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Mill and Taylor

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John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, and Women’s Liberty

Mill––one of the great writers on liberty, and one of the writers featured at greatest length in Pierre Goodrich’s Basic Memorandum––is also one of the earlier figures to write thoughtfully and expressively about the oppression of women. John Stuart Mill’s book The Subjection of Women is a vital, early, non-collectivist voice in the debate over women and liberty. Mill’s interest in the position of women in society was not just a political or philosophical stance. His complex and long-standing relationship and finally marriage with Harriet Taylor made his interest in these issues personal as well as political. As F. A. Hayek has noted, “The situation and the natural inclinations of both parties must have combined from the beginning to make the position of women and their position in marriage one of the main topics of common interest to Mill and Harriet Taylor” (Hayek’s John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, 57). Joined with Mill, Harriet Taylor’s own long-established public and private interest in the position of women led to the pair’s production of a series of writings on the subject matter that are unparalleled in their ability to allow readers insight into the way in which these early supporters of women’s liberty wrote and thought, and how they lived their ideas in their public and private lives.

Reminding readers that Mill, working with Taylor, is a supporter of liberty for men and for women, and at a remarkably early date, may help serve to address part of the challenge that Hayek found in considering Mill’s work. “It would seem that at least in his native country, during the period between the two great wars, Mill was regarded as one of those outmoded figures of the recent past whose ideas have ceased to be interesting because they have become commonplace. Most of the battles he fought had been won and to many of those who knew his name he probably appeared as a somewhat dim figure…There was, perhaps, also some suspicion that his reputation had been somewhat exaggerated and that he had not been a great original genius but rather an honest, hardworking, and lucid expositor of ideas that other and greater minds had originated. He even came to be regarded, very unjustly, as the last of the “orthodox” tradition in economics and politics. In fact, however, few men have done more to create the intellectual climate in which most of what he stood for was finally taken for granted.” Considering Taylor’s work along with Mill’s should allow for some interesting comparisons and contrasts between their thinking on these matters, and may open up intriguing questions about influence and inspiration.

Finally, to turn to Hayek again, a consideration of Mill may lead us to “discover that he is a better guide to many of our present problems than is generally appreciated.” His work and Taylor’s work on the position of women in society and on questions of liberty in general may well help us to consider many of today’s vexed questions about individual liberty, marginalized groups, and the conflict between our desire to secure rights and liberty and our desire to remain as untrammeled by government restriction as we can.

Some of the general questions that we expect will run throughout the six sessions of discussion may include: What are the differences and similarities between Mill’s description of the situation in his time and the world of today? What are Mill’s proposals? Have they been realized, and if so, what is the result? Why has improvement for women in the world so often been regarded as a leftist project, both by its proponents and opponents? Are there any philosophical, logical, or practical inclinations that make “feminism” and “family values” ideological signals with opposite contents? How do a higher standard of living and longer lives influence the interpretation of what is desirable and likely to be achieved for men and women in their relations and in their roles in society, and how the roles are defined in different circumstances? How important are education and upbringing, traditions and norms, in the classical liberal tradition and in Mill’s writings? How can Mill’s own life experiences have influenced his views on women in general, and how important is the connection between private life and public appeal in general for philosophers and politicians?


Session I: On Liberty.

The conference’s first session will consider Mill’s On Liberty as a way of emphasizing Mill’s interest in a variety of types of individual liberty, not just liberty for women. Are Mill’s arguments for liberty in general different from his arguments for liberty for women? Are they more or less persuasive? Do the premises on which he based his arguments for the liberty of women extend to any other groups or individuals? Is Mill, as Hayek suggested, “a better guide to many of our present problems than is generally appreciated”? How? For which problems? Readings: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1 and Chapter 3.

Session II: On Marriage and Divorce.

Two brief essays, one by Mill and one by Taylor, on the subjects of marriage and divorce should produce fruitful comparisons and contrasts. Conferees may wish to consider questions such as: Do Mill’s and Taylor’s ideas diverge substantially from one another at any point? Where and why? Are the differences between their ideas attributable to philosophical and political differences or to the fact that one is a man and one is a woman? Readings: An untitled essay by Mill and an untitled essay by Taylor on marriage and divorce.

Session III: On the Enfranchisement of Women.

In order to help combat the natural tendency to focus on Mill, one session will be devoted to Harriet Taylor’s essay on the enfranchisement of women. Taking a full session to consider Taylor on her own may help the group to think about Taylor’s reputation and to consider her status as a political thinker and philosopher in her own right. Questions may include: What are Taylor’s arguments for enfranchisement? Are any of these arguments picked up by later supporters of women’s suffrage? Are any dropped? Readings: Harriet Taylor’s 1851 essay on the “Enfranchisement of Women”.

Session IV: Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” (I).

Sessions four and five will be devoted to Mill’s long work on the subject of women and liberty, “The Subjection of Women.” What are Mill’s arguments against the subjection of women? What are his proposals for remedying the situation? What are Mill’s feelings about marriage as it is constituted in his time? Readings: John Staurt Mill’s “The Subjection of Women,” Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Session V: Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” (II).

The discussion of Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” will continue in this session, considering questions such as: Does Mill feel that men and women have different human natures? What does he see as women’s potentials? Limitations? Why does Mill place such a priority on female liberty? How will it improve liberty in general? Readings: John Staurt Mill’s “The Subjection of Women,” Chapter 3 and Chapter 4.

Session VI: Hayek on Mill and Taylor.

Hayek’s essay on Mill and Taylor’s relationship will serve as an introduction to the pair and their history. Questions to be considered during this session might include: How does Mill and Taylor’s relationship reflect or fail to reflect their ideals for relations between men and women? Must a philosopher’s private life reflect his public theories and concerns? Readings: Hayek’s essay on Mill and Taylor (not available online); and James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Chapter 5, “Equality”.

Last modified April 10, 2014