Many Americans have heard of John Stuart Mill, known for his contributions to the social, economic, and political issues of the ninetieth century. But how many know the name of his wife, Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill? Born on this day in history, she has been called “one of the most overlooked philosophers of her time.”
Harriet Hardy was born in Walworth, South London, the daughter of a surgeon. She was educated at home, and at age 21, she married John Taylor, a prosperous merchant, with whom she had three children. The Taylors became active in the Unitarian Church and in 1830 a Unitarian minister introduced Harriet to the philosopher John Stuart Mill. They began an affair lasting for more than 20 years before they eventually married.
In 1833 Harriet moved to a separate residence from her husband, keeping her daughter with her while John Taylor raised the two older boys. John Taylor agreed to Harriet’s friendship with Mill in exchange for the “external formality” of her residing “as his wife in his house.”
Harriet wrote articles advocating for women’s rights, lamenting the lack of formal education for women and the restrictions on women’s social experience. Her 1851 essay on women’s suffrage, “Enfranchisement of Women” (credited to “John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill”), makes a case not merely for giving women the ballot but for “equality in all rights, political, civil, and social, with the male citizens of the community.” (Like many others decrying the actual lack of equality in the United States, the book cites the American Declaration of Independence.)
Many of Harriet’s arguments in this essay would be expanded in John’s The Subjection of Women, published eleven years after her death. But while John’s book suggests that the best arrangement for most married couples would be for the wife to concentrate on the care of the house and the children, Harriet’s book instead argued for the desirability of married women’s working outside the home:
Even if every woman, as matters now stand, had a claim on some man for support, how infinitely preferable is it that part of the income should be of the woman’s earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it, rather than that she should be compelled to stand aside in order that men may be the sole earners, and sole dispensers of what is earned! Even under the present laws respecting the property of women, a woman who contributes materially to the support of the family cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical manner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is a dependent on the man for subsistence.”
Harriet’s first husband died in 1849, and in 1851 she and Mill were finally married. Harriet suffered from various health problems however, and contracted tuberculosis. She died of respiratory failure on November 3, 1858. John Stuart Mills’ most famous work On Liberty, which they had worked on together, was published in 1859 and was dedicated to Harriet.
Except for a few articles in the Unitarian journal “Monthly Repository,” Taylor published little of her own work during her lifetime. In his autobiography, Mill claimed Harriet was the joint author of most of the books and articles published under his name. He wrote:
Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivaled wisdom.”
He added, “when two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common it is of little consequence, in respect of the question of originality, which of them holds the pen.”
In particular, regarding his most famous book, On Liberty, he recalled in his autobiography:
The ‘Liberty’ was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name, for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of any faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it…. With regard to the thoughts, it is difficult to identify any particular part or element as being more hers than all the rest. The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers…. The ‘Liberty’ is likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written (with the possible exception of the ‘Logic’), because the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth…. “
Today, history remembers only John Stuart Mill, and Taylor Mill’s contributions have faded from memory, if indeed, they were ever acknowledged at all.