Salvos The Higher Happiness

George Scialabba

In the Feminist Hall of Fame, there are a few places for men. Near the entrance, in the Mary Wollstonecraft Room, there’s a bust of William Godwin, her husband. The author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a cast-off woman with an illegitimate child and a history of suicide attempts when they met. He was a renowned political philosopher. But he saw her courage and genius. They had an ecstatic though tragically brief relationship: she died in childbirth only months after they married in 1797. As a tribute, Godwin wrote an unusually candid biography of her. Pre-Victorian England wasn’t ready for freethinking or free love, at least when practiced by women, so the book caused a huge scandal. But at least the infamy helped keep her memory alive until her masterpiece was rediscovered.

Further on, in the Bloomsbury-Fabian Wing, are plaques for George Bernard Shaw, who ridiculed conventional patriarchal moralism in Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Man and Superman, and for Leonard Woolf, whose self-effacing devotion to Virginia she often acknowledged gratefully. There was even some talk recently of honoring Denis Thatcher, the Iron Lady’s faithful and supportive husband, until left-wing feminists pointed out that Mrs. Thatcher’s policies—financialization, deindustrialization, privatization, deregulation—were not actually good for most women.

The only man to have an entire room named after him is John Stuart Mill, to whom half of the John Stuart Mill–Harriet Taylor Pavilion is dedicated. When Mill was twenty-four and already a rising intellectual star, he met Mrs. Taylor, twenty-three, the wife of a Unitarian businessman and mother of two children. John had recently come through the depression he famously described in his Autobiography, caused, he was convinced, by having starved his feelings. Harriet was brilliant, beautiful, and fearless. Both were smitten, instantly and forever. Except when one or the other was convalescing (they were both tubercular), they rarely went a day without seeing or writing each other until she died twenty-eight years later, in 1858. (For the first nineteen of those years, they met openly at her house, thanks to her remarkably enlightened husband, John Taylor, of whom there is a small commemorative medallion on display in the Harriet Taylor Room.)

Mill insisted that everything he wrote after meeting Taylor was a joint production—she had the flashes of inspiration that he laboriously worked out. Some subsequent critics have doubted that this was true of his Logic and other philosophical writings. But it was surely true of The Subjection of Women, his powerful and influential critique of sexual inequality. Mill was already an advanced feminist when they met (which was, he later wrote, the only reason she gave him the time of day). But she enlarged his vision and kindled his indignation. The latter is perhaps the most striking feature of Mill’s treatise. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication had a conciliatory, occasionally even pleading, tone. But The Subjection of Women gave no quarter, rhetorically. The relentlessness of the prose in the cause of emancipation fits right into today’s sex-war rhetoric.

Of Marital Bondage

Mill wrote The Subjection of Women in the early 1860s, when English radicals like him strongly sympathized with American abolitionists. Mill himself was an early supporter, referring bitingly in 1848 to the United States as “a country where institutions profess to be founded on equality, and which yet maintains the slavery of black men and of all women.” Time and again in Subjection, Mill presses home the resemblance of nineteenth-century marriage to slavery. How did marriage come about?

From the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman . . . was found in a state of bondage to some man. Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognizing the relations they find already existing between individuals. They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right, give it the sanction of society, and principally aim at the substitution of public and organized means of asserting and protecting these rights, instead of the irregular and lawless conflict of physical strength. Those who had already been compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound to it. Slavery, from being a mere affair of force between the master and the slave, became regularized and a matter of compact among the masters, who, binding themselves to one another for common protection, guaranteed by their collective strength the private possessions of each, including his slaves.

And their wives, too.

Defenders of marriage invariably appeal to the immemorial order of things. To be a wife and mother, they argue, is a woman’s “natural vocation”—even though, Mill points out in the book, they seem in reality to believe the opposite: that given a choice, few women would choose their “natural vocation.”

If this is the real opinion of men in general, it would be well that it should be spoken out. I should like to hear somebody openly enunciating the doctrine (it is already implied in much that is written on the subject)—“It is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children. They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them.” The merits of the case would then be clearly defined. It would be exactly that of the slaveholders of South Carolina and Louisiana. “It is necessary that cotton and sugar should be grown. White men cannot produce them. Negroes will not, for any wages which we choose to give. Ergo they must be compelled.”

Mill was especially scornful of his contemporaries’ pronouncements about women’s essential “nature,” which always seemed to justify their subordination. He was not an anti-essentialist, simply an agnostic. One of the earliest philosophers of social science, he kept pointing out that circumstances shape character, and since women’s faculties had never been allowed their full development, nothing plausible could be said yet about their scope and limits. Again, he drew his favorite analogy with slavery.

I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might be positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. . . . No class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters; for, if conquered and slave races have been, in some respects, more forcibly repressed, whatever in them has not been crushed down by an iron heel has generally been let alone, and if left with any liberty of development, it has developed itself according to its own laws; but in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters.

With respect to sexual inequality, that is, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor were abolitionists. And like the anti-slavery abolitionists, they are sometimes classified by their latter-day admirers, with perhaps a hint of condescension, as “liberals,” presumably meaning that they emphasized individual rights and abstract principles rather than collective liberation and improvement in material conditions. But this isn’t altogether true, especially of Taylor. She persuaded Mill to include a chapter on the future of the working class in his Principles of Political Economy, which predicted and advocated (around the same time as The Communist Manifesto) “the association of the laborers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.”

And while Mill thought that, for practical reasons (i.e., to avoid an oversupply of labor, which would lower wages), most women would not enter the labor force even when legally emancipated, Taylor, in her own pamphlet, The Enfranchisement of Women (1851), disagreed. She refused to accept “that the division of mankind into capitalists and hired laborers, and the regulation of the reward of the laborers mainly by demand and supply, will be for ever, or even much longer, the rule of the world.” Mill and Taylor were socialist feminists.

Empire of the Sensualist

At the same, there is something suspiciously ambiguous in Mill and Taylor’s legacy. They were not, it appears, sex-positive. It was impossible, of course, in mid-nineteenth-century England to write without euphemisms about sex. But even granting that restriction, they could hardly have sounded less enthusiastic about it. They had an unfortunate habit of referring to sex as an “animal function” and of deploring the sway of “sensuality” (a distinctly disapproving word at that time) over the average run of humankind.

While Mill was writing his Autobiography, Taylor hoped that his account of their relationship would provide “an edifying picture for those poor wretches who cannot conceive friendship but in sex.” In an early essay, “On Marriage and Divorce,” Mill asked: “Will the morality which suits the highest natures”—a morality of “companionship”—“be also best for all inferior natures?” It would, he thought, if the latter would allow themselves to be “guided” by the “higher natures.” But alas, “the greater number of men . . . are attracted to women solely by sensuality.” For that reason,

the law of marriage as it now exists, has been made by sensualists, and for sensualists, and to bind sensualists. The aim and purpose of that law is either to tie up the sense, in the hope by so doing, of tying up the soul also, or else to tie up the sense because the soul is not cared about at all. Such purposes never could have entered into the minds of any to whom nature had given souls capable of the higher degrees of happiness.

Mary Wollstonecraft, too, had misgivings about “the depravity of the appetite which brings the sexes together” and exhorted men and women to seek something higher in marriage:

Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time. The very reverse may be said of love. In a great degree, love and friendship cannot subsist in the same bosom; even when inspired by different objects they weaken or destroy each other, and for the same object can only be felt in succession. The vain fears and fond jealousies, the winds which fan the flame of love . . . are both incompatible with the tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship.

There’s a large question lurking in Mill and Taylor’s (and Wollstonecraft’s) portraits of the higher friendship between men and women: Can the “higher” and “lower” flourish equally in an intimate relationship? Is there a strain, a tradeoff, a slight disconnect perhaps, between lust and respect, between spontaneity, intensity, even frenzy, on the one hand, and delicacy, tact, responsiveness on the other? Is the male libido (and increasingly female, according to reports from the hookup culture, of which I cannot be said to be) incorrigibly objectifying?

Can the “higher” and “lower” flourish equally in an intimate relationship?

Sexist reprobates like Henry Miller and Norman Mailer aren’t the only ones to have implied as much. Some feminist theorists harbor the same suspicion. Even while disagreeing with it, the strongly sex-positive Ellen Willis acknowledged the plausibility of the Freudian/conservative view that “the sexual drive itself . . . is inherently anti-social, separate from love, and connected with aggressive, destructive impulses.” In her influential essay “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence,” Willis’s sometime antagonist Catharine MacKinnon came very close to defining heterosexuality as violence. Sexuality is “a social sphere of male power of which forced sex is paradigmatic.” Sex and violence may be conceptually distinct, but “the problem remains what it has always been: telling the difference. . . . For women it is difficult to distinguish them under conditions of male dominance.”

In another essay MacKinnon argued that “the male sexual role . . . centers on aggressive intrusion on those with less power. Such acts of dominance are experienced [by men] as . . . sex itself.” It is hard to decide whether Harriet Taylor was more fully reincarnated as Ellen Willis or as Catherine MacKinnon—clearly her impassioned spirit shines out in both. But it does seem that she and Mill believed—or feared—that to express their affection physically might endanger their “higher degree of happiness.”

Men Overboard

In a tragedy, according to my dictionary, “a noble protagonist is brought to ruin as a consequence of an extreme quality that is both his [sic] greatness and his downfall.” If we take the withering away or permanent sublimating of sexual passion as a loss (as sex-positive feminists certainly would), and the heroic rationality and restraint demanded (according to Mill, Taylor, and Wollstonecraft) by the “higher friendship” as one possible cause of it, would that qualify as a tragedy?

You can ignore that question, actually. It’s very likely moot. Technology doesn’t tolerate tragedy very well, and it certainly has no use for heroism. Involuntary pregnancy and differences in upper body strength once seemed like essential features of human life and insuperable obstacles to sexual equality. The Pill nearly vanquished the former; automated production, the information revolution, and Title IX the latter. Adjusting to the results is apparently so difficult that what journalist Hanna Rosin calls, in a bestselling book, the “end of men” now seems to be on the horizon. Fortunately, capitalism is inexhaustibly innovative. Without popular, democratic control of technology, advances in genetics and cybernetics will probably abolish sex. Both technologies, as scientists like Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, and Lee Silver have assured us, are well on their way toward radical innovations in the design of a new apex species for Earth. Does anyone imagine it will incorporate an archaic, hopelessly flawed design feature like sex?