Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

J. S. Mill's Feminism and the Third Dimension of Power

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

J. S. Mill's Feminism and the Third Dimension of Power

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Are John Stuart Mill's feminist ideas espoused in The Subjection of Women very liberal, or very radical? This question has been debated among contemporary scholars. The purpose of this paper is two fold. The first goal is to propose that Mill's feminist work reveals a conception of power that is analogous to Steven Lukes's (2005) radical theory of power. This is demonstrated by using Lukes's theory as a lens through which to systematically analyze Mill's conception of power as seen in The Subjection of Women. Second, I suggest that from an understanding of Mill's conception of power as radical in the way that Lukes defines it, four central feminist critiques of Mill's Subjection of Women are mitigated. Understanding Mill's feminism in light of a radical view of power reveals that some feminist critiques have overlooked important aspects of Mill's feminism that show his continued relevancy to the contemporary feminist movement and feminist thought.

Keywords: Mill, Lukes, power, feminism, subjection, liberalism, radical

1. Introduction

Though Mill is often classified as a liberal theorist due to his emphasis on the individual, many scholars criticize his brand of liberalism as being inconsistent, though others argue that Mill remains consistent across his works (Ryan, 1970; Fuchs, 2001; Clark and Elliott, 2001; Thompson, 2007). For example, his feminist work The Subjection of Women (1869)1 shows Mill's liberalism as more complex than simply saying "Individual legal rights for all." Due to its regarding women, Subjection has been particularly debated among feminist theorists, some arguing Mill's feminism to be no longer relevant due to its liberalism (di Stefano, 1991; Himmelfarb, 1974; Ring, 1985), and others viewing Mill's work as quite radical (Morales, 1996; Urbinati, 2002).

The purpose of this manuscript is twofold. First, a notion will be put forth that Mill's feminist work reveals a conception of power analogous to Steven Lukes' (2005) radical theory of power, which will be used as a lens through which to systematically analyze Mill's conception of power as seen in Subjection. Second, it is argued that by understanding Mill's conception of power as radical according to Lukes' definition, four central feminist critiques of Mill's Subjection are allayed. An explanation of Lukes' theory of power and how it differs from other views is offered, followed by an analysis of Mill's Subjection and how it coincides with Lukes' theory. Lukes (13), as well as others (Baum, 2000; Dyzenhaus, 1992), has suggested that Mill's theory coincides with his own; however, the similarities between the two have not been systematically examined.

2. Conceptualizing Power

In Power: A Radical View, Steven Lukes considers the question, "How do the powerful secure the compliance (unwilling or willing) of those they dominate?" (Lukes, 2005: 86).2 Lukes states that though power is "an essentially contested concept" (30), some definitions are more amenable to operational - ization than others. Lukes' systematic study of power emphasizes that "we need to think about power broadly rather than narrowly... power is at its most effective when least observable" (1). He responds to what he calls the one- and two-dimensional views of power, challenging them with his own three-dimensional view.

The one-dimensional view of power is also known as the "pluralist" view of power. Pluralists argue that power in the United States is distributed among many groups, people, and organizations, and is not concentrated in the hands of an elite or group of elites. Dahl (1957) explains that "my intuitive idea of power, then, is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do" (202203). Observable behavior is essential to pluralists' understanding of power; Dahl criticizes the theory that the elite in the United States possess most or all of the power, noting that "/ do not see how anyone can suppose that he has established the dominance of a specific group in a community or nation without basing his analysis on the careful examination of a series of concrete decisions" (Dahl, 1958: 466; emphasis in the original). …

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