The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet has been labeled:

“a philosopher in petticoats;”
“one of the meanest and dullest ladies in literary history, a monument of nasty self-regard, as lacking in charm as in grandeur”
a “tempestuous” “shrew;”
“a female autocrat;”
a “domineering, . . . perverse and selfish, invalid woman;”
a “vain and vituperative, proud and petulant” masochist;
“a very clever, imaginative, passionate, intense, imperious, paranoid, unpleasant woman.”

Harriet has been branded everything short of wicked witch of the west by John’s biographers and historians of philosophy.

Mention Harriet Taylor Mill (HTM) to naive listeners and the inevitably response is, “Oh, she’s the one John Stuart Mill (JSM) had the affair with and eventually married, right?” None of these reactions is what either HTM or JSM would have wanted, nor what HTM deserves. She wrote over three hundred pages of published and unpublished writing, including her famous “Enfranchisement of Women.” A passionate writer committed to fundamental women’s issues such as the deplorable state of women’s education, the unfairness of marriage and divorce laws, and the ubiquity of domestic violence, HTM’s voice reflected her anger and determination to make a practical difference in the world. Whether encouraging her daughter to read Wollstonecraft when she was fourteen or trying to influence a domestic violence trial while it was in progress, HTM committed her life to changing the world into a more equitable and more just one. She criticized women like George Sand who discarded the opportunity to participate in the political arena and praised French laborers and Cornish miners for experimenting in socialism. HTM was much more than an overpraised, silent partner to JSM.

The daughter of Thomas (a Unitarian man midwife) and Harriet Hardy, Harriet was born in 1807 at 8 Beckford Row, Walworth and lived in this house with her seven brothers and sisters. Growing up with a testy father and a bitter mother, Harriet escaped into marriage to John Taylor when she was eighteen. She had two children, Herbert and Algernon, in the first four years of her marriage. She wrote a piece for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and published poems, reviews and articles for the Monthly Repository in the early 1830s. During this period of writing and simultaneously her third pregnancy in five years, with her only daughter, Helen, Harriet met JSM. Harriet soon arranged her life so that she would remain legally wed, but could spend much of her life with JSM. Harriet spent weekends and evenings with John and traveled frequently with him during the following 18 years.

During the years of their unmarried relationship, HTM continued to write both her own essays and co-authored newspaper articles on domestic violence, essays, and books with JSM. She wrote one chapter of John’s Principles of Political Economy in 1848. After nursing John Taylor twenty-four hours a day for six weeks, he died in 1849.

JSM and HTM agonized over whether to marry given their dim view of the institution. JSM wrote a proposal letter that formally dismissed any legal rights he would acquire over HTM through marriage.
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HTM and JSM married in 1851, the same year that “Enfranchisement of Women” was published in the Westminster Review. They co-authored a pamphlet on a domestic violence bill before the legislature. Harriet and John lived at Blackheath, near Greenwich after they married and it was in this house that they worked on On Liberty and John’s Autobiography. Neither were published until after her death in 1858 in Avignon, France.

Major Works and Themes

HTM’s writing can be grouped under two headings, those concerned directly with women, and those not inherently related to women’s issues. One theme woven throughout the first category is a refusal to privilege public over private. For example, HTM’s argued that the restrictions on public education for women were damaging, but so were the constraints of Victorian social life, including access to sexual knowledge which result in a lack of self-knowledge as well as entrance into a marriage contract without the knowledge needed to properly consent.

Like other Victorian writers, HTM compared the status of women to slavery. She pealed away the layers of the analogy suggesting that both slavery and marriage were based on the threat of physical force, so that until domestic violence laws were improved, raw physical brutality operated in marriage just as it did in slavery. Language and law reinforced the cultural assumption obvious in the phrase spoken incredulously by men about interference with “their wives or children.” (Frances Power Cobbe would, years later, use almost precisely the same language with even the same words italicized.) Lack of economic freedom and fear of physical force were the sources of both slavery and the plight of Victorian women.

The most obvious connections to HTM’s work are to the Radical Utilitarians and Radical Unitarians in whose traditions HTM was nurtured. However, the parallels to the Owenite views of women, property, sexuality and religion are also instructive. HTM’s promotion of a companionate view of marriage coupled with her argument for liberal divorce laws and, in an ideal world, a complete lack of governmental oversight of marriage, added to the discussion of marriage during this period. She was openly critical both Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. Jameson’s views of women’s role in marriage.

In addition to her discussion of women’s issues, HTM wrote about ethics, religion, arts, socialism, and the role government should have in citizen’s lives. The damage of conformity, the value of eccentricity and the need to limit both governmental and societal interference in an individual’s actions and speech were recorded in HTM’s essays twenty years before these topics appear in On Liberty. Her poetry was mediocre, but her passion for the arts was a lifelong joy and her reviews were astute. HTM’s arguments for experiments in socialism have been criticized by many Mill scholars. She was clearly much less committed to the benefits of capitalism in the everyday lives of the working classes than was JSM. Her atheism although only expressed privately or behind the cover of anonymous essays was still sufficient to be the cause of consternation among many of her critics in the history of philosophy.

Critical Reception

The derogatory assessments of Harriet’s character cited earlier parallel comments that insist that however Harriet “helped” John in his intellectual work, her effort did not, did not, did not, amount to coauthorship. Again, a list is instructive.

• John Robson writes, “The implication is strong that . . . Mill [sic] wrote a draft, and then went through it with Harriet; the process may have been repeated; but eventually the final manuscript emerged, again composed in full by Mill [sic]. [This position is] supported by the common experience of the way husband and wife collaborate.” [emphasis added]
• Jack Stillinger comments, “It is reasonably clear in fact that Harriet was no originator of ideas, however much she may have aided Mill by ordinary wifely discussion and debate. . . .It is unfortunate that Mill did not simply thank his wife for encouragement, perhaps also for transcribing a manuscript or making an index, and let it go at that.” [emphasis added]
• Jonathan Loesberg adds, “The evidence shows her participation to be only of the most tangential kind, hardly amounting to anything that might be reasonably called joint authorship. . . .[H]er contributions were probably only in the direction of minor stylistic emendation.”

Critiques of HTM have typically been buried in works on JSM. Until the 1950s HTM was vilified as either an intellectual vamp whose bad ideas influenced whatever claims of JSM’s the critic rejected, or as a emotional solace but intellectual lightweight. None of these evaluations were based on a study of any of HTM’s actual writing. F.A. Hayek published John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: The Friendship and Subsequent Marriage, the first publication of some of HTM’s letters and a couple of her unpublished essays in 1951. Yet, between 1950 and 1970, the critics of HTM continued to fall into the same patterns identified before 1950.

In 1970, Alice Rossi recognized some of the causes of the disdain for HTM in her introduction to Essays on Sex Equality. Eugene August’s biography of JSM published the same year began to explore the possibility of a true collaboration between HTM and JSM, but by the middle of the 1970s the familiar vitriolic reception of HTM was back in vogue. In the 1990s HTM’s ideas began to receive more detailed study, but the extent and quality of their collaboration continues to be debated.  Despite Dale Miller’s characterization of my position as “maximalist”, other feminist scholars, including Menaka Philips (2018, 2020) and Helen McCabe (2017) continue to explore the complicated collaboration between Harriet and John and the reasons it has been dismissed in the history of philosophy.  Recently, based on computer analysis of the text, Schmidt-Petri, C., Schefczyk, M., & Osburg, L. concluded that “In the interest of historical accuracy and of giving credit where it is due, we suggest modern editions should list Harriet Taylor Mill as well as John Stuart Mill as authors of On Liberty.”