EBB and J.S. Mill vs. The Separate Spheres

Allison Hill


“Each [sex] has what the other has not,” wrote John Ruskin in his 1865 essay “Of Queen’s Gardens”: each completes the other, and is completed by the other: they are in nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give.” Many Victorians shared this view of men and women’s intrinsic and intractable differences, but as Allison Hill explores in this essay, others vehemently challenged it, including philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his On the Subjection of Women, Mill argued that it is impossible to know what is natural for either sex, given the power of education and socialization. Allison’s paper shows that another radical Victorian, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, shared Mill’s view of gender roles as constructions. In her epic verse-novel Aurora Leigh, EBB exposes traditional femininity in particular as imposed and artificial, giving us a heroine who resists its constraints and boldly defines her own identity, as both a woman and a poet.  —Dr. Rohan Maitzen

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