Liberty Matters

Harriet Taylor’s Partnership with John Stuart Mill


In this essay I explore the “partnership” between Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill. As is well known, Harriet and John met when Harriet was still married to her first husband, John Taylor. They soon developed an intellectual, and romantic, relationship that lasted through several decades and cost them both dearly professionally and personally. Their correspondence and writings reveal a close working relationship, one that has been the subject of scrutiny and, at times, criticism, with some concluding that Mill came under the influence of the woman he eventually married and he was led astray by her supposedly more radical views.[1] Mill has consequently been castigated as unoriginal[2] and malleable, unable to resist Taylor’s sympathies with the French utopian socialists.
My view is contrary to much of the secondary literature. I take Mill at his word when he reports a partnership with the woman he eventually married, and I provide evidence in what follows that Mill’s views on marriage and divorce were evidently well developed in the essay he wrote, at Taylor’s request, in 1832 (or thereabouts). This essay was authored by Mill at Taylor’s request; while The Subjection of Women is appropriately identified by specialists such as Jo Ellen Jacobs as heavily influenced by his relationship with Taylor-Mill. Moreover, portions of Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and other works were, as he suggested “a joint production” with Taylor-Mill, as will become clear in what follows.
As Becchio notes, the story of Mill and Taylor-Mill is one of singular devotion in the face of intense social disapproval. Indeed, reactions to their unusual arrangement—the couple traveled extensively in Europe while Harriet was still married to the man who was much her senior, John Taylor—were damaging and extremely painful. Socialites in the beginning, they met at one of Taylor’s many soirées. Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, Eliza Flower, W. J. Fox, John Roebuck, George John Graham, and other notables were frequent guests.[3] Gossip soon became hurtful, with the Carlyles sniggering with other guests about the couple, labeling Taylor-Mill “Platonica” and making snide remarks in correspondence. One example will stand for many: To John Sterling, Carlyle wrote on 17 January 1837: “[John Mill’s] Platonica and he are constant as ever; innocent I do believe as sucking doves, and yet suffering the clack of tongues, worst penalty of guilt. It is very hard; and for Mill especially as unlucky as ever” (Hayek 2015, p. 80).
Even worse, Mill’s family shunned him, with his sister summing up the heart wrenching schism in a letter to Mill writing in 1851 (after Mill and Taylor-Mill married):
And now Good Bye. I have prayed that this letter may touch your heart for we do differ ‘as you observed’ in our opinions or rather say convictions, but this difference has not made me love you less, and in striving each day to become more Christian I feel that I shall love you more really …  P.S. If this should close all intercourse between us as I think possible it will be to me very painful, but at least the sting will be wanting of thinking that I have shrunk from the duty of honesty towards you (Hayek 2015, p. 171).
In the face of gossip, Mill and Taylor withdrew from the society that had once been a great source of intellectual stimulation. They spent much of the rest of their lives—with a brief exception when Taylor nursed John Taylor in the late stages of his illness—together, in isolation.
Notwithstanding the isolation imposed by their relationship, however, they were extremely productive, and this is where I part company from much that has been written about the couple. For while some commentators have suggested that Harriet is responsible for his views on marriage, divorce, female labor force participation, and socialism, I maintain by contrast that Mill’s views on women, divorce, and so on were fully formed in advance of their lasting relationship.
Several sources support my reading. First, we have Mill’s own testimony in his Autobiography:
It might be supposed, for instance, that my strong convictions on the complete equality in all legal, political, social and domestic relations, which ought to exist between men and women, may have been adopted or learnt from her. This was so far from being the fact, that those convictions were among the earliest results of the applications of my mind to political subjects, and the strength which I held them was, as I believe, more than anything else, the originating cause of the interest she felt in me (Mill 1981, p. 253 note).
Of course, one might counter that Mill misremembered or downplayed Taylor-Mill’s influence in this passage. The essay mentioned at the outset, however, provides additional and incontrovertible evidence that Mill came down in favor of equality as early as 1831-32. The original of the essay in question is situated in the Mill-Taylor Collection of the British Library of Political and Economic Science at the London School of Economics. There, as noted by F. A. Hayek (p. 58), it is catalogued as a “Paper on woman’s position in society.” It is reproduced in full in Hayek (2015), pp. 58-72.
Mill begins the essay by stating that he was asked by Taylor to write it. He continues to make the statements mentioned by Becchio, “a woman [wa]s at all dependent for her social position upon the fact of her being or not being married” (Hayek 2015, p. 61), a “single woman is felt both by herself and others as a kind of excrescence on the surface of society” (p. 62), and “her life is considered a failure” (p. 65). Mill also referred to women as “merely slaves” and their husbands as “masters” (p. 69) and he attributed the problems faced by women to the “indissolutability of marriage (p. 60).” The problem, he maintained, was deeper than that of marriage arrangements:
[T]he truth is, that this question of marriage cannot properly be considered by itself alone. The question is not what marriage ought to be, but a far wider question, what woman ought to be. Settle that first, and the other will settle itself. Determine whether marriage is to be a relation between two equal beings, or between a superior and an inferior, between a protector and a dependent; and all other doubts will easily be resulted. But in this question there is surely no difficulty. There is no natural inequality between the sexes (p. 62).
The remedy in Mill’s view, unsurprisingly, was education: “The first and indispensable step, therefore, towards the enfranchisement of woman, is that she be so educated, as not to be dependent either on her father or her husband for subsistence” (Hayek 2015, p. 63).
Thus, much of what Mill wrote to Taylor in about 1832 is fully in line with Taylor’s own essay of about the same time, published in Jacobs (1998) and discussed by Becchio. As Becchio notes, Taylor-Mill also favored education as one means to remedying the situation in which women were held essentially beholden to men. Taylor insisted that the education of mothers was particularly important “when we consider that in their education is included that of their sons and daughters and therefore of the whole community…”.[4] Both essays, moreover, are essentially in line with the 1869 essay, The Subjection of Women, although, as Becchio writes, The Subjection of Women reveals some differences between Mill and his wife.
As further evidence of my claim that theirs was a partnership in which they shared ideas and co-wrote passages, one might consider the similarities between Taylor’s 1832 essay, “Sources of Conformity,” also republished in Hayek (2015).[5] Hayek notes the wording in Taylor’s “Sources of Conformity” is strikingly like Mill’s chapter 3 of On Liberty. Beginning in the 1840s, they co-authored a series of newspaper articles on violence and domestic abuse.[6] Finally, the correspondence between Mill and Taylor-Mill related to Mill’s Principles of Political Economy is filled with detailed discussion of passages that the couple worked on together, as equals, in search of wording that represented consensus. In the correspondence, we find Taylor-Mill and Mill struggling to obtain the wording that would be acceptable to both regarding the potential viability of proposed socialist experiments. David Levy examines Taylor-Mill’s contributions to Mill’s Principles in his contribution to this series.
None of this is to suggest that Taylor-Mill’s ideas were unoriginal. Quite the contrary. Writing at a time when institutional arrangements ensured that women were dependent on men for their very livelihood, she was a strong intellectual partner to Mill. Both with him and in her own published works, she made important contributions to the discussion of institutional reforms required to enable women to succeed and thrive. Her ideas were, in a reversal of the statement quoted above from Mill’s Autobiography, “the originating cause of the interest” he felt in her, and deeply important to the evolution of his thought. More generally, hers was a clarion voice for egalitarian political and economic thought.
[1] Packe (1954) writes of “Harriet’s astounding, almost hypnotic control of Mill’s mind was not confined to reversing the direction of his economic theory. She extended it to other branches of his thought” including Mill’s views on women’s participation in the labor market (Packe, p. 315).
[2] Robbins (1998) described “the anti-Mill myth, which persisted in my young days, and which was not only held by Edwin Cannon, but all sorts of other people in my sphere of work, used to swell upon the fact that Mill was not original” (Robbins, p. 225). For more detail, see Sandra J. Peart (2015), p. xxiv.
[3] The most complete account of Mill and Taylor’s meeting and early acquaintance is given by Hayek (2015, pp. 36-72). Peart (2015) provides biographical details on Mill’s circle of friends.
[4] “The Education of Mothers”, circa 1832, published in Taylor-Mill’s Complete Works, edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs (1998), pp. 7-8.
[5] The essay is published in Taylor-Mill’s Complete Works, 137-42 and in Hayek (2015), pp. 264-69.
[6] These are republished in Taylor-Mill’s Complete Works, edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs, pp. 77-131.