Harriet Taylor Mill


‘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 … When, however, we ask why the existence of one-half the species should be merely ancilliary to that of the other … the only reason which can be given is, that men like it’.

Harriet Taylor Mill, Enfranchisment of Women (1851).

Harriet Taylor Mill was more cautious than many of her contemporaries in likening women’s position – in marriage and more widely in society – to a form of slavery. Her careful analysis of the way in which existing laws and previaling social attitudes left women open to exploitation, and how they undermined the ability to give free and informed consent, has much to contribute to modern considerations of forced marriage and modern slavery.

Born in London in 1807, Taylor married at the age of eighteen and had three children before she was twenty-four. She was interested in radical causes and free thinking from an early age, and in 1830 met the radical campaigner, reformer and philosopher John Stuart Mill. They fell deeply in love – and also fell foul of contemporary laws regarding divorce (which was only possible through private act of Parliament) and prevailing attitudes towards, particularly towards women, when it came to fidelity and marriage. Taylor advocated a form of ‘no fault’ divorce which would be radical even by modern standards, the widening of opportunities within and – more importantly – outside of marriage for women, and making men and women properly equal.

‘[G]irls enter into what is called a contract perfectly ignorant of the conditions of it, and that they should be so is considered absolutely essential to their fitness for it!’

Harriet Taylor Mill, On Marriage (1833).

Taylor highlighted that very few women really understood what marriage entailed when they got married, undermining the idea that they had really consented. In particular, women were not considered ‘marriageble’ material by her contemporaries unless they were not only virgins, but ignorant about sexual relationships, and also being unlikely to have any good knowledge of the character of the man they were going to marry, having little chance even to meet men without the strict chaperonage of their families. These concerns retain contemporary bite, given that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to ‘free and full consent’ from both parties to a marriage, and lack of information is seen as undermining consent.

Shortly after exchanging essays on the subject of marriage in 1833, Taylor seperated from her husband and went to live in Paris where she was joined by Mill in an ‘experiment’ to see whether they really were, as they believed, ‘perfectly suited to pass our lives together’. Though they were better-placed than many to understand both what marriage entailed, and each other’s characters, Mill recalls merely a fortnight together had:

‘brought years of experience to us … We never could have been so near, so perfectly intimate, in any former circumstances – we never could have been together as we have been in innumerable smaller relations and concerns – we never should have spoken of all things, and in all frames of mind, with so much freedom and unreserve. I am astonished when I think how much has been restrained, how much untold, unshewn, uncommunicated till now’.

John Stuart Mill, Letter to William Johnson Fox, November 1833.

Taylor and Mill may not have gone so far as to have a relationship which we would now call ‘living together’, but even so they evidently found it a liberating and educational experience far beyond what most women (and a fair few men) could possible enjoy with the person they would marry for life. Taylor criticises the sexual double standards which meant many men were more aware of what marriage entailed than women could ever be, and also highlights the way in which men have more avenues outside of the home to seek companionship if they find they have been mistaken in the character of the woman they marry. Her ideal of marriage is one of ‘perfect companionship’ among ‘perfect equals’ – this requires better knowledge of people before we marry, and the ability to request a divorce as soon as our ‘inclination’ and ‘affection’ changes.

‘Divorce more needed by women than men by all the difference between having none & having all the power … even if it could be granted that no good man … would take advantage of his power to tyrannise … to depend on the forbearance of another is not a healthy or a just state of human relations’.

Harriet Taylor Mill, Rights of Women to the Elective Franchise And General Consideration of the Rights of Women, By An Englishwoman.

During a twenty-year friendship while her husband was alive, Taylor and Mill co-authored a number of texts on marriage, women’s rights, education reform, economics, domestic violence and individual freedoms, culminating in the famous philosophical essay, On Liberty. Taylor published little in her own name in her lifetime (in part because of prevailing attitudes towards women, in part because her personal circumstances, including eventual seperation from her husband, made her wary of publicity and thus scandal), though it was an open secret that she penned Enfranchisement of Women in 1851.

In this work, Taylor argued that, historically, women had literally been slaves (as, of course, had many men), but that over time women’s position had changed to a different kind of subordination. Now, they lived under a domestic tyranny which was opressive, but not the same at as slavery. Women were made to swear a vow of obedience to their husbands when they married, and were not only expected to keep it, but forced to do so, even against their will. What was more, men constructed women’s education such that they would be as docile and amenable as possible, as such a married life was seen as much more pleasant than trying to live with an equal.

‘The power of husbands has reached the stage whcih the power of kinds had arrived at, when opinion did not yet question the rightfulness of arbitrary power, but in theory, and to a certain extent in practice, condemend the selfish use of it.’

Harriet Taylor Mill, Enfranchisement of Women (1851).

Taylor criticised men for being unwilling to share what power they had with women – particularly men who campaigned for so-called ‘universal suffrage’ but did not include women. She was also very critical of men who used violence to get their own way, and those other men – because it was always and only men – on juries and court benches who let them get away with it. Society is constructed in such a way that women only have the option, for economic and personal security, to marry – women were barred from most occupations (including, but not limited to, the professions), and women’s whole education was aimed at making them marriagable, a key part of which was making them think marriage (and motherhood) was the sole, and whole, end of their existence. But once married, women could not own property (not even their own wages, were they to still work as many working-class women did); had no rights to their own children; had no legal right to live seperately to their husband; had no legal right to refuse sexual relations with their husband; and were socially constrained to barely leave the house or have any interests outside those encouraged by their husband. Women were both oppressed at home, and rendered unable to exist anywhere else.

‘Women are educated for one single object, to gain their living by marrying – (some poor souls get it without the churchgoing in the same way – they do not seem to me a bit worse than their honoured sisters) – To be married is the object of their existence and that object being gained they do really cease to exist as to anything worth calling life’.

Harriet Taylor Mill, On Marriage (1833).

Taylor Mill offers clear-eyed and unsentimental criticisms of married life, some presumably drawn from her own experience of feeling fettered by a legal and social inability to share her life fully with the man she loved. She points out the variety of ways in which women are rendered unfree in marriage, many of which align with ways in which political philosophers have used the concept of slavery (a wider idea than chattel slavery as a legal and historical phenomenon). For instance, Taylor shows how women are directed not by their own wills, but by the arbitrary will of another (a classical republican conception of unfreedom often called by such thinkers, slavery). She shows how women are made vulnerable to violence and exploitation by their lack of rights within marriage, and how men often think of women as their property – a defining characteristic of slavery. However, she is well aware that this de facto slavery is not the same as chattel slavery, and also that not every married woman is, in actual fact, living a life meaningfully akin to slavery. Her point is that every woman is at risk of such a life, and could do nothing to prevent it, were her husband is so minded.

Taylor took the view that history and our knowledge of ourselves and others shows us that people will exploit their opportunities to oppress others, particularly when their emotions are involved. This informs her criticisms of men, and her identification of the vulnerability of married women. But she also acknowledges women are not immune from tyrannical leanings, and that women will often exert power over, exploit and even abuse those weaker than themselves. Her criticism of domestic violence did not solely concentrate on men, but also on women who used their relative power and impunity to abuse, even kill, children and young people, particularly those employed as domestic servants.

These insights can also inform contemporary understandings of the relationship between forced marriage and modern slavery, particularly the relatively little studied relationship between forced marriage and domestic servitude, and the role of female relatives in forcing people to marry, and in exploiting them once married.

‘The baser part of the populace think that when a legal power is given to them over a living creature – when a person, like a thing, is suffered to be spoken of as their own – as their wife, their child, or their dog – they are allowed to do what they please with it’.

Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill, Wife Murder (1851).

Taylor suffered from ill health for long periods of her life, and died in 1858 in Avignon. She had travelled there with Mill in search of the health benefits of a better climate. Mill lived much of the rest of his life in a house near the cemetary, and was buried in the same grave. Her daughter, Helen Taylor, was also a campaigner for women’s rights, particularly access to education and the right to vote.

To find out more about Harriet Taylor Mill, take a look at these resources:

Harriet Taylor, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Helen McCabe.

Harriet Taylor Mill, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Dale Miller.

Harriet Taylor, in The Philosopher Queens (edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting – Unbound, 2020), by Helen McCabe.

The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998).

The Enfranchisement of Women and other essays in the Appendices of The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill Volume XXI (Toronto, Toronto University Press, 1984).

John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage, by Friedrich Hayek (in Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, Volume XVI, Chicago University Press, 2015).

‘”The Lot of Gifted Ladies is Hard”: A Study of Harriet Taylor Mill Criticism’, Hypatia 9/3, 1994, 132-162, by Jo-Ellen Jacobs.

‘The “Beloved and Deplored” Memory of Harriet Taylor Mill: Rethinking Hender and Intellectual Labour in the Canon’, Hypatia, 33, 2018, 626-42, by Menaka Philips.

‘”Political … Civil and Domestic Slavery”: Harriet Taylor Mill and Anna Doyle Wheeler on Marriage, Servitude and Socialism’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, published online 4 May 2020, by Helen McCabe.

%d bloggers like this: