Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Harriet Taylor Mill

1807 CE – 1858 CE

A portrait of Harriet Taylor Mill from London's National Portrait Gallery. (Wikimedia Commons)A portrait of Harriet Taylor Mill from London's National Portrait Gallery. (Wikimedia Commons) Harriet Taylor, née Hardy, was born in London in 1807.  At the age of 18 she married John Taylor, a wholesale druggist with whom she had three children: Herbert, Algernon and Helen.   She was involved in the politically radical community then active within the Unitarian Church and regularly contributed articles to its publication, Monthly Repository.  These are the only articles that are openly credited to Taylor, but her intellectual career was much more serious and extensive than a series of short works in a Unitarian magazine would indicate.

It was by way of a minister, William Fox of the South Place Chapel, that Taylor in 1830 made the acquaintance of her lifelong companion and collaborator John Stuart Mill.  Over the next 20 years, Taylor and Mill maintained a passionate correspondence in which they expressed deep affection for one another and discussed and refined their political views and theories.  Whether the relationship was sexual is the subject of some debate.  But given the near impossibility of divorce in Victorian England, Taylor’s husband tolerated the friendship and they remained married until his death in 1859.  In 1861, after observing the proper two-year mourning period, Taylor and Mill married.  In doing so, they drew up a most atypical marriage contract that granted Taylor full legal and economic autonomy.  In his wedding vows, furthermore, Mill stated that his new wife would retain “absolute freedom of action … as if no such marriage had taken place.”

In 1851 the landmark feminist essay “The Enfranchisement of Women” appeared under Mill’s name.  Whether this was done to attract a wider readership or as a matter of propriety is unknown, but it is now generally accepted that Taylor was the primary author.  Mill’s own work on the topic, “The Subjection of Women,” only appeared a decade later.  In “The Enfranchisement of Women” Taylor argues for full legal, social and economic equality of the sexes and attacks the institution of marriage in its then-current form.  She suggests that sexual inequality is not due to a complex set of desires and differences but is maintained, instead, by the simple mechanism of physical force because it is to the advantage of men. 

Like many feminists writing during the 19th Century, Taylor compares women's lot in marriage to chattel slavery.  The comparison can appear melodramatic and even offensive to contemporary readers, but the analogy was logical for a number of reasons.  Advocates of women’s rights and women’s suffrage would have been members of the same social and political circles as abolitionists.  The arguments abolitionists made concerning the inherent dignity and equality of human beings regardless of race were easily translated into early feminist demands for suffrage and economic rights regardless of gender.  

Furthermore, the legal status of married women was truly deplorable.  Married women literally lost their legal personhood under the institution of "coverture." Once married, women’s rights and possessions were “covered” by the legal status of their husbands.  Title to all property inherited or earned was transferred and physical coercion of wives by their husbands was legal (the expression “rule of thumb” originates in the size of the rod acceptable for beating one’s wife and children).  Certainly in effect, women of Taylor's time were the property of their husbands.  Moreover, given the lack of opportunities for women to support themselves outside of marriage, the institution could hardly be considered a contract freely entered into.  

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, 1851.(Wikimedia Commons) A father evicts his daughter and her illegitimate baby from the family home. British women enjoyed few legal rights independent of their fathers or husbands throughout the 19th Century.The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, 1851.(Wikimedia Commons) A father evicts his daughter and her illegitimate baby from the family home. British women enjoyed few legal rights independent of their fathers or husbands throughout the 19th Century.

Taylor’s arguments for women's rights were not framed wholly in terms set by the abolition debate; she also borrowed from socialist thought.  Because inequality is derived from property and power, Taylor presents women, slaves and the working class as suffering from the same basic structural issue – their subjection by a more powerful class.  In the case of middle and upper class free women, this powerful class was men.  

Taylor’s legacy has been one of companion and educated muse, but it is likely that, in addition to being Mill's primary interlocutor, she was also the co-author of several of Mill’s worksincluding On Liberty.  She also contributed significantly to Mill’s Principles of Political Economy.  Mill himself stated that while he was largely responsible for the book’s theoretical component, Taylor contributed the main philosophic and institutional arguments.  (The book’s subtitle, “Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy,” indicates the importance Mill accorded to her contribution).  He acknowledged her as the sole author of the chapter “On the Probable Futurity of the Working Classes.” 

Scholarly resistance to Taylor’s authorship has persisted from the 19th Century through the present.  Although Mill repeatedly credits her with significant contributions in his autobiography and elsewhere, scholars have often dismissed even this unequivocal, first-hand testimony.   Some have argued that Mill was simply “besotted” by Taylor or so upset by her death that he exaggerated her contributions hoping to inflate her legacy.   While Taylor’s influence on Mill’s “Subjection” is now generally accepted, claims that she influenced any of Mill's works unrelated to what the 19th Century called “the Woman Question" remain controversial.

Taylor died of tuberculosis on her way to Avignon in 1858.  She was 51.  Mill bought a house near the cemetery where she was buried and erected an elaborate tomb. More significantly, he honored Taylor’s memory by bringing a bill for women's suffrage before Parliament in 1866.  It contained the signatures of 1521 women who desired the vote.  Parliament rejected it by avote of 196 to 73.  Taylor’s daughter Helen helped form the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and Mill spoke at several of their meetings between 1869 and 1871. 

 

Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted

Bodkin, Ronald G. “Women’s Agency in Classical Economic Thought: Adam Smith, Harriet Taylor Mill and J.S. Mill,” Feminist Economics, 5:1, 45-60

Jacobs, Jo Ellen “Mill, Harriet Taylor," Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, eds. John Meriiman and Jay Winter, Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006

“Taylor, Harriet” Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2001