De-Coding The Silence! Reading John Stuart Mill’s ‘The Subjection of Women’
Ed: Sarbojit Biswas & Saptarshi Mallick.
Jaipur: Aadi Publications. 2014
Pages 259 | Rs 1150
For a space, voice and an existence of her own
The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill is one of the pioneering essays written in support of feminist philosophy. Stating an argument in favour of equality between men and women in 1869, this essay was an outrage to European conventional gender roles and rules prevalent in the society. Questions about the importance of this work in today’s society with ever-changing world views, and its relevance in different cultures, with the backdrop of gender theories and third wave feminism have been deftly addressed by De-Coding The Silence! Reading John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, an anthology of twenty three excellent essays by various experts and authors. A joint initiative of Sarbojit Biswas and Saptarshi Mallick, this book has brought together in one place, varying opinions and scholarly reflections on the issues that JS Mill tried to address in his essay, underlining the repercussions set into motion in 19th century and continuing till date.
The Foreward by Geraldine Forbes and the Introduction by Dr Patricia Jabbeh Wesley both emphasize the fact that these essays do not, in any way, negate the importance of Mill’s text in the contemporary world. Rather, many of the authors have tried to place themselves in Mill’s shoes to understand his philosophies in the face of rising concerns about women’s issues, and the restrictions faced by him, in a strictly patriarchal society. Several of the arguments focus on the fact that Mill’s text was entirely utilitarian in nature because of the immediate greater good and the enrichment of society, in the process diluting the very purpose, while others like Dr Sutanuka Ghosh Roy have lauded his efforts in putting the spotlight on “the future intellectual and political constructions of feminism.” The glaring contradictions – evident in Mill’s handling of and demanding women’s rights, when juxtaposed with his less-than-amiable views towards “barbarians and the uneducated not deserving equal rights” – have also been scrutinised in articles exploring the connection between English patriarchal society and India, in the background of Victorian society and modern day world with its cosmopolitan outlook.
The feminist perspectives examined in this anthology are novel and interesting, and tread different paths than the usual issues that jump to the eye at a superficial level, during a reading of The Subjection of Women. While Ajit Kumar highlights the role of women in the democratic process and the female vote as expressed in Mill’s article, Gargi Bhattacharya hails Mill’s archetypal contribution to French Feminism. The Victorian society, norms and attitudes shown towards and expected of the weaker and fairer sex, and their puritan views about marriage and family life are examined, time and again, by most of the authors, some of them vindicating Mill’s article, others pointing out the flaws in the same text. Among the issues that Mill was concerned with was the burden of family the woman was subjected to, she being seen as nothing more than a domestic slave with no rights in the society or the household she serves, and this aspect is studied minutely by Dr April Pierce in her article.
Various texts and cross-cultural associations have been referred by the authors to concentrate on several aspects of Mill’s text— Dr Oindrilla Ghosh examines Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure keeping The Subjection of Women in the backdrop, while Saptarshi Mallick expertly brings in The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital to emblematically place The Subjection of Women as a vanguard for women’s rights movements, Dr Abhilash Nayak uses Shashi Despande’s novels to examine the trope of marriage through fiction, in the light of Mill’s article. Mary Wollstonecraft, being the other champion of women’s rights during the Victorian age, features prominently in quite a few essays, her views being compared and contrasted with those of Mill’s. So does India, in some wonderful essays, for instance, Dr Shoma A Chatterjee’s article on rereading Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara through JS Mill’s The Subjection of Women,” deems the latter a clarion call like Mahatma Gandhi’s national movement which resulted in women crossing the boundaries of their households and flooding the streets, united for a common cause. Again, Dr Himadri Roy’s Claustrophobic Existence: Subjection of Personal Space of Lesbians underlines the far-reaching consequences of Mill’s discourse, painting the author as having keen foresight, showing how his theory is applicable today to lesbians in India, who are still shunned from polite society and looked upon as ‘abnormal.’
We claim that with the advancement of modern life and refinement of thought and culture, women are becoming more and more emancipated, day by day. These claims, by feminists and ordinary folk alike, fall flat in the face of patriarchal norms in many parts of the country even now. Even in so-called ‘equal-roles-maintained’ households, a woman with 9-5 working hours is expected to return home and juggle her ‘womanly’ duties, like cooking, cleaning, looking after the children and the old, with aplomb. Awareness is lacking, and so is empathy, as a result of which society’s outlook on women’s rights is also quite bleak. In such a scenario, it is indeed heartening to see distinguished authors and scholars stand up for women’s rights, harking back to the first male voice of revolution in the Victorian age. Whether they laud him or criticise him, the essays in this superb collection do make sure that JS Mill’s voice never falls silent, and that his words are echoed through the annals of time, hoping for a change in perspective that is slowly, but surely coming.