Harriet Taylor Mill

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John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill


Harriet Taylor Mill (October 1807 - 3 November 1858)

Harriet Taylor Mill wrote primarily in the area of social-political philosophy and had a particular interest in women's rights, but - her essay, “The Enfranchisement of Women” notwithstanding - the body of work that she penned is probably not substantial enough for her to be judged a major figure in the history of philosophy on the basis of it alone, according to Dale E. Miller of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

She met and married John Stuart Mill in 1851. He was her second husband, for with pharmaceutical wholesaler John Taylor she had given birth to their daughter Helen and their other two children. In 1849 Taylor died of cancer.

As described in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, she and Mill met in 1830,

a meeting arranged by the leader of Harriet's Unitarian congregation, the Reverend W. J. Fox, to whom she had complained about John Taylor's lack of interest in philosophy and the arts. There is no way to know if Fox anticipated that passionate feelings would spring up between the two, although Josephine Kamm speculates that Fox, who was already married, might have sought to eliminate Mill as a competitor for the attentions of his soon-to-be mistress Eliza Flower. Whether this was Fox's intention or not, the two young people quickly fall in love.
Their conduct during the long period in which Harriet was Mrs. John Taylor was quite scandalous by Victorian standards. Early on Mill would frequently, indeed almost nightly, visit the Taylors' home; John Taylor would usually facilitate these visits by going to his club. On the whole, John Taylor was remarkably tolerant of the fact that his wife, to whom he was utterly devoted, was on the most intimate of terms with another man, but his tolerance did have some limits. In 1833, at his insistence, Harriet established a separate residence, and she lived apart from John Taylor for most of the rest of his life, seeing Mill at her convenience. In 1848 Taylor refused to allow Mill to dedicate The Principles of Political Economy to his wife, although the dedication was inserted into copies of the book that they distributed to friends. In 1849 John Taylor began to suffer from the cancer that would eventually take his life, and he asked Harriet to return home to care for him. She declined, on the grounds that her first duty was to Mill, who at the time was suffering himself from an injured hip and temporary near-blindness. While Mill eventually mended, John Taylor's condition only worsened, and at the end Harriet did dedicate herself to caring for her husband. In fact, she rebuked Mill very sharply for having failed, while paying her a short visit, to ask about John Taylor's condition. She upbraided him even more severely for having suggested that she might write to him during an “odd time” when she might find a “change of subject of thought a relief”: “Good God, sh[oul]d you think it a relief to think of something else some acquaintance or what not while I was dying?”

As to whether the two had sexual intercourse before their marriage (both denied it) or even afterwards is conjectural. Some have suggested Mill was impotent and Harriet might have contracted syphilis from her first husband.

However, John Stuart Mill not only lavished praise on her intellect, emotional depth, and moral character, but also credited her with exerting a tremendous influence on his thought, with making major intellectual contributions to many of the works published in his name, and even with having been intimately involved in the composition of some of his most important works.

Today scholars debate how much of a difference she really made to ‘his’ corpus, whether whatever effect she had on it was an improving one, and whether she even came close to meriting the lavish praise that he heaped on her in passages such as the one quoted below from the dedication to On Liberty:

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 unrivalled wisdom. - John Stuart Mill

Taylor, along with Eliza Flower, Sarah Flower, and Harriet Martineau, was one of the 19th-century freethought activists known as “Ladies of South Place,” a reference to the South Place Ethical Society. {Freethought History #9, 1994}