Thursday, June 23, 2011

John Stuart Mill

Because we live in a time where even the smallest children have rights, I think it is fascinating to look back to a time where neither women nor children had lasting individual rights. In John Stuart Mill’s “Statement Repudiating the Rights of Husbands”, men control the rights of their children and their wives. While it is not completely clear, I would assume that for female children, fathers control their rights up until the time that they marry—unless they reach their majority without marrying. Mill makes it sound as if adult women lose any legal rights to sign contracts or own property when they marry. So while it is possible for women to have some rights, they are not permanent. In describing his marriage contract, Mill states, “[marriage] confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will” (page 527). Mill sees this state of affairs as a great injustice affecting millions of people.

Unlike other authors who may have referenced similar problems, Mill offers a unique method of persuasion. He does not present himself as just another writer complaining about the inequality of society. He is someone who has experienced the situation and offers a method for correcting the problem on a small scale. He does not overtly tell society that they are wrong and need to change their ways. Using word choice and tone, Mill acknowledges the problem marriage presents and suggests a method for reinstating women’s rights on an individual scale. He writes, “I, having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers . . . , feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring powers; and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them” (page 527). Describing the powers society bestows on husbands as “odious” shows that Mill feels strongly on the subject without directly telling society that it is at fault. At the same time, Mill makes the issue a very public one by putting “on record a formal protest” and a “solemn promise”. He appears to understand legal rights will not immediately change for the country; he merely proposes that husbands work individually to alter their wives’ legal rights.

To support his suggestions, Mill publically provides a model for others to emulate. He ends his paragraph by declaring his intentions toward his betrothed. He says, “in the event of marriage between Mrs. Taylor and me I declare it to be my will and intention, and the condition of the engagement between us, that she retains in all respects whatever the same absolute freedom of action, and freedom of disposal of herself and of all that does or may at any time belong to her, as if no such marriage had taken place; and I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretence to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage” (page 527). Here, Mill repeats his distaste for the current laws. He scorns the idea that a man has the authority to take individual rights from another person, and he sets an example by giving up his new “rights”.


  1. Sarah,

    Excellent commentary on Mill's well-intentioned but scarcely legal repudiation of his rights in his upcoming marriage. You handle the issues very well here, and support and illustrate them very effectively with examples from the text.

  2. I like the way you present Mill as not just another writer, but as someone actually contributing to the cause. Not only does he have problems with the way things are, but he has an actual plan on how to go about making this known as well as setting an example for others to follow.