To Join with Them in the Undertaking

John Stuart Mill is one of those rare philosophers who has become an iconic thinker outside of philosophy, not due to a general cultural influence, but due to specific foundational contributions to multiple intellectual movements. To libertarians, he is the author of On Liberty, a clear and powerful formulation and defense of many of their key tenets regarding the primacy of individual rights in our understanding of justice. To Utilitarians, he is the author of Utilitarianism, the first complete discussion of that view as we now understand it. Neoclassical economists honor him for Principles of Political Economy, arguably the first true textbook of modern economics, and this list goes on to include work in logic, semantics, philosophy of science, and a host of topics in the social sciences.

I have great respect for all of Mill's achievements in these arenas, even where I disagree with his particular positions, but I take J.S. Mill to be one of the heroes of nineteenth century philosophy primarily because of a text published in 1869 entitled The Subjection of Women, and for his efforts around the same time to secure women's suffrage. These efforts may well have spelled the end of his career in Parliament: had Mill succeeded in his attempt to modify the language of the Reform Bill of 1867, British women would have been empowered to vote more than sixty years earlier than they in fact were, but by 1868 the voters of Westminster had heard quite enough of Mill's radical notions, and amidst a predictable misogynist backlash he was not reelected. Nonetheless, his work and public voice provided important momentum to the emancipation of women in Britain, the United States and much of Europe.

I hold it to be very important that we discuss this aspect of Mill's career, and that we do the same for other historically notable feminist men. When we do so, it becomes easier to see that a deep belief in the importance of equal rights for women is not an idiosyncrasy or a sideline to some more central work. Mill believed that securing the vote for women was an essential part of advocating for liberty because he recognized a logical consequence of his most cherished philosophical beliefs in the rights that all humans share. He was brought to feminist convictions, not because he had a niche interest, but simply because he had a strong and honest mind.

Mill's meticulous intelligence enabled him to understand that he was faced with a duty of mutual respect, not one of compassion for the suffering of the oppressed. The task was not to protect women or lessen their burdens, but to assist them in assuming the equal political power to which they were rightfully entitled. Moreover, he was unafraid of the consequences of allowing women to pursue political objectives that might bring them into conflict with men. On New Year's Eve in 1867 he wrote to Florence Nightingale

if men were to abolish every unjust law today, there is nothing to prevent them from making new ones tomorrow; and moreover, what is of still greater importance, new circumstances will constantly be arising, for which fresh legislation will be needed. And how are you to ensure that such legislation will be just, unless you can either make men perfect, or give women an equal voice in their own affairs? I leave you to judge which is the easiest.

...if men come to look upon women as a large number of unamiable but powerful opponents and a small number of dearly loved and charming persons, I think men will think more highly of women, and will feel less disposed to use badly any superior power that after all they themselves may still possess...

From these remarks we can draw two essential points. First, the struggles of women for liberation are, always have been, and indeed must be, their own. That is simply how liberation works, a point that Mill grasped well. The task of a male feminist is to help secure the rights of women, and trust them to engage those rights in securing their own interests. Second, if we are to speak of masculine virtues, we must surely include among them the strength, confidence, and dignity to afford all other people their rights, even (perhaps especially) those whose goals will not always comport with one's own. Men who fear the idea that women might, upon achieving full political equality, oppose their sovereign manly interests, should look upon the example of a J.S. Mill and realize this: It is hardly a display of power, honor, fair judgment, or any other aspect of manliness to oppose the rights of another precisely because she will sometimes wield those rights as a capable and formidable rival in a democratic process.


Mill's work is of course not flawless from a feminist perspective, and he would be the first to insist that we seek to improve upon it as we are able. The important thing is that he saw the struggle to secure our own rights as demanding that we truly recognize the rights of others. Many other notable men have recognized that their fundamental convictions demand the recognition of the equality of women, whether or not they have been able to fully develop and commit to the implications of this realization. This is certainly exhibited as early and importantly as Book V of Plato's Republic, wherein he insists that female guardians must be given the same education and responsibilities as male ones. Of course, even in the Republic Plato is far from consistent in his attitude toward women, yet we do see him striving for consistency, and the recognition that the equal moral status of women is a logical entailment of Platonism would have great resonance in later periods. Ibn Rushd, known in the Western tradition as Averroës, began from Plato's view but developed a richer and more consistently feminist position. He argued that women held a completely equal status to men as rational beings, and should be afforded the same opportunities, and he supplemented the Platonic argument with an empirical component: historical anecdotes supporting the thesis that women could participate in war and governance. Not all Platonists of the medieval period retained this thread of the tradition, but enough did to create a powerful precedent for the work that was to come.

The Stoics, too, recognized powerful feminist implications of their methods. Martha Nussbaum notes that Musonius Rufus, writing consistently within the conceptual bounds of the Stoic traditions, offers a number of arguments that the same virtues are both desirable and attainable in women as in men. He offers arguments of this kind not only regarding what we would now see as moral virtues, but also intellectual capacities, and the much-prized Stoic strength of self-command:

So I hold that both the female and the male should learn about matters of virtue, and moreover that from infancy both must be taught what is right and what is wrong, which is the same for both, and also what is harmful and what is helpful, and that one must do certain things and not others. This will develop understanding in both boys and girls alike, and there will be no difference in their excellence, and then they must decry all that is shameful. When these dichotomies have been engendered in them, both men and women will be self-controlled. And above all the child who is educated properly, be it a boy or a girl, must be trained to bear any circumstance, trained not to fear death, trained not to lose heart in the face of any misfortune; in short, they must be raised to possess constant courage.

(Gaius Musonius Rufus, Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons?, my own translation)

In order to understand the importance of what Musonius is doing, it helps to know that the word for “courage” he uses (ἀνδρεῖος) is fairly directly derived from the word for “man”, and in other contexts could simply be translated as “manly”. It is a word often associated specifically with martial courage. Musonius is not, however, the first one in his tradition to re-cast it as personal, internal, and non-gendered; most notably, Cicero gives such an account in De Officiis. Moreover, Gaius Musonius Rufus was not a minor Stoic. He was the teacher of Epictetus and contributed foundational, distinctive ideas to the Roman philosophical tradition. So the interpretation he gives of this virtue, and the attribution of it as much to women as to men, may be taken as authoritative. Musonius was also hardly alone in advocating for the equality of women, particularly if the accounts of lost Stoic works found in secondary sources are accurate. It is likely that if Zeno's influential Republic were not now lost to us, we would have further examples of the regard that Stoics held for women. We should also mourn the loss of explicitly feminist (or at least proto-feminist) works from Cleanthes, who leaves us only the tantalizing title On the Fact that the Same Excellence Belongs to a Man and a Woman, and his student Chrysippus, who according to Philodemus asserted the equality of women in writings of which, alas, we have no further knowledge.

At the present time, the lineage of male thinkers that can claim the most consistent record of seeking to advocate and refine feminist ideas is almost certainly found within the socialist tradition. Frederick Engels himself argues powerfully against biological determinism in his landmark 1884 text, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and this work was almost certainly a posthumous fulfillment of a project Marx himself had intended to pursue. In the work of August Bebel we see an important rhetorical turn. Rather than merely theorizing gender politics, Bebel sardonically critiques the attitudes of his day (in the following passage, I have italicized Bebel's own remarks in order to distinguish them from those of the official he is quoting):

The police physician of Leipsic, Dr. J. Kuehn, says: “Prostitution is not only a bearable, but a necessary evil. It protects women from adultery (which only men have a right to commit) and guards virtue (of course the virtue of women because men are not required to be virtuous) against assault and destruction.”

This sort of commentary is not terribly striking by current standards, but it is common to suppose that for a man writing in 1879 to publicly press such an opinion would be almost unheard-of. In fact, there were plenty of feminists among the men of the nineteenth century, and socialists in particular. Moreover, while many socialist analyses, including the ones cited here, are in various ways problematic from the perspective of contemporary feminism, they still stand as important feminist work because of the shifts in perspective and social activism they provoked. Whether or not Bebel arrived at an apt analysis regarding sex work, a complex and deeply challenging topic, is less important for my purposes than his recognition that a more radical and rigorous conversation was sorely needed.

Bebel was part of a community of men and women prepared to bring such challenges to a society that they saw as not only unjust, but irrational. I certainly don't mean to downplay his particular contribution, but rather to point out that challenging the misogyny and oppression of their time was a central aspect of the systematic program of many socialists. Marx, Engels, and Bebel are simply three prominent examples of how socialist values and dialectical methods, in which opposing views are systematically compared in order to discover their intrinsic common assumptions and points of contention, naturally lead to a re-examination of how women are treated and regarded. Socialism also helped to press the idea that these topics required a forceful public conversation in addition to an incisive and uncompromising theoretical methodology, and socialist organizations were where women made some of their first inroads toward working with men in solidarity. The historical and contemporary development of socialist organizations and socialist thought owes a great deal to the direct involvement of women like Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Angela Davis, without whom social justice in our time would be even more impoverished.


I do think that we ought to speak of masculine virtues, though before we praise them we should first know what they are. We should also speak of manliness, and what that is. While we might call someone “manly” simply to indicate that he is especially obviously biologically male, that isn't the use that carries the connotation of greatest praise, or the quality that mature men strive for (indeed, we now wonder if the biological concept is even coherent). Manliness is best thought of as a sort of aggregate virtue that comprises all the virtues most necessary for the roles men are expected to perform (or be prepared to perform). Understanding it is mostly a matter of understanding the virtues that compose it, given whatever roles we expect a man to play. Note that none of these virtues taken individually, not even courage or honor, are actually essentially connected to some kind of male-ness. This is part of why Musonius was able to so decisively insist that both males and females have the same need and potential for all truly important virtues. It is the construction of the roles that amounts to the construction of masculinity or femininity, and this is part of what the socialists understood about how social relations can and often have created notions of femininity that are debilitating. Masculine roles can also be debilitating, if we misunderstand either the roles that we genuinely expect of ourselves or the virtues they depend upon.

The men cited in this discussion should be thought of as feminists because they came to understand important things about the artificial and oppressive nature of the roles constructed for women in their societies, and the virtues and rights that women and men share in equal parts. To be sure, they are not complete or ideal feminists. The greatest feminists are almost always women, because they have lived those oppressive roles and had to fight for those rights, and have an understanding that cannot be acquired theoretically, though is does often lead to potent theorizing. Men cannot do the same things for feminism that women can, and it cannot do the same things for them, because feminism is a social and political movement, as well as a social and political body of theory, and it inherently means different things for people subject to the pressures of different social roles. This does not mean, though, that feminism is not important to masculinity, or that it has nothing to offer men, or that it is against their interests. To the contrary, in an era where roles for men are constantly shifting, we must learn to assemble new roles and new understanding of the virtues they require. Older kinds of masculinity are not necessarily evil; there is nothing wrong with virtues like courage, honor, and strategic acumen if we understand them correctly, even if they come from a martial role we now reject. Yet they are less essential to many contemporary men, whose inner strength, sense of justice, and receptive intellect are not understood in such gendered terms.

If you are a man with any intellectual pretensions, at least some of your heroes have been explicit, public, passionate feminists. If you are a libertarian or a socialist, a Platonist or a Stoic, feminism is already part of your tradition, and these are hardly the only schools of thought that have been shown, by their own most accomplished members, to have necessary feminist commitments. Any system that seeks to give an account of the values of equality and emancipation, why they are necessary and what they demand, will arrive at serious questions about why so many societies have fallen short of realizing these values with respect to women. Such a system, when properly applied, will also inevitably have important things to say about the virtues that compose the kind of man you want to be, or the kind of woman, or indeed any role you want to choose for yourself in a fraught and changing world. Moreover, it will aid you in constructing those roles for yourself in a way that depends less on the biology with which you were born, and more on the person you want to be, or the people (whatever people) you love and are prepared to play a role for, or the work that you want to do for yourself and for the world.

It is time for men to realize that any genuinely powerful and honest notion of masculinity we arrive at will not simply allow for or accommodate feminism, and certainly will not be in tension with it. It will instead entail feminism, as it will entail receptiveness and service toward all programs of liberation. This will be challenging. It will also require that we acknowledge that our feminism must be constantly examined, that we must listen constantly, that we are not perfect nor are we ever completely perfectible. If there is such a thing as masculine virtue, however, it must include the right kind of strength to meet these challenges. And we already have had a great many exemplars, not perfect but surely admirable in their striving for such strength: men such as Mill, Musonious, Bebel, and the countless others with brilliant, committed minds who have recognized that no man is free until all women are free. If we can strive as they have, and have conversations about the kind of men we would like to be, conversations that accept feminism as an already present aspect of the finest examples of masculinity we have known, we will not face these challenges alone. We will be able to join hands with these men, and with a host of brave and brilliant women, and with all people committed to their own emancipation, in a line that stretches back through time, not just to 1920, or 1902, or even 1756, but to the earliest times when women and men began to realize that they could be wiser, better, and more free.

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