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The “Common Arrangement” Scrutinized: Objections, Responses, and Nuances

Generally philosophical discussion proceeds with a statement of the main principles and arguments of a theory and perspective before turning to the major objections to that theory. Here, though, I proceed with an exploration of the objection before I spell out further Mill’s theory. This permits a ready exploration of the historical context for Mill’s “common arrangement” proposal. The objection to the “common arrangement” policy claims that Mill’s liberal feminism places an unjust burden on women. The objection contends that the burdens of care work within the home are not distributed fairly between men and women. Moreover, the objection claims that women’s autonomy is violated when they are not allowed the range of choices available to men. It should also be noted that the contention could be extended to claim that equity and men’s autonomy are interfered with when they are not freely allowed or encouraged to choose care work within the home as an occupation. The objection notes that this arrangement can deny women the opportunity to cultivate the other components of self-development, notably their intellect and autonomy, since they were rarely in the 19th century offered the occasions and opportunities to cultivate and exercise these capacities. Thus, it is argued that the danger with this gendered arrangement can be that the balance among the capacities of self-development found in Mill’s theory is tilted out of proportion.

I have some concerns about the ready acceptance of the objections to the “common arrangement.” Although there are obvious rewards and burdens that are part and parcel of loving care work, I believe that some recent work on Mill’s liberal feminism and the care ethic goes too far in the direction of emphasizing that care for dependent and vulnerable persons can be very burdensome. Objections to Mill’s feminism based on his proposal of the “common arrangement” are a common refrain in the literature, going back decades at least to the period of second wave feminism. Indeed, I myself previously posed a muted version of this objection (Donner and Fumerton 2009, 120-124). While I think that there is some point to the objection, I claim also that its power is much dimmed when it is viewed within the larger context of Mill’s arguments and purposes. When we insist on looking at Mill’s proposal from the perspective of the 21st century, particularly in light of dramatic changes made since second wave feminism or women’s liberation of the 1960s and 1970s, it is not surprising that the common arrangement policy appears to be flawed. This is the case despite the fact that 21st-century women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare and thus fall prey to the exploitation that worried Mill of women’s double day of work both inside and outside the home. This exploitative double workday is expressly one of Mill’s concerns and is one of rhe reasons he gives in support of the common arrangement. He remarks that if “she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this. . . . The care which she is herself disabled from taking of the children and the household, nobody else takes” (Mill, CW 21: 297). In Mill’s time men would refuse to do this work and would have the power, legal and physical, to back up their refusal; sadly, this still to a great extent remains the case. Undoubtedly progress has been, and continues to be, made in how partners share care work and domestic labor, but the problem of women taking on a disproportionate share of the emotional labor within the home still continues, even though many advances in gender equality have been made. The salient question is whether it is fair to criticize Mill’s specific proposal from a present-day perspective and hold him to standards that only became feasible in recent decades. I claim that this expectation is unfair and is indeed uncharitable. I argue that moral and intellectual charity calls for 21st-century readers to consider this specific proposal within the framework of Mill’s ongoing activist agenda in his lifetime in the 19th century, which I briefly set out in the following. Viewed in this historical context, I argue that the objection is weak. Looking at the 19th-century context further illuminates Mill’s principles and plans for moral progress. Mill exhibits great faith in the tenet of liberalism that expects an ongoing process of extensive moral progress, and he is thus prone to look at the long-term effects of activist proposals rather than simply their immediate impact.

There is a strong and ready-to-hand response to the objection that the gendered division of labor undermines Mill’s liberal feminism. Mill’s goal undoubtedly was to promote an education in the virtues of selfdevelopment resulting in appropriate balance of the capacities of selfdevelopment in both women and men. This would include autonomy and the ability to exercise self-determination in life choices. But in Mill’s long-range agenda and in his applications of his fundamental principles to particular questions, reality and pragmatism intervene. Mill knew his audience. His activist life was spent painstakingly calculating and then arguing for the appropriate policy means to effectively push forward his ends, short and long term. Mill was attempting to persuade men with oppressive and even brutal power over women to relinquish that power. In the 19th century, that was an overwhelmingly difficult task. Thus it is eminently reasonable to attribute to him a strategy that would move the agenda of women’s emancipation forward while avoiding extreme provocation of his male audience (as opposed to the provocation of simply arguing for unoppressive marital relations based upon friendship and equality) and arguing for a gradualist approach to the issue. His arguments for moving beyond a model of marriage based on “command and obedience” toward one based on equality and friendship and including respect for women’s care work are premised on this strategy. This surely would have seemed a rational and prudent course for him to follow. One prime purpose of The Subjection of Women is activist and polemical. It is, of course, also an enduring philosophical work. Calculating the prospects for success of activist proposals is part and parcel of this. It is essential. Thus, some charity in allowing Mill the liberty to choose his battles carefully, taking the long view, undermines the power of this objection. Proposing a policy of promoting sharing of household work equally among men and women, Mill could see, would have little chance of being accepted and a high chance of backfiring and making things worse and in the course of things setting back the activist agenda. The brutal patriarchal family institution featuring violence and oppression of women would continue as it was. So Mill chooses to emphasize his core agenda. Mill’s core agenda is to revolutionize the “command and obedience” model of marriage to change it from being a remnant of slavery and a site of violence against women and children into becoming a more just institution.

In The Subjection of Women, Mill claims that patriarchal marriage is a form of slavery. He does not mince words. He is not merely comparing the patriarchal family to slavery in a metaphorical sense. Mill clearly puts the patriarchal family into the category of institutions of slavery. In his words, patriarchal marriage

is the primitive state of slavery lasting on, through successive mitigations and modifications occasioned by the same causes which have softened the general manners, and brought all human relations more under the control of justice and the influence of humanity. It has not lost the taint of its brutal origin.

(Mill, CW 21: 264)

He speaks of “the legal slavery of the woman” (Mill, CW 21, 289). Although The Subjection of Women is a polemical as well as a philosophical work, Mill is here merely speaking plainly about brutal facts. From a 21st-century perspective, his words might seem to be overblown rhetoric, but Mill means to make a realistic point. The claim occurs as part of Mill’s examination of the history of moral change and progress. Mill also was involved in the abolitionist movement, and slavery was alive in America and elsewhere. It was an all-too-present evil, and Mill could observe its vestiges living on within the institution of patriarchal marriage. Also all too present was the brutal domestic violence, including still legal marital rape, which was enshrined as part of men’s oppressive power over women. Mill was all too aware that a husband could

claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations. . . . [S]he is held in this worst description of slavery as to her own person.

(Mill, CW 21:285)

Mill is unsparing in his harsh appraisal of marital relations and institutions in his time. The background assumption of the objection against Mill’s policy is that all or most women, given a range of reasonable options, would choose marriage. This is an overly romanticized view of marriage in Mill’s orbit. In fact, as The Subjection of Women’s argument unfolds, it is clear that Mill has a very jaundiced view of the institution of marriage and he would not necessarily see it as a prize that most women of his day would want, if they had other options. Why choose to be a slave, subjected to tyranny and violence if one had genuine options? Mill takes on, as one of his and his partner and wife Harriet Taylor’s major projects, bringing to light the brutality of domestic violence and abuse in his day. The subtly conveyed message is that the idea that all women want to marry is questionable in Mill’s mind, although he is quite cognizant of the fact that many women of his time had no choice and were coerced into marriage. Given his views about the institution of marriage as a form of slavery, it is reasonable to take the step to acknowledging that a significant group of women would choose not to marry, if they were presented with other reasonable options.

Mill devotes considerable space in The Subjection of Women to arguing that, if there were fair opportunities and fair competition, women would likely succeed well at many occupations outside of the home and thus would not automatically choose marriage and care for children as their occupation.

But if marriage were an equal contract... and if she would then find all honourable employments as freely open to her as to men; it would not be necessary for her protection, that during marriage she should make this particular use of her faculties.

(Mill, CW 21:298)

He argues for equality of opportunity in all public domains. He expects experience will show women’s success in many of these pursuits and vocations.

Now, the most determined depreciator of women will not venture to deny, that when we add the experience of recent times to that of ages past, women, and not a few merely, but many women, have proved themselves capable of everything, perhaps without a single exception, which is done by men, and of doing it successfully.

(Mill, CW 21: 292-293)

Time has proven the wisdom in this. Women who choose public pursuits might well choose not to marry. Women who chose marriage might well choose to make other arrangements for caregiving, as men and women who work outside of the home in the 21st century often do. It is thus reasonable to assume that Mill does not believe that all women would choose to marry, if it meant assuming the attendant care responsibilities, if society offered them other options.

Mill’s educative goal undoubtedly is to promote the model of balance of the virtues, of the intellectual and the public with the caring, sympathetic, and compassionate. However, the question he grapples with is what to do in the historical circumstances in which men had enshrined in law oppressive and even brutal power over women, and they had the power to refuse to take any responsibility for caregiving. In this setting, Mill’s strategy and arguments in favor of recognizing the value of caregiving as work, and as socially and economically necessary, embedded in his larger plan of promoting moral progress and well-being, seem to be astute. This policy can be viewed as a transitional proposal (as were many of his specific proposals, according to the methodology he outlines in Book VI of A System of Logic, CW 8: 834-952) to value women’s care work rather than devalue the opportunities that were in that historical moment pragmatically open to them, while at the same time working to change the institution to broaden the opportunities in order to bring more balance into the holistic cluster of virtues in women and men (Mill, CW, 8: 943-952). This dovetails with his educative program, which places the virtues of compassion and sympathy at the core of the virtues and sees caring for dependent and vulnerable children as a prime form of this education.

Overstating, and making too much of, the objection raised to the gendered division of labor brings with it the risk of denigrating and undervaluing care work. And, I argue, this has happened. Susan Okin is a prominent proponent of the objection to Mill’s gendered division of labor proposal. She says that Mill thought that it

was essential that all the careers open to men should be made equally accessible to women. Only then would the choice of whether to marry or not be a meaningful one, rather than the only means of escape from the despised dependency of “Old Maidhood.”

(Okin 1979,212)

Okin is partly right in depicting Mill’s views, for she understands that Mill “asserts that women should have a real choice of career or marriage” (Okin 1979, 226). The problem, according to Okin, is that Mill “assumes that the majority of women are likely to continue to prefer marriage, and that this choice is equivalent to choosing a career” (Okin

1979, 226). In other words, Mill is critiqued for recognizing that care of children is work, that it is a meaningful choice of occupation, and that it is essential work.

Okin’s language in posing the objection pretty clearly illustrates her negative appraisal of domestic care work. She critiques Mill for “his refusal to concede that the tiresome details of domestic life should be shared by both sexes” (Okin 1979, 229). That Okin displays this attitude of devaluing women’s care work in the course of stating the objection in itself creates further problems. The objection should be posed more neutrally if it is to be fairly scrutinized. Mixing in disdain for care work in the course of discussing questions of equity in distribution is not helpful to the dialogue or to sorting through the issues. Surely the value of care work is not captured by the words “tiresome details,” and the use of this language adopts a negative stance with regard to this occupation and vocation. Finally, Okin adds that Mill did not grasp the injustice in a system that offered men opportunities for a life with both career and home life and children while in practice denying women this same combination. Instead, Mill “forced a woman to choose between the two” (Okin 1979, 230). However, Okin falls prey to the tendency to ignore historical circumstances and to require availability of choices that were not then pragmatic or even possible. Her statement of the objection does not take into account or even consider the historical framework and whether Mill’s policy proposal is a result of his reasonable pragmatic assessment of argumentative and activist strategies. As I have argued earlier, Mill’s arguments and strategies are cogent and reasonable in the context of his times.

With this overview of the historical and theoretical context for Mill’s “common arrangement” proposal, I return to an exploration of Mill’s views on self-development and education in the virtues, including most saliently compassion and sympathy.

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