of all ages with a method of justifying their status within society. It is argued that the ignorance men had towards women was keeping them inferior since they were seen as being property of a man, rather than a companion to a man. The solution to this problem is to make changes that allow for both men and women to share the same fundamental human rights (Britannica, 2018).

Although John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty almost a century after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, we will be exploring Mill’s theorization first, as it is important to understand his conceptualization of universal human rights before being able to understand these rights in relation to Wollstonecraft’s work on women’s rights. John Stuart Mill wrote highly of the rights of the individual over the rights of a society. In fact, one of his main arguments was his philosophy of individual freedom in which he articulated why individuality is important. He explains, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection” (Mill,1859, 14). Basically, a perfect society to Mill is one in which the individual is the sovereign, allowing for full autonomy of man. Problems only arise once man tries to place limitations on other individuals within society.

To further explain why Mill is dissatisfied limiting the rights of others he argues that,“A state which dwarfs its men [to make them]…docile instruments in its hands…will find that with small men no great thing can be accomplished” (128). Here, we are able to see that Mill believes a state in which the citizens are controlled and pressured to conform is one in which they cannot flourish as individuals due to their capacity to fulfill their duties to society being ‘dwarfed’ by the people in power.

This leads to the issue which Mill has named the tyranny of the majority. This concept is used to describe a society in which the wishes and duties of the minority are overlooked as their status in society is not seen as being equal to that of the majority. Mill feels as though the tyranny of the majority is what makes democratic governments fail, as he believes all people have the right to individual liberty. To further explain this point Mill states,“If all of mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (21). In essence, the tyranny of the majority is not a good thing to find within a society as it is an indication of inequality of the classes, and stems from a power abusive governing system. In fact, according to Mill,“The disposition of mankind…is to impose their own opinions and inclinations…on others, is…hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power” (18). In this example we can see that Mill has outlined a problem in the way a majority has the capacity to assimilate the minority into the mainstream perspective. In order to counteract the negative power impulses that can occur, Mill argues for the defense of individual liberty as a necessary means of conduct.

In comparison to John Stuart Mill’s evaluation of universal rights, duties, and liberties, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about the liberation of women in particular. In her 1792 work titled, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft argues from a positive liberty standpoint. She believed in what is called Communitarianism and felt that freedom could only be achieved in a very specific formation of society, and that changes must be made to address the barriers that prevent this society from existing. She deducts that national public education for women and men as well as restructuring woman’s status as an individual is the right way to obtain liberty for all members of a civilization. She points out that she, “speak[s] of the improvement and emancipation of the whole sex” (Wollstonecraft, 1792, 182). Men, on the other hand, occupied the entire political forefront; they governed over men and women, even though in regards to women’s issues they were outsiders. Wollstonecraft felt that women lacked liberty as a result of men treating them as nothing more than mere possessions. She exclaimed, “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures” (8) as opposed to the mentally and physically dependent beings that men pictured them to be.

The apparent ignorance towards women continued as men saw them as inferior beings; however, they were only seen as inferior because they were not given the same opportunities that men were. In Wollstonecraft’s words, “From the tyranny of man…the greater number of female follies proceed” (200). What is present in this example is the idea that men are keeping women ignorant as a reason to exclude them from reaping the fruits of democracy. In order to reform this social ill, Wollstonecraft proposed a theory of education as liberation. The reason this was thought to be a solution was due to the fact that men, “deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable: (Britannica, 2018). She argued that if women were offered the same liberties as men, then society as a whole would benefit from this shift in policy and thought. She wrote, “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man, for she must grow more perfect when emancipated” (201). The argument Wollstonecraft was making was that of giving women the same civic rights as men. The worst that could come up this is that women proved unworthy of liberty, which in turn would justify man’s theorizations. It is also important to note that the argument being made here is not that women are more worthy of liberty than man, but that they should be allowed to have equal rights in the eyes of the law. Wollstonecraft clarifies this by stating, “This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves” (34), meaning she yearned for women to have the autonomy to decided how to go about their lives, rather than being told how to live their lives and being confined to the roles of “wife”, “mother”, and “property”.

The next part of this paper seeks to identify some connections between the arguments put forth by both Mill and Wollstonecraft on the subject of liberty. Both scholars argue that finding a way for women to be equals with men is beneficial to all the members of a society, as well as the individual. Both of their theories are elaborations on the concept that every man is born with the right to life and liberty and may govern himself as he so pleases. Mill felt that, “the subordination of women…is not only wrong in itself, but one of the chief hindrances to human improvement” (7) and he argued that to deny women the same opportunity given to men is to impede the advancement of half the population (88-89). With women comprising a large portion of society, they could hardly be considered a minority. So why were they treated as such? This was an issue as society was impacted as a result of not receiving the benefits of women’s labors and talents.

This point is also evident in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, when it is argued that society would function better if all of its citizens were equally contributing to the growth and wealth of civilization: which includes women. Wollstonecraft made a similar argument and wanted to, “make women rational creatures and free citizens” as it would allow them to “become good wives and mothers” (Wollstonecraft, 184). If women were able to obtain jobs to provide for their children, then this would improve their status as a mother figure and a wife, by supplementing the patriarchal income. There are many instances in which a family would benefit from a mother figure that is equally is proficient and affluent in skilled trades. For example, if a woman’s husband were to pass away, without education, she would be completely unable to care for her children, and would require a man to remarry in order to sustain the family tree. This in turn can affect society as a whole due to the fact that there are labour shortages being created, along with a multitude of other issues. Wollstonecraft claimed that there are no biological differences between a man and a woman, meaning the concept that women are inferior is propaganda essentially. She argued,“I am fully persuaded that we should hear of none of these infantine airs, if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise, and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed, and their powers of digestion destroyed” (35). Ultimately, if all women were able to contribute to society in this way, then the happiness and pleasure of all citizens would be maximized.

John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of individual freedom was also fairly in line with that of Wollstonecraft. Mill argued that there is only one instance in which individual liberty may be restricted: if one man is causing harm unto another. He wrote that, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs” (17). It is clear to see that Mill was concerned with maximizing the happiness of the individual while allowing for the least amount of consequence. However, it can be argued that by denying women access to education, and believing that they are not worthy of learning the same material as men, is consistent with causing harm, and is in fact a heavy consequence. In fact, according to Mill, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury” (16). This argument can easily be applied to Wollstonecraft’s ideas about public education. Women were being put at an extreme disservice by being disregarded in the education system; the fact that no action was being taken to educate them further meant there was no room for growth or individual development.

Mill’s conception of the tyranny of the majority is also present in Wollstonecraft’s work as well when you consider that the men were dominant in society (politicians, husbands, fathers), leaving women completely dependent on the decision and rationale of men. Wollstonecraft stated, “Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government” (151). Women have the right to proper representation, just as men do, yet they were not being given that liberty. Ultimately, both Mill and Wollstonecraft argued on behalf of the liberty of men and women, as they both felt human beings were born with inalienable rights and duties that could not be stripped without reason.

While the two thinkers being discussed are in agreement on the topic of who is deserving of liberty, they have different ideas or conceptions about how exactly to ensure and protect the individual liberty of man. Mill believed that:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. (8-9)

This concept of social tyranny is the idea that problems within society could be mediated through the collective voice of the people and implementing governing bodies and laws. This becomes oppressive once the majority (or people in power) begins to ignore the rights and liberties of the minority peoples. This situation is seen as enslaving the people as they become bound to a government that is intended to help the majority in theory, but in reality does not.

Wollstonecraft felt that the best way to overcome the clear lack of liberty among women was to promote education as a solution. Since a legal approach could not be functional due to the entirety of the legal system being comprised of men, it was up to women of that time to assert themselves politically and demand recognition, in order to be considered equal to man. Wollstonecraft stated that, “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world” (Wollstonecraft, 44). Her solution was aimed at targeting both women and men in an attempt to alter the perception of women and allow for great changes to be made in terms of truly granting all humans the right to life and liberty.

This paper sought to make the argument that John Stuart Mill’s theory of universal human rights overlaps with Wollstonecraft’s material on women’s liberation. While both scholars are essentially arguing for the same ambition within a society, they have different views on how to achieve liberty for all, and what is defined as an infringement of one’s individual liberty. It can be argued that Mill and Wollstonecraft both believed people to have inalienable rights and liberties that cannot be taken away from them, without good cause. While the theories put forth by Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill are fundamentally different, these political scholars share the same general ideas about individual rights and liberties. This paper explored the limitations placed on women, and sought to understand why it was possible for the men in power within society to prohibit women from exercising their rights. Through a detailed analysis of A Vindication of the Rights of Womenby Mary Wollstonecraftand On Liberty, it is clear to see both the similarities and differences between these works, and how they pertain to the subject of liberty.


Works Cited

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Encyclopædia Britannica,        Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Sept. 2018.

Macleod, Christopher. “John Stuart Mill.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 25 Aug. 2016.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792.

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