Mill, Harriet Taylor

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MILL, HARRIET TAYLOR (1807–1858), English writer.

Harriet Hardy was born in 1807 on Walworth Road, London, married John Taylor in 1826, and bore three children, Herbert, Algernon, and Helen. After being widowed, Harriet married John Stuart Mill in 1851. Their marriage ended with her death in 1858 in Avignon, France. (Harriet Taylor Mill will hereafter be Harriet and John Stuart Mill will hereafter be John.)

Unfortunately, Harriet is now known more for her biography than her writing, but controversy surrounds both her life and her work. First, her love affair with John for more than twenty years while married to Taylor resulted in the kind of intellectual gossip that still intrigues. The academy continues to argue about whether they were as chaste as John presents their relationship in his Autobiography (1873) and if they were, why? Some speculate that they were merely cautious or considerate of Harriet's husband. Others suggest that John may have wanted to spare his reputation as a scholar. Yet others blame Harriet for her "masochism" or frigidity. One argued for the possibility that she had syphilis, which she contracted from her husband and did not want to spread to John. Whatever the cause, the consequence is that Harriet and John devoted nearly twenty years before marriage and seven years in marriage spending much of their time together both in England and traveling in Europe. They enjoyed a passionate commitment to each other throughout these years as witnessed by the erotic letters they exchanged when separated.

The second question hovering around Harriet concerns her collaboration in the writing that bears John's name as author. John expressed his high opinion of Harriet and acknowledged her coauthoring some of their ideas and texts in private letters to her, in dedications, in letters, and in person to others, in his Autobiography, and even on her tombstone. From his death until the late twentieth century many scholars have simply disagreed with John. Many justifications for denying cooperation when it exists spring to mind, but why someone would declare work is joint when it is not is less obvious. Historians of philosophy have generally characterized John as "besotted" or "bewitched" by Harriet. They picture John as a man either so desperately in love or so in need of a strong personality to replace his father that he would do anything for Harriet, including misrepresenting her contribution to his work. Another approach to Harriet's role is to blame her for the ideas with which a particular historian disagrees. For example, Gertrude Himmelfarb accuses Harriet of pulling John toward socialism in his Principles of Political Economy (1848). Others accuse Harriet of seducing him to support atheism. So, either Harriet had no effect of John's ideas, or she was the source of the wrong ideas he had (the correct ones were his alone).

Beginning in the 1970s, feminists argued that this analysis of Harriet and John's alleged coauthorship is sexist. Harriet and John did work together, but the ideas they produced together were not "bad" ideas. A careful look at the letters, diaries, and manuscripts demonstrates their ongoing communication regarding specific texts, revisions, and ideas to be included in texts. An understanding of the activities that result in coauthorship helps to clarify how they might have worked. Evidence that both Harriet and John collaborated with other authors in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways adds support. Finally, their joint work exemplifies the two issues they both found to be central to their age: feminism and socialism.

If we grant their collaborative working style, it is particularly difficult to discuss Harriet's contribution to the history of ideas. She wrote a number of articles and poems for the Monthly Repository, an article for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and a number of private essays on marriage, women's education, women's rights, ethics, religion, and the arts. She coauthored with John a series of newspaper articles on domestic cruelty. And, if John is to be trusted, was the coauthor of On Liberty (1859) and the author of "On the Probable Futurity of the Working Classes" in his Principles of Political Economy. Her best-known work is "The Enfranchisement of Women," published in 1851 (although there is also a question of what role John played in this essay). From Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) to American and Australian feminists, the Enfranchisement essay has roused passionate admiration and condemnation. It is more radical and more consistent than John's longer Subjection of Women, published in 1869. Readers of this essay and Harriet's others continue to admire her courage in uncovering domestic violence, demanding the right to divorce an abusive husband, insisting that women have the right to be educated and have a profession even while married, and pointing to the inequities of household chores as the base for larger public inequities.

See alsoFeminism; Mill, John Stuart.


Primary Sources

Mill, Harriet Taylor. The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill. Edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs and Paula Harms Payne. Bloomington, Ind., 1998.

Secondary Sources

Hayek, Friedrich August. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage. New York, 1951.

Jacobs, Jo Ellen. The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill. Bloomington, Ind., 2002.

Jo Ellen Jacobs