James Mill on Women and Representative Government

James Mill

In “Government” (1824) James Mill argued that the benefits of representative government would be lost if the pool of electors did not share the same interests as the general community and asked if a portion of the community could fairly reflect the interests of the whole.

One thing is pretty clear, that all those individuals whose interests are indisputably included in those of other individuals, may be struck off without inconvenience. In this light may be viewed all children, up to a certain age, whose interests are involved in those of their parents. In this light, also, women may be regarded, the interests of almost all of whom are involved either in that of their fathers or that of their husbands.

Satisfied with this statement, Mill concluded that he had “ascertained that an interest identical with that of the whole community is to be found in the aggregate of males” who are of legal age.

Mill surveyed contemporary British politics and argued for radical reform in one of his last essays, “State of the Nation” (1835). He did not mention the need for any reforms in relation to the status of women in English society. Given his earlier view, this omission might be considered benign neglect.

Mill’s mentor, Jeremy Bentham, would disagree. In volume one of Constitutional Code (1830) Bentham argued that the supreme authority (“constitutive power”) in a state “resides in the whole body of active citizens throughout the state.” Perhaps Bentham had Mill in mind when he wrote this question and answer: "Why exclude the whole female sex from all participation in the constitutive power? Because the prepossession against their admission is at present too general, and too intense to afford any chance in favour of a proposal for their admission.” Bentham maintained that on philosophical grounds women had at least as good a claim to vote as men, and perhaps a stronger claim. In an earlier work, Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817), () Bentham suggested a way to think about this issue. Begin with an assumption of universal suffrage and then consider who should be struck from the list because of a lack of probity or intellectual aptitude. He concluded, “These guides to decision, if they apply not with propriety to both sexes, it seems not easy to say with what propriety they can be applicable to either.”

In 1851 the Westminster Review published an anonymous essay on “Enfranchisement of Women,” which argued for “universal suffrage as an inherent right.” The foundations for this argument straddled the Atlantic, with one foot planted on the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence and the other on “the axiom of English freedom, that taxation and representation should be co-extensive.” Taking inspiration from women’s conventions taking place in the United States, the author concluded with the hope that an organized women’s suffrage movement would soon sweep England. The essay was written by Harriet Taylor Mill, wife of John Stuart Mill. Some thought this improbable, and attributed it to John Stuart Mill alone or to Mill and his wife as coauthors.