Liberty Matters

The “Conversation”: A Rejoinder to McCabe, Levy, and Peart

Thanks so much to Helen McCabe, Sandra Peart, and David Levy for their insightful comments on my lead essay concerning Harriet Taylor Mill’s ideas and writings on marriage and divorce. Their contributions have illuminated many additional aspects of Taylor Mill’s scholarly work and the whole discussion sheds light on Taylor Mill's pivotal role within the network of early feminists who were also classical liberal scholars.
Before delving into my specific rejoinder, I would like to address a philological issue that arose in a side discussion, aptly noted by Levy who observed that in my lead essay, I stated that in 1832, Taylor Mill co-authored a pamphlet specifically on marriage and divorce with her husband John Stuart Mill (Taylor Mill and Mill, 1832).[1] As is well-known, it was Friedrich Hayek who published writings of Mill and Taylor Mill, along with their correspondence, and compiled them into the volume John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage (1951). Likely influenced by the opening lines of the essay, which read “She to whom my life is devoted has wished for written exposition of my opinions on the subject...”, Hayek attributed that essay solely to Mill.
That pamphlet was later reprinted in the volume Essays on Sex Equality (1970), edited by Alice S. Rossi, who attributed the writing to both Taylor Mill and Mill. Finally, it was included in the XXI volume of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (1981),[2] who, like Hayek, attributed the essay solely to Mill.
This issue has been the subject of intense discussions among historians of political thought, feminist philosophers, and scholars of Mill’s work, raising crucial historical and methodological questions. Firstly, Hayek’s role as an editor has been viewed as problematic by some, as he occasionally made alterations to the texts. For example, in Taylor Mill’s essay On Marriage (1832-1833, in Hayek 1951, 75-78), he replaced the word ‘sex’ with ‘love’.[3] Secondly, and more importantly, during the Mills’ time, social pressure and gender stereotypes often discouraged women from taking an active role as writers in the public intellectual sphere. As a result, many female writers, with some notable exceptions, either used pseudonyms or initials or, in some cases, expressed their ideas under their husband’s name (Becchio 2020). Harriet’s marital status with Taylor and her relationship with Mill being out of wedlock may have prevented them from co-signing the pamphlet. As Peart pointed out, friends and family from both sides tended to blame the newly formed couple, pressuring them to choose a life of isolation, which in turn strengthened their mutual commitment to promoting individual freedom regardless of gender.
In spite of their almost symbiotic intellectual connection, I fully concur with Peart’s observation regarding the originality of both Taylor Mill and Mill and the acknowledgment that Mill never diminished Taylor Mill’s intellectual contributions. Similarly, Taylor Mill did not compel Mill toward more radical political positions. Instead, they both emphasized the fundamental role of education in making individual liberty non-negotiable within a just society.
Related to the notion of freedom, I am grateful to McCabe for highlighting the significance of Taylor Mill’s contribution beyond the realm of gender equality, recognizing her as a defender of individuality and liberty against the ‘tyranny of public dominion’, a pivotal argument developed by Mill in his work On Liberty. Furthermore, Taylor Mill’s analysis and critique of the contemporary state of marriage and divorce during her time extended beyond mere autobiographical reflection. Instead, it encompassed a more elaborate defense of the dignity of individuals, often compelled to confront domestic violence, as both McCabe and Peart have emphasized.
Taylor Mill was not the sole female writer of her time to point out and condemn domestic abuses. For instance, in Olympe de Gouges’ comedy The Necessity of Divorce (1790 in Bergès 2022), which was never staged, she emphasized the importance of making divorce easily accessible, particularly to address the issue of violent relationships between married couples. Similarly, in her pamphlet A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. With Anecdotes (1799), Anne Frances Randall questioned why women were condemned to endure the burdens of domestic life, including abuse and violence, while being entirely dependent on their husbands, whereas men were free to oppress their wives without facing any form of social stigma.
Finally, Levy aptly emphasized Taylor Mill’s contribution to Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, particularly in advocating for competition against any form of market discrimination. He also highlighted that their shared idea that traditional marriage, coupled with the practical impossibility of divorce, could be likened to a form of monopoly, as previously articulated by William Godwin. On a related note, we can add that the economic inefficiency of traditional marriage, rooted in gendered stereotypes perpetuated through education, was previously discussed by Mary Wollstonecraft, who viewed it as a waste of resources hindering societal prosperity. Similarly, Harriet Martineau regarded traditional marriage as an imperfect contract between a stronger and weaker partner. As she wrote:
[A] married woman is treated as the inferior party in a compact in which both parties have an equal interest. Any agreement thus formed is imperfect and liable to disturbance, and the danger is great in proportion to the degradation of the supposed weaker party (Martineau 1838, 61).
Harriet Taylor Mill belonged to the generation of early feminist scholars of the time who, in the name of classical liberal principles, fought against the relegation of women to the private/domestic sphere. These scholars primarily analyzed the institution of marriage (and divorce), which traditionally reinforced, on one side, the subjection of women into matrimony as the sole means of gaining social status, and on the other side, the power of men in the public sphere, where they monopolized all forms of wealth, commonly denoted as patrimony. It is noteworthy that the words ‘matrimony’ and ‘patrimony’ are rooted in the Latin ‘mater’ (mother) and ‘pater’ (father), serving as linguistic symbols of a specific gendered power relation between men and women (Becchio 2024).
Becchio, G. (2020). A History of Feminist and Gender Economics. New York, London: Routledge.
Becchio, G. (2024). The Doctrine of the Separate Spheres in Political Economy and Economics. Palgrave Macmillan – Springer.
Bergès, S. (2022). Olympe de Gouges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hayek, F. (1951). John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage. London: Routledge.
Martineau, H. (1838 [1985]). On Marriage (G. Yates, Ed., pp. 58–65). New Brunswick, NJ: New Rutgers University Press.
Mill, J.S. (1981). The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays, John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (eds.). London: Routledge.
Mill, J.S. and Taylor Mill, H. (1970) Essays on Sex Equality. Alice Rossi (ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Randall, A. F. (1799). A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. With Anecdotes. London: T.N. Longman, and O. Rees.
Taylor Mill, H. (1998). The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.