Harriet Taylor Mill’s extraordinary 1851 essay “The Enfranchisement of Women” is a landmark in western political and philosophical thought. For more than a century, however, discussion of Harriet Taylor Mill centered on the nature of her influence, or lack of influence, on her husband, John Stuart Mill. Little attention was paid to her own thought or to her brilliant collaboration with John.
Indeed, as Jo Ellen Jacobs charts it in her study of Harriet Taylor Mill criticism, there was a backlash against Harriet that lasted a century. Despite periodic outbreaks of sympathy that coincided with “periods of growth for women’s rights” in the 1910s–20s, 1940s, and 1970s, it’s only been in the last couple of generations that Harriet has finally been given her due.
“Even with the individual and general sexism in the history of philosophy, Harriet Taylor Mill would probably not have drawn quite so much ire if she had just ‘behaved herself,’” Jacobs writes. “But Harriet refused to play the role of the traditional Victorian subservient ‘lady.’ She asked questions that irritated and provoked nearly everyone but John Stuart Mill.”
It wasn’t just her philosophical provocations and intellectual curiosity that upset people. When Harriet Taylor (1807–1858) met John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in 1831, she was already married, to John Taylor. Within a couple of years, she was living, essentially, in a ménage à trois with the two of them. John Taylor died in 1849; Harriet and John Stuart Mill married two years later. This scandalous behavior colored views of her for decades, giving teeth to the claims that she was either seductive or sexless, a manipulator controlling the innocent Mr. Mill.
As Jacobs notes, whole biographies of John Stuart Mill have been written without any mention of Harriet Taylor Mill as a thinking person. Some philosophers examining John’s work ignored Harriet; others acknowledged her but claimed she had no influence on him; still others, conversely, said that she had far too much influence. All of this calumny came in the face of John’s own testament to Harriet’s influence on him in his writings. But to the anti-Harriet crew, John was her victim, so his own words (in this matter) were discounted.
“All biographers before 1951”—a century after the Mills married—believed “secondhand information about Harriet,” writes Jacobs. But that year, F. A. Hayek published a book about the couple based on new access to Harriet’s letters, unpublished essays, and poems. Hayek wrote that “apart from Mill none of those who expressed views about Harriet Taylor’s qualities have had had much ground on which to base them.”
Jacobs’s plea is to listen to Harriet Taylor Mill in her own right, and to explore the fruitful collaboration with John Stuart Mill where appropriate. How hard is that? The two Mills wrote a whole book “defending the belief that knowledge is more likely to be gained in the interchange, debate, and struggle of those collaborating in learning.”
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