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The Social Liberalism and Feminism of John Stuart Mill

Against Might Makes Right

Benjamín Ugalde
Doctor en Filosofía. Académico Universidad de Chile. Á - N.2

For John Stuart Mill, the most radical of England’s 19th century thinkers, individual liberty was the highest ideal. And that liberty stood athwart oppression not only from state power in general, or any specific government in particular, but from society as a whole. In this schema, Mill found women to be doubly oppressed.

Social Liberalism

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is probably the most important liberal thinker of the 19th century. Fundamentally, this is because Mill took the concepts of political liberalism and substantially expanded them. This expansion drew from two of classical liberalism’s early goals: 1) The inquiry into “the limits of state action”, as described by W. von Humboldt (1767-1835)[1]; and 2) The attempt to place legal limitations on government power, as John Locke (1632-1704) sought to do[2]. Mill took these two precepts and applied them not just to government, but to society as whole, relative to the individual.

Because of Mill’s work, we know that protecting humans from the whims of those who wield arbitrary power does not exclusively mean protecting them from governments. It also means protecting them against the oppression that can come from a domineering society’s beliefs, customs, and traditions. In this way, Mill worked to expand on the concept of individual autonomy relative to collectivism when the latter was society. In so doing, he strove to untangle the complex relationship between social authority and individual liberty as well.

Mill’s famous 1858 essay, On Liberty, is his most important work on the matter. In its introduction he writes, “The subject of this Essay is… Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”[3] That’s how Mill first articulated what is sometimes called “social liberalism”. This focused on a new liberalism that did not view the state as the only potential source of oppression—the kind of oppression that liberalism, with considerable Lockean influence, had been fighting against since the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688) in England. Instead, this liberalism simultaneously decried any other social force that mistreated and subjugated individuals and their rights.

Mill devised a single axiom to resolve the points of conflict between society and individual: societies can only use coercive force against an individual in order to protect third parties from harm. This thesis was a product of much contemplation about when it was just for society to impose its will over people, and when it was not. This doctrine, also known as the “non-aggression principle”, was invaluable for Mill. He saw it as the only way a temporary majority—even a a democratic or parliamentary one—could be kept from oppressing individuals under the guise of doing so for “the good of society”. This problem was one that Tocqueville had discussed at an earlier date, using the turn of phrase “the tyranny of the majority” to describe the oppression a mass of people can inflict upon an individual[4]. As such, to protect the individual from liberal democracy, Mill categorically states that: “… when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannising [sic] are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries… Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose…”[5]

As such, Mill’s social liberalism makes absolutely clear, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” So long as no third parties are being harmed, all citizens should be free to do as they please in all areas of life, without state or social coercion. In this view, freedom of thought and freedom of expression are the most fundamental of all the civil liberties. They are also those which Mill elevates most highly in his advocacy for a social liberalism that grants every citizen complete autonomy not just in their private lives, but in their public affairs as well: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.[6]

Hence, this worldview—Mill’s social liberalism—should not be confused with a different and more contemporary worldview often referred to as “liberalism”. Said doctrine, with its demands for greater state intervention in economic and social matters, is better understood as “progressivism”, and believes in a government much larger than anything Mill would have thought appropriate. Unlike today’s progressive liberalism, the social liberalism of Mill asserts, as we have seen, that the only justification for state coercion directed against the spontaneity and diversity of individualism is to protect third parties.


Following the logic of limiting society’s power over people, Mill reaches the conclusion that the rights and autonomy of women deserve a complete and thorough defense. Really, Mill’s feminism cannot be understood as anything other than an extension of his liberalism. For the philosophy of social liberalism, oppressing and denying rights to women is unacceptable. As such, Mill saw the oppression of women as similar to slavery in that it stripped humans of their individual rights.

In the 1850s, in collaboration with Harriet Taylor (his friend and future wife), Mill put together the outline of a book—today a feminist classic—that wouldn’t reach the light of day until 1869, after Taylor’s death. The book in question being The Subjection of Women. This book constitutes one of the most hard-hitting arguments for the equality of men and women ever written. Without beating around the bush, Mill writes at the outset, “The principle that regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and is now one of the chief obstacles to human improvement; and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality that doesn’t allow any power or privilege on one side or disability on the other.” For Mill, all attempts to justify the subjection of one sex to another should be ignored. By the same token, he rejects arguments that defended, simply in the name of “tradition”, those sorts of situations. Instead, he advocates for the liberal “principle of perfect equality” between individuals, regardless of gender.

“Without beating around the bush, Mill writes at the outset, ‘The principle that regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and is now one of the chief obstacles to human improvement; and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality that doesn’t allow any power or privilege on one side or disability on the other.’”


Just as the abolition of slavery had represented a recognition of universal human dignity, women’s liberation would now further the same end. Mill showed that the traditional role of women in society was completely unjustifiable, and as such, wrong. Considered rationally, the only acceptable relationship between men and women was one of complete social and political equality. At the same time, Mill unmasked the historical subjection and submission of women as nothing more than a power play, a result of the physical superiority men have over women. To that end, he noted: “The inequality of rights between men and women has no other source than the law of the strongest… The subjection of women hasn’t lost the taint of its brutal origin”. (pg. 413)

As such, Mill’s feminism is tied to the defense of individual rights as the basis of a society that safeguards the integrity and well-being of the humans that compose it. With this social liberalism as his point of departure, Mill reaffirms the inalienable dignity and importance of the individual—and the liberties that come from that—in the face of not just arbitrary state power, but so too the arbitrary powers that tradition and social custom sometimes have, such as the domination of men over women. That is how liberal political equality comes to be: as a necessary condition for the expression of individual grievances in a chauvinistic, 19th century, society that excluded women from political life by denying them, among other things, the access to education and the possibility of suffrage. In that way, the liberal call for individual rights became a two-fold call for rights on behalf of women. Women are not only subject to the arbitrary whims of state power, just as men, but are also subject to the arbitrary whims of the power wielded by a notably masculine culture. And despite the considerable progress that has been made in recognizing women’s autonomy, the residual effects of that masculine culture are still with us today.

This is why the Women’s Tax Resistance League in England stands out at as a noteworthy historical example of the feminist movement. From 1909 until 1918, its members refused to pay taxes until they were given the same political and social rights as men, in other words: suffrage. Here, like in the American Revolution, the principle of “no taxation without representation” was applied. Without political representation, taxation is truly tyrannical.

As such, the vindication of the rights of women, and its manifestation in today’s feminist movement in Chile and the whole world, is still a fundamentally liberal cause, regardless of it being so long after the life and times of Mill himself. It is the struggle for freedom from the chains that have historically kept women down. So sexual assault, a subject recently highlighted by the many women who have decided to no longer stay silent about the matter (especially on college campuses), is a problem that corresponds perfectly with the brute force of men that Mill reviled. It is an abuse of women by men that is a product of the historical oppression of the former by the latter. Today, it is taken as self-evident that all forms of abuse and maltreatment must be rejected by anyone who believes in a society composed of free individuals with equal rights and equal dignity—the historical tenets of liberalism. All the same, this form of abuse—sexual assault—is especially reprehensible and revolting because it is a product of that vile entitlement that comes from the use of force. But not just force in the physical (or violent) sense, but force in its broader, symbolic meaning—force that tries to depict women as being “naturally” inferior to men.

The cause of women’s rights should span across all sectors of society, in Chile and elsewhere, and should not, therefore, be limited to one political group. Accordingly, it is cause for concern that the feminist movement—with its liberal and universalist trappings—can end up being co-opted (and as a consequence, damaged) by tying itself exclusively to a few political ideologies that have historically opposed individual liberty. What’s more, the “perfect equality” Mill spoke of, often referred to in our times as “gender equality”, is based on liberal principles that have a long tradition behind them, just like equality before the law and the primacy of individuals over majorities. Both of these principles uphold that people are in charge of their own destinies, regardless of their gender. None of this has lost relevance in our times, as today’s feminist movement (both in Chile and around the world) have shown.

“… it is cause for concern that the feminist movement—with its liberal and universalist trappings—can end up being co-opted (and as a consequence, damaged) by tying itself exclusively to a few political ideologies that have historically opposed individual liberty.”


Accordingly, for Mill, social liberalism and feminism are both derived from the same source, that being concern about the extent to which society can impose upon individuals and their freedoms. Put another way: it’s not about the mere defense of a gender, or some kind of collective group, or class, as is the case in with the progressive and Marxist versions of feminism, respectively. On the contrary, it’s about a liberal feminism that seeks to abolish collectivist oppression over female individuality. As such, to place this individuality in opposition to freedom of thought, expression, and all other individual liberties is in flagrant contradiction with feminism’s liberalizing impulses. That is the contradiction all collectivist and identitarian feminisms are guilty of. And that contradiction can be resolved with John Stuart Mill’s social liberalism.

[1] Von Humboldt, W. (1988) [1792]. Los límites de la acción del Estado. Traducción de Abellán, J. Madrid: Tecnos.

[2] Locke, J. (2010) [1662]. Segundo tratado del gobierno civil. Traducción de Mellizo, C. Madrid, Tecnos.

[3] Mill, J.S. (2015) [1859]. On Liberty. Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford. Página 5.

[4] Tocqueville, A. (1957) [1835]. La democracia en América. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

[5] Mill, J.S. (2015) [1859]. On Liberty, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford. Página 8.

[6] Ibid. Página 13.