Liberty Matters

“Freedom and Happiness”: Harriet Taylor Mill’s Political Philosophy (for Women and Men)

Giandomenica Becchio rightly notes that the themes of marriage and divorce were on-going in the writings of Harriet Taylor Mill, from one of her earliest exchanges with John Stuart Mill (their paired essays on the theme of marriage from 1833)[1] to discussion of divorce in On Liberty,[2] which she and Mill were working on together at the time of her death.[3] She was consistently a passionate defender of women’s right to have other options for security, self-respect, and subsistence aside from marriage, and for everyone’s right to no-fault, easily accessible, and cheap divorce.[4]
It is worth, though, noting that she also wrote about a wide range of other issues. I say this because it can be all too easy to look to female authors only for their ideas on issues predominantly affecting women, and to forget that, as Friedrich Hayek so rightly says of Taylor Mill, their experiences “by no means limit” their intellectual interests.[5] In Taylor Mill’s case, Hayek emphasises that her “rationalist revolt against the tyranny of public opinion” was not limited, or wholly attributable, to her own experiences as a clever, compassionate and conscientious woman who found herself falling in love with a man to whom she was not married, with no prospect of divorce. Indeed, in one of her earliest surviving manuscripts she wrote: “No government has the right to interfere with … personal freedom … Every human being has the right to all personal freedom which does not interfere with the happiness of some other”,[6] a phrase which strongly resembles one of the most famous elements of On Liberty – the “liberty” (or “harm”) principle which states: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a … community … is to prevent harm to others”.[7]
Indeed, recent stylometric analysis of On Liberty shows a considerable contribution by Taylor Mill in particular to the chapter “On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being”.[8] It is not so much, as Becchio puts it, then, that Taylor Mill “inspired” Mill “in writing his well-known pamphlet The Subjection of Women, which represented the application of Mill’s classical liberal agenda, as described in his On Liberty, to the woman question”. Rather, Taylor Mill’s own complex theorising about liberty led her to co-author, with Mill, On Liberty – both this, and The Subjection of Women, he felt, only imperfectly represented her views, and would have been much better publications had she lived longer.[9]
This said, her earliest emphasis was certainly on how women were deprived of the chance to freely develop their individuality: “women … are entirely deprived of all those advantages of academical or university instruction[,] emulation & example which are open to all men,” she wrote in one of her earliest surviving manuscripts:
and what is much more important to the formation or development of individuality of character, the whole repute of their lives is made to depend on their utter exclusion from any source of knowledge or experience of the world – and the varieties of scene & of character which must be known and tried to give self-knowledge, and decision of mind.”[10]
Notably, these are virtues of “active” characters praised and championed in On Liberty,[11] but also virtues which women are deprived of by social mores governing marriage, marriageability, and social structures. This means marriage is almost a woman’s only option for economic and personal security.
This said, Taylor Mill was also very aware that marriage by no means guaranteed women physical security. Uniquely among contemporary feminists, she wrote a series of articles (with Mill) which highlighted the reality of domestic violence, and the supine, misogynist and deeply unjust nature of patriarchal courts, in which male judges and all-male juries rarely found in favour of women (when cases did come to court) or passed judgements which protected them.[12]
She had an unflinchingly realist attitude to the punishment of these crimes, writing a privately distributed pamphlet in 1853, in which she praised a bill recently brought to Parliament for the purpose of tackling domestic violence, but urging harsher penalties which would actually deter criminals.[13] Notably, this included corporal punishment because, notwithstanding that this was “justly odious as a punishment,” for all other crimes, it was nonetheless “peculiarly fitted for such cases” given “[i]t is probably the only punishment which they [i.e. the perpetrators] would feel”.[14]
Interestingly, Taylor Mill also noticed that women were capable of domestic violence, especially towards those rendered even weaker than themselves by structural, intersecting inequalities of class, sex, age and dependence caused by employment (especially domestic servants).[15] Although urging harsher punishment for crimes of personal violence on the grounds that mere imprisonment was not much of a punishment for poor people (given prison conditions were probably better than life outside, especially if not condemned to hard labour), she did not think domestic violence was something which only occurred in the “lower” classes, being very aware that it was perpetrated by both men and women “in that class known … by the name respectable”, including barristers and justices of the peace.[16]
In this, we see an interesting alliance in Taylor Mill’s work of theory and practical realities: her feminist critique of marriage and divorce is not merely philosophical, removed from reality, but neither is it wholly, or simply, informed by her own experience of marriage, motherhood, separation, and widowhood. Rather, empathy, compassion and a clear, unromantic eye gave her insight into the experience of many different women (and men), and the ways in which their character, behaviour and beliefs were unconsciously shaped by social structures, social mores, and social opinion – particularly those which governed sexual relations and marriage.
Mill recalled in his Autobiography that long before he met Taylor Mill, he was committed to perfect equality between the sexes. Rather than this being something he learned from her, “the strength” of his convictions “was … the originating cause of the interest she felt in me”.[17] However, this belief was (again, echoing On Liberty) “an abstract principle”:
that perception of the vast practical bearings of women’s disabilities which found expression in the book on The Subjection of Women, was acquired mainly through her teaching. But for her … I should have had a very insufficient perception of the mode in which the consequences of the inferior position of women intertwine themselves with all the evils of existing society and with all the difficulties of human improvement.
And it is, of course, that recognition of the invidious nature of sexual inequality as a “living truth,” in The Subjection of Women which makes it such a striking and important book, even to this day, despite changes to the law in most countries around marriage and divorce.[18]
Taylor Mill’s writing on domestic violence has somehow been used to argue that she was a masochist, feeding into an often negative assessment of her personality which, in turn, is used as an excuse not to study her seriously, or credit Mill’s account of their co-authorship as plausible.[19] But as Becchio rightly highlights in her essay, Taylor Mill “was a brilliant writer” and a thought-provoking and important philosopher in her own right as well as being “an influential figure in Mill’s life”. I would only emphasise that this was not only in regards to his feminism, but the arguments for which he remains most famous, those found in On Liberty which he described as “directly and literally our joint production”.[20]
[1] These essays are undated. Mill’s is written on paper watermarked 1831, and Taylor Mill’s on paper watermarked 1832, which led Hayek to suggest both were written in 1832. However, Mill also cites an opinion of Robert Owen’s, which he might have taken from an account of Owen’s speeches published in the United States in 1829, but was more probably taken from hearing Owen himself give a speech in London 1 May 1833. (For more on this, see J.M. Robson, Textual Introduction, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill XXI (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), lviii-lx.) Taylor Mill also quotes a poem by Alfred Tennyson which was not published until 14 May 1833. Mill’s editors, then, give a date of “1832-33?” but 1833 seems more plausible, perhaps even May/June 1833. (Certainly, it seems unlikely they wrote these essays after September 1833, when Taylor Mill separated from her husband and moved to live in Paris for a time.)
[2] Mill and Taylor Mill, On Liberty, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 300-301.
[3] Mill, Autobiography Collected Works of John Stuart Mill I (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), 249.
[4] See Harriet Taylor Mill, Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998), 17-25.
[5] Friedrich August Hayek, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendships and Subsequent Marriage (London: Routledge, 1951), 25-6.
[6] Taylor Mill, Complete Works, 19.
[7] Mill and Taylor Mill, On Liberty, 223.
[8] Christoph Schmidt-Petri, Michael Schefczyk and Lilly Osburg, “Who Authored On Liberty? Stylometric Evidence on Harriet Taylor Mill’s Contribution”, Utilitas 34/2 (2022), 120-138.
[9] Mill, Autobiography, 253-5.
[10] Taylor Mill, Complete Works, 5-6.
[11] Mill and Taylor Mill, On Liberty, 262-3.
[12] Ibid., 75-131.
[13] This is included in Mill’s Collected Works, but he noted “I acted chiefly as amanuensis to my wife” in producing it. (Mill, Collected Works XXI, 102).
[14] Taylor Mill, Complete Works, 126-9.
[15] Ibid., 10-11, 98-108 and 127.
[16] Ibid., 10-11 and 119-22.
[17] Mill, Autobiography, 253.
[18] In this, it is worth noting the similarities between manuscripts Taylor Mill wrote, but did not publish, around 1851, and Subjection of Women, published in 1869. On this, see also Helen McCabe, Harriet Taylor Mill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), 33-4.
[19] See Jo Ellen Jacobs, “The Lot of Gifted Ladies is Hard”: A Study of Harriet Taylor Mill Criticism”, Hypatia 9/3 (1994), 132-62.
[20] Mill, Autobiography, 257.
Hayek. F. A. (2015). Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, edited by Sandra J. Peart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jacobs, Jo Ellen (1998). The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill, ed. Jo Ellen Jacobs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mill, John Stuart (1981). Autobiography and Literary Essays, edited by John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, vol. 1 of The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Packe, Michael St. John (1954). The Life of John Stuart Mill (1954). London: Secker and Warburg.
Peart, Sandra J. (2015). Editor’s Introduction to Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, edited by Sandra J. Peart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. xix-l.
Robbins, Lionel (1998). A History of Economic Thought, edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels. Princeton: Princeton University Press.