While Hume directly references and considers the status of women only once in his Treatise on Human Nature he makes various implicit references to the differences of the sexes throughout the work. In Book III Hume lays out his argument that moral judgement is derived from mental impressions, emotions that attach to particular ideas, and not rational distinctions as we like to believe. Reason, Hume holds, is has no meaningful footing in discussions of morality. The way things ought to be can never be derived from the way things are and this is where ethical theories fall into a naturalistic fallacy. Hume later delves into the notion of justice and posits that justice and injustice are examples of artificial virtues created by social convention. Artificial virtues vary from society to society. He frames these conventions in a historical context and analyzes how they came to exist. This historical analysis offers accounts for the existence of laws, governments, and the patriarchal conventions that govern women’s behaviors. We see in Section 12 how he goes about showing that his system explains why chastity and modesty are valued in regard to women, the so-called fair sex, more than in regard to men.
Up until this point in the Treatise Hume’s system has explained the universal approval of adherence to certain laws on the basis of the general interests of society. To further illustrate, Hume turns to the values of chastity and modesty placed upon women at the time. He seeks to demonstrate how these duties can be explained by the general interests of society. Hume observes that the dependency of infants on their parents requires that both parents maintain an active role in the child’s life for an extended period of time. To ensure that men are properly motivated to respect the responsibility they have to their children chastity in women must be considered a virtue. The argument of the time is that women have a strong temptation to infidelity that can only be countered by the punishment of a damaged reputation. This is the only way to ensure that the father can be secure in the knowledge that the child he’s expected to care for is indeed his own. After all, it’s hard to obtain the legal proof of infidelity required to deter deviant behavior through punishment and it’s clear that any child a woman carries and births is her own. Shame is a punishment that can be inflicted on the basis of weak evidence than that needed for most formal court proceedings.
However, it seems that human behavior is governed by immediate, rather than remote, motives. Thus present temptations will overcome the knowledge of the punishment of shame in this case. Moreover, women being the calculating creatures that they are, may figure that they will be able to somehow avoid the punishment of shame. So then if the allure of the immediate temptation is to be tamed there needs to be something more to the punishment of shame that will deter women from infidelity. A suitable addition can be found in highly praising chastity. While chastity and modesty in men is also lauded as a virtue it is not nearly so lauded as these traits are in women. This is because there seems to be no need. There is, after all, no similar concern for women that they may be raising a child that is not their own. They are the ones birthing the babies. The obligation, then, that men have to adhering to rules of chastity mirror the obligation of nations under individual law as opposed to that of individuals under morality.
In his essay The Subjection of Women Stuart Mill argues that the existing social conventions that work to subjugate women are unjust and hinder human development in that they promote misery and prevent good. While women were gaining more rights during this time, like the right to marriage, they were still lacking in rights in comparison to men. According to Mill Victorian custom insisted that the role of women was to please and serve others and to place her own desires on hold. Women were thus taught to seek a suitable husband and submit to his power. The cult of domesticity, a conception of female gender roles that asserted that women were to remain in the home, attending to the household affairs and raising the children they bore for their husbands. Mill instead argued that these customs hindered women from reaching their full potential and that women should instead be granted more rights and freedoms. He argued that the conventional reliance of a wife on a husband to navigate the world outside of the home created a type of slavery between the sexes. He notes, however, that unlike the master-slave relationship of the transatlantic slave trade, the husband desires both her labor and her good sentiments. The husband thus orchestrates ways to ensure that he has absolute control over his submissive and domestic subject. To the casual observer this dynamic may seem natural and properly aligned with the muted nature of women. However, women have rarely, if ever, been allowed to advocate for themselves and speak on their own natures in any significant way. Thus, we cannot be sure that what appears natural is actually such. Further Mill challenges the idea that women are somehow inherently inferior to men and argues that the current system of subjugation ought to be replaced with a system of equality that permits no place of power of one sex over the other. While Mill is aware that his position challenges the long upheld beliefs and practices of the time he points out that these beliefs are founded on the conversion of a physical perception of difference into a legal reality. He holds, then, that the subjugation of women on the grounds of them being the so-called weaker sex is unfounded.
Mill asserts that the true natures of women will remain unknowable until women are able to speak openly and freely of themselves on their own behalves.