Harriet Taylor-Mill and The Enfranchisement of Women

Harriet Taylor-Mill was born Harriet Hardy in London on 8 October 1807. She met political philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1830 after Mill had confronted his depression and resentment of his father, and began to hang out with London intellectuals. Harriet was at that time married to her husband John, a pharmacist she had met when she was eighteen and him thirty-nine. The Taylors had three children but were estranged, although they would be seen out together.

On meeting, Harriet and Mill were very much taken with each other, the friendship deepened and so began a romantic and intellectual partnership that was to produce some of Victorian Britain’s most radical work. This was done in plain sight of Harriet’s husband John, and by even today’s standards this relationship would have been seen as scandalous. Mill’s father particularly objected to the relationship, which ultimately led to Mill’s estrangement from his mother as well as his father.

Mill and Taylor married in 1851, two years following the death of Taylor’s husband. MacFarlane (2018) summaries Taylor’s contribution to Mill’s work favourably, as follows:

Harriet was a brilliant intellectual in her own right and changed both Mill’s life and his philosophy. She led him to grasp the possibilities for men and women, and for all classes of society, of a progressive development of individuality as the main goal in life. Harriet became indispensable to his thought, his developing humanity, and his determination to act.

Taylor died suddenly in 1858 after falling ill whilst touring Europe with Mill. She was buried in Avignon where Mill bought a house close to where she was buried, and he visited this home each year in order to be close to Taylor. Mill’s epitaph to his late wife dedicates to her the non-conformist masterpiece ‘On Liberty’, which according to Sunstein (2015) was preceded by an early essay of Taylor’s:

Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.

This essay is about Harriet Taylor, the thinker, and in particular her 1851 essay ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’. Although the entanglement of Taylor’s collaborations with Mill make it extremely difficult to determine exactly what she contributed to the work that was published under his name, and their joint names, as well as in Mill’s own name even when acknowledgement of Taylor’s contribution was given (Miller, 2018). What is acknowledged from Mill’s own words is her contribution to ‘On Liberty’ (1859), ‘Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform’ (1859), ‘Principles of Political Economy’ (1848) and ‘The Subjection of Women’ (1869), the latter based on a work now believed to be almost entirely Taylor’s ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851) (see Kinzer & Jacobs 2015), a radical, uncompromising work which was fiercely critical of what was prescribed as being the woman’s role in Victorian England. After Taylor’s death, ‘The Subjection of Women’ was completed by Mill working with Taylor’s daughter Helen, herself an important political radical and suffragist (Smith 2014).

Miller (ibid) explains Taylor’s influenced on the chapter in ‘Principles of Political Economy’ named ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’, a chapter which itself sets the tome of much of this work, and references a socialist or even communist political economy:

…when the laboring class has made sufficient moral and intellectual progress, its members will refuse to settle for mere wages any longer. They will instead insist first on profit-sharing and later on employee ownership of firms. They will even experiment with Socialist and Communist communities of the sorts depicted by Saint-Simon, Fourier, Blanc, and Owen.

It is interesting that the second edition of this work was revised in a way which marked a shift in Taylor’s thinking. In his autobiography, Mill suggested this was because of a change in Taylor’s thought: she had become more radical:

This is probably only the progress we have always been making, & by thinking sufficiently I should probably come to think the same—as is almost always the case, I believe always when we think long enough.

‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851) is likely the most important work we are able to attribute to Taylor’ (Kinzer & Jacobs ibid). This work, written on the occasion of a number of feminist meetings and conferences in the USA, is radical for whichever time you could place it, never mind its own in Victorian England. Given the sex-based stereotyping we have today which certain parts of the left are using to define ‘woman’ and ‘man’, this work remains radical in 2018. When ‘The Subjection of Women’ was published, this latter work diluted some of Taylor’s ideas, even though ‘The Subjection of Women’ itself was politically radical for its time. Reading through ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’, Taylor’s anger and rage are palpable.

Summarising the two essays, the Miller (ibid) observes much commonality between them, both identify:

…that the denial of political rights to women tends to restrict their interests to matters that directly impact the family, with the result that the influence of wives on their husbands tends to diminish the latter’s willingness to act from public-spirited motives. Further, it contends that when women do not enjoy equal educational rights with men then wives will impede rather than encourage their husbands’ moral and intellectual development. And it insists that competition for jobs will prevent most of the problems that admitting women into the workforce would putatively cause from materializing.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all further quotations are from the 1851 ‘Westminster’ imprint of Taylor’s ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ published in 1851).

Taylor herself was uncompromising, arguing for:

“…equality in all rights, political, civil, and social, with the male citizens of the community.”

Despite herself being married twice, Taylor was highly critical of the role of marriage:

if we look to the great majority of cases, the effect of women’s legal inferiority, on the character both of women and of men, must be painted in far darker colours. We do not speak here of the grosser brutalities, nor of the man’s power to seize on the woman’s earnings, or compel her to live with him against her will. We do not address ourselves to any one who requires to have it proved that these things should be remedied. We suppose average cases, in which there is neither complete union nor complete disunion of feelings and character; and we affirm, that, in such cases, the influence of the dependence on the woman’s side is demoralising to the character of both.

In a time when the structure of society was arrange to obstruct women’s ability to participate in public life, Taylor argues for the full participation on women in the workforce and public life:

Even if every woman, as matters now stand, had a claim on some man for support, how infinitely preferable is it that part of the income should be of the woman’s earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it… Even under the present laws respecting the property of women, a woman who contributes materially to the support of the family, cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical manner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is a dependent on the man for subsistence.

Taylor argues women are oppressed because of their biological function in reproduction, this had become known as ‘the maternity argument’ and used as a way to exclude women from public life and deny opportunities. In reading this, from the first half of the 1800, it is probably worth considering the relevance of Taylor’s work to today:

The maternity argument deserts its supporters in the case of single women, a large and increasing class of the population; a fact which, it is not irrelevant to remark, by tending to diminish the excessive competition, of numbers is calculated to assist greatly the prosperity of all. There is no inherent reason or necessity that all women should voluntarily choose to devote their lives to one animal function and its consequences. Numbers of women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them, no other occupation for their feelings or activities. Every improvement in their education, and enlargement of their faculties, everything which renders them more qualified for any other mode of life, increases the number of those to whom it is an injury and an oppression to be denied the choice. To say that women must be excluded from active life because maternity disqualifies them for it, is in fact to say that every other career should be forbidden them, in order that maternity may be their only resource.

But, secondly, it is urged, that to give the same freedom of occupation to women as to men would be an injurious addition to the crowd of competitors, by whom the avenues to almost all kinds of employment are choked up, and its remuneration depressed. This argument, it is to be observed, does not reach the political question. It gives no excuse for withholding from women the rights of citizenship. The suffrage, the jury-box, admission to the legislature and to office, it does not touch.

Taylor really was not afraid to name the problem: the urgency of addressing the concerns she identifies has unfortunately not diminished with time:

The real question is, whether it is right and expedient that one half of the human race should pass through life in a state of forced subordination to the other half. If the best state of human society is that of being divided into two parts, one consisting of persons with a will and a substantive existence, the other of humble companions to these persons, attached each of them to one for the purpose of bringing up his children, and making his home pleasant to him, if this is the place assigned to women, it is but kindness to educate them for this; to make them believe that the greatest good fortune which can befall them is to be chosen by some man for this purpose; and that every other career which the world deems happy or honorable is closed to them by the law, not of social institutions, but of nature and destiny.

When, however, we ask why the existence of one half of the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other; why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own, that there may be nothing to compete in her mind with his interests and his pleasure, the only reason which can be given is, that men like it.

‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ is a powerful read, and she is prescient to the political subjection of women today, noting how women acquiesce as a result of their own female socialisation:

Their position is like that of the tenants or labourers who vote against their own political interests to please their landlords or employers; with the unique addition, that submission is inculcated on them from childhood, as the peculiar attraction and grace of their character. They are taught to think that to repel actively even an admitted injury done to themselves is somewhat unfeminine, and had better be left to some male friend or protector.

Never afraid to commit her analysis to paper, Taylor identifies the mechanism of the coercive control of women:

That an institution or a practice is customary, is no presumption of its goodness, when any other sufficient cause can be assigned for its existence. There is no difficulty in understanding why the subjection of women has been a custom. No other explanation is needed than physical force.

It is worth noting that although Taylor (and Mill) were part of a scene that was progressive (‘On Liberty’ is literally the book on individual freedom, liberalism and free speech) she was not without her detractors, who were of course all male. As shown on HarrietTaylorMill.com she was described as:

“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”;
“tempestuous” “shrew”;
“a female autocrat”;
“domineering… perverse and selfish, invalid woman”;
“vain and vituperative, proud and petulant” masochist; and
“a very clever, imaginative, passionate, intense, imperious, paranoid, unpleasant woman”.

Social commentator Thomas Carlyle is quoted as saying of her (Packe, 1954):

“She was full of unwise intellect, asking and re-asking stupid questions”

The more things change, it seems that the more they stay the same.

Although it is easy to see why Taylor’s work is relatively unknown, with little published in her own name and an entanglement with the works of Mill, her contribution to women’s rights is profound. The radical ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ shows a woman’s analysis of the inculcation, coercion and forcible oppression of women, and this is done by a free-thinking woman who lived in a time where women were defined solely by relation to the men to whom they were tied and, of course, their own reproductive function.

Taylor’s strong words are as important now as they were then, especially as women are experiencing another attack on their self-definition and ability to participate in public life. Harriet’s anger and passion sears the page, and this incredible woman deserves recognition as a truly radical thinker and fighter for the freedom of women from the tyranny of men.


Harriet Taylor Mill HarrietTaylorMill.com

Kinzer, BL & Jacobs (2015), JE ‘The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill‘, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 36(1):156, September 2005

MacFarlane, A (2018) ‘Brief Lives: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)‘, Philosophy Now, June July 2018 issue 126

Mill, JS (1859) ‘On Liberty

Mill JS, (1865) ‘Principles of Political Economy

Mill, JS (1869) ‘The Subjection of Women

Mill, JS (1871) ‘Autobiography

Miller, DE (2018) ‘Harriet Taylor Mill‘ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Packe, M (1954) ‘The Life of John Stuart Mill’ New York: MacMillan.

Smith, J (2014) ‘The Feminism and Political Radicalism of Helen Taylor in Victorian Britain and Ireland‘ PHD Thesis, London Metropolitan University

Sunstein, CR (2015) ‘John & Harriet: Still Mysterious‘, The New York Review of Books, 2 April 2015

Two sources have been used for text from ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ as there were several publications and formats of the original essay:

Taylor, H (1851) ‘The Enfranchisement of Women‘ Westminster Review, 1851

Taylor, H (1851) ‘The Enfranchisement of Women‘ reprinted in ‘Socialism’, 1891 (W.D.P. Bliss, editor, Humbolt Publishing, New York)

Further Reading:

Harriet Taylor at Spartacus Educational

Jacobs, JE & and Payne, PH ‘Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill’, Indiana University Press, 1998

Murray, J & Jacobs, JE ‘Harriet Taylor Her Philosophical Partnership With JS Mill‘ Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, 23 October 2007


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