John Stuart Mill is one of the most influential liberal philosophers who ever lived. But Mill did not write alone, through his letters and autobiography he extensively praised his wife Harriet Taylor Mill who he considered an equal partner and co‐author. This episode covers Harriet’s often forgotten importance in the history of liberalism.
John Stuart Mill is easily one of the most influential philosophers in the 19th‐century, if not history. A person who has heard of the word liberalism has probably also heard at least a modicum of information about Mill, who spent his whole life attempting to implement liberal‐minded reforms in England. Today, most encounter Mill by reading his seminal work, On Liberty, which is considered by many to be one of the most excellent defenses of not only free speech but of liberalism writ large. Mill’s father, James Mill, was an ardent reformer and companion of the famous father of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham. Mil’s father had decided that Mill would be the foremost utilitarian who would change the face of the world. To this end, Mill was given an education unparalleled in its depth, breadth and early onset.
He learned Greek at the age of three, Latin at eight, and read Plato’s dialogues in the original language before his tenth birthday. He was also tutored by some of the brightest minds of his day, including Jeremy Bentham, economist David Ricardo, and classicist, George Grote. John had to study a wide array of topics, but he was also charged with teaching his younger siblings what he had learned. So as not to dull his mind, Mill’s only contact with other children was to his siblings; ensuring that he only conversed with the best and most educated. The result of his father’s demanding regimen of education and mindful pursuit created an extremely competent thinker. Later in his autobiography, Mill would state that “If I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training bestowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quarter of a century over my contemporaries.”
While this education made Mill the man he was, it also broke his spirit. The enormous pressure of his father’s expectations eventually resulted in a nervous breakdown in his twenties, during which he contemplated suicide. Thankfully, Mill came out the other end of his depression by diving into poetr, learning of a world beyond utilitarian reasoning and rational logic, to higher ideals of the good life. Mill was well aware that his training had made him a reasoning machine, but he lacked a certain degree of passion and an intuitive grasp on more ephemeral yet necessary ideas. He longed for a person to compliment his thinking; he found the person who completed him, and her name was Harriet Taylor.
Today’s episode is not about Mill. He has been thoroughly studied by scholars and popularized enough that if I did an episode on him, it would simply be lost in the ocean of other podcasts discussing Mill’s ridiculously rigorous mind.
Instead, I want to focus on someone who is indeed very Mill adjacent but often avoided. I am talking about Harriet Taylor Mill, the longtime partner and eventual wife of Mill, whom he credited as a co‐author of equal merit. In a letter from 1854, Mill would write to Harriet, “I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book, the book which is to come, to have our two names on the title page. It ought to be so with everything I publish, for the better half of it all is yours”. But like many talented and outspoken women throughout history, Harriet was subject to constant attacks from her contemporaries in Victorian England, and worse yet, subsequently, her reputation has often been savaged by scholars who consider her little more than a bad influence on Mill’s intellectual purity.
My mother has always said that behind every great man is a great woman, and Harriet is a testament to this cliched, yet surprisingly truthful adage. Mill never held back when praising Harriet’s intellectual abilities and her crucial contribution to his most critical career‐defining writings. While it is difficult to precisely pin‐point every way in which Harriet challenged and influenced Mill’s writings, I want to spend this episode trying my best to vindicate a woman whom I believe to have been severely short‐changed by history. Without Harriet, the Mill we know today would have been arguably an entirely different kind of philosopher.
So let us get to the star of the show, Harriet Taylor Mill.
The world of 19th‐century England in which Harriet lived was entirely different for women, and they were not expected to support themselves. Instead, they were to rely wholly on their husbands to whom they would owe their obedience. The lot of women was to be mothers and wives. They could not be doctors, lawyers, philosophers, entrepreneurs, or politicians. These fields were reserved for men who were deemed superior in both rationality and physicality to their female counterparts. A select few resilient and strong‐willed women, despite the stigma they attracted broke the mold, such as Mary Wollstonecraft. But by and large, women were wives and mothers, nothing else.
Born in 1807 Harriet’s family life was far from ideal. Her father was often cold and cruel to his family while her mother had a complicated relationship with her children. Thankfully she gained an informal education at home, which although it by no means prepared her in the same manner as her counterpart Mill, it did foster an early interest in literature and poetry. In 1823, at the age of eighteen, Harriet was wedded to John Taylor, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, who was almost thirty. The couple settled in the Finsbury area of London, close to Taylor’s business. Considering the general difficulties and unpleasantness of her family home, Harriet was quite happy to be with Taylor instead of being in the family home immersed in constant family feuds.
Taylor was a man of liberal opinions. He was involved with a group of radical unitarians led by minister William Fox who had been an outspoken supporter of feminism, including educated women in his circle. Unlike many harsh Victorian husbands, Taylor treated his wife with a degree of generosity, care, and attention that would have been rare. He even encouraged Harriet’s literary interests. But despite his best efforts, their relationship was fundamentally unequal. Back then, husbands held ultimate power over their wives. Even if they never used their power maliciously, it hung over women’s heads like a crushing weight that could be dropped without warning.
Harriet and Taylor had three children together, Herbert, Algernon, and Helen. While Harriet revelled in motherhood and diligently raised her children, there was part of her that was longing for something beyond the duties of motherhood. Her position in life had been decided solely based on her sex. She would later write that women “are educated for one single object, to gain their living by marrying… and that object being gained they do really cease to exist as to anything worth calling life or any useful purpose.” Harriet loved her children and husband, but she wanted more from life, and thus she began to write on topics such as marriage, women’s rights, and divorce, from a feminist perspective.
Thankfully an opportune meeting came in 1830 when Harriet was about 25 years of age, when the minister, as mentioned earlier, William Fox, arranged for the pair to meet. The two hit it off instantly. Descriptions of Harriet give us the impression that she was a gorgeous woman being described as having dark hair and a pearly complexion. Still, above all else, Mill was attracted to her personality, which was assertive, unflinching, and passionate. Mill recounted that he instantly found her to be “the most admirable person” he “had ever known.” Importantly, Mill treated her as his intellectual equal.
The two became extremely close very quickly. Surprisingly John Taylor allowed Mill to visit nearly daily while he was away at his clubs. Part of why the pair became so close, at least from Mill’s perspective, was that Harriet’s personality complemented his own by making up for his weaknesses. Mill had suffered a crisis of faith in utilitarianism, fearing he had become a reasoning machine that was incapable of expressing higher ideals. Mill admitted he was more comfortable with a pen in his hand than giving an impassioned speech off the cuff, Taylor was the opposite; she was capable of mustering ideas spontaneously. Harriet importantly gave Mill both the language and confidence to express himself in terms of higher pleasures. The influence of Harriet’s higher ideals would eventually culminate in Mill’s 1861 essay Utilitarianism, where he breaks dramatically with Bentham by introducing a distinction between higher and lower pleasures.
Eventually, after a year and a half of intense friendship, an unknown event caused Harriet to break off their friendship. Mill passionately poured his heart out in a love letter written in French, where he refused to accept their eternal adieu. This letter had its intended effect, and the pair rekindled their friendship and became closer than ever. They began writing essays back and forth on marriage, separation, and divorce, a topic they were deeply invested in for obvious reasons. Harriet’s arguments within these exchanges later came to shape Mill’s feminism within his essay On The Subjection of Women.
By 1833, three years after Mill and Harriet had first met, John Taylor had become uncomfortable with Mill’s relationship with his wife and asked Harriet to break off contact with him. Harriet refused, and Taylor agreed to a trial separation. Harriet moved to Paris and was joined by Mill. The two were extremely happy together, but both were nervous about being ostracized by Victorian society. A scandalous relationship would destroy the prospects for Mill’s career as a writer and speaker, which he viewed as the primary vehicle for him doing good in the world. (where are the children in all of this — did Harriet abandon them for Mill, are you being too soft on Harriet by overlooking this?)
On the other hand, Harriet did not want to bring shame and scandal to her husband and children. In her own words, she did not want to be the cause of “durable wretchedness.” Despite loving Mill, she did not want to ruin John Tayor’s life by bringing shame and scandal. Although to a certain extent, both Harriet and Mill had wronged Taylor, I think it is admirable that both Mill and Harriet did not ultimately do as they wish but instead remembered and attended to what they saw as their duty to family and society.
The trio were in an odd dilemma, which resulted in a bizarre solution. The three decided that Harriet would return to London to live with Taylor and would regularly see Mill but she would not be a wife to either man, and though this allowed Harriet and Mill to continue their partnership, they still greatly feared the stigma of their judgemental peers. According to their letters, they used to meet at a rhino cage in London Zoo, because everyone around them would be too distracted by the exotic beast to notice them; in a note, Taylor even referred to the rhino as “our old friend rhino.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Mill and Harriet were fully‐fledged intellectual partners. Harriet edited Mill’s work and gave him constant critiques. She was not a fangirl fawning over the wonderful Mill; she disagreed with Mill and was never afraid to challenge his ideas. The pair even co‐authored multiple texts, including a series of articles for a newspaper on the injustices of domestic violence. The exchanges from their letters unveil a dynamic in which Mill authored most pieces while Harriet provided ideas and criticisms and did a hefty amount of editing. It is hard to tell what is wholly Mill’s and what is wholly Harriet’s. This has led to many later scholars assuming Harriet’s influence was minimal and that, for the most part, Mill’s ideas are wholly a product of his own amazing mind.
Mill himself acknowledged Harriet’s role in no unclear terms. Discussing their collaboration he would later write “When two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common; when all subjects of intellectual or moral interest are discussed between them in daily life…it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes least to the composition may contribute most to the thought; the writings which result are the joint product of both, and it must often be impossible to disentangle their respective parts, and affirm that this belongs to one and that to the other.” In short, Mill did not think of his work as solely a product of his own creation, Harriet was a collaborator and co‐author who often unfairly, according to Mill, did not have her name on published works. For example, in 1848, when Mill published Principles of Political Economy; he believed Harriet’s criticisms and evaluations to be of great value to the final product. Thus he wanted to include a dedicatory passage in the first edition praising Harriet, which was scrapped possibly due to her husband, John Taylor’s, dislike of publicity. But this dedicatory passage was kept for special copies of Principles of Political Economy that were distributed to close friends. Mill would later describe Principles of Political Economy as “a joint production with my wife”, at every turn, Mill acknowledged Harriet, not as a subordinate but as a fully equal partner.
By 1849 John Taylor was suffering from cancer, and he requested that Harriet cared for him as he slowly died. Harriet initially declined, stating it was her duty to attend to Mill, who was suffering from a hip injury and temporary blindness. But as John Taylor’s position worsened, Harriet returned home and dedicated herself to caring for her dying husband, who would eventually pass away later that year. As opportunistic and morbid as this would have sounded at the time, the now widowed Harriet could marry Mill at last. After a two year waiting period, Harriet and Taylor were controversially married after being close companions for twenty years. Their marriage was not popular, with many friends and family openly expressing their disapproval, with Mill becoming estranged from much of his family due to the marriage. Taking into account their circumstances, it is no wonder Mill wrote at such length in On Liberty about his fear of the tyranny of culture and opinion considering he had spent years hiding his relationship with Harriet to avoid the criticism and disapproval of others.
The newlywed Mill’s spent much of their married life at their home in Blackheath Park with Harriet’s children for company. Due to gossip, they increasingly became more reclusive and cut themselves off from society because of the scandal their marriage had generated. They spent their days debating, discussing, and writing, content in their own company after almost twenty years of waiting, their romance had been fulfilled, and they could finally be together. It is rare that the lives of philosophers include romantic love much less revolve around it. Still, the relationship between Harriet and Mill mirrored their feminist commitments to a partnership of equals, neither dominated the other despite contemporaries accusing Mill of being too little of a man to control his headstrong wife. Still, Mill had no inclination to control Harriet. He loved her because she was confident, never pulled her punches when offering critique, and refused to compromise for expediency’s sake, and he did not want the fragile submissive housewife that his contemporaries expected.
While much of Harriet’s work is seemingly inseparable from Mill’s we can see one particular work which is for the most part, a creation wholly by Harriet; her 1851 essay entitled The Enfranchisement of Women which is worth discussing to view Harriet not merely as an extension of Mill but a thinker in her own right.
While Harriet published Enfranchisement anonymously, it was a relatively open secret that she was the author. Harriet’s main point is that the emancipation of women must be facilitated not only by changing laws in the public sphere but changing power relations in the private sphere. The power of men over their wives in Harriet’s opinion was analogous to the power of absolute monarchs over their subjects. She writes that it has “reached the stage which the power of kings had arrived at, when opinion did not yet question the rightfulness of arbitrary power.” This domination of men over women corrupts the character of both parties. By being denied political participation in the public sphere, women are made incapable of perceiving the common good. She also argues that men’s characters are made weak when their companions are enfeebled. Overall, the current status of women “is equally corrupting to both; in the one, it produces the vices of power, in the other, those of artifice.”
To remedy this, Harriet argues women ought to be independent, instead of reliant on their husbands, as was often the case. Political independence through voting rights must also be coupled with economic independence. Women ought to be allowed to work and earn their own wages independently of men. While Mill was cautious about women entering the workforce worrying about depressing wages, Harriet believed that this was fundamental to gender justice. She wrote how “infinitely preferable it is that part of the income should be of the woman’s earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it.” Harriet believed that both men and women were first and foremost individuals and that “Each individual will prove his or her capacities, in the only way in which capacities can be proved – by trial.” In many ways, Harriet’s feminism goes much further than Mill’s and, in some ways, it predicted many of the struggles future feminists would face.
By the 1850s, the Mills had become a quite reclusive family, only venturing out occasionally for purposes of travel. Both Mill and Harriet suffered from tuberculosis and often would travel alone or together to better climates in order to alleviate their symptoms. By 1858 Mill had retired from his long career at the East India Company, and the couple decided to travel to Montpellier. But along the way, Harriet fell increasingly ill, and Harriet passed away in Avignon. Mill was distraught after losing the love of his life. He bought a house near the cemetery in which she was buried and spent most of the remainder of his life in Avignon next to his beloved.
One year after Harriet’s death, Mill would publish his most celebrated essay, On Liberty, which has become a canonical text for libertarians and classical liberals. Mill dedicated On Liberty to Harriet praising her by writing: “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.” Mill in his autobiography recorded how, as with all of his writings, On Liberty was a collaborative effort between him and Harriet writing that it “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.” He even went as far to say that “The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers.”
Mill would eventually die in 1878 and was buried in the same grave as his wife, although the lengthy and heartfelt inscription he left on her headstone meant that his own name couldn’t fit on the grave, the one place ironically where Harriet’s legacy is more prominent than Mill’s.
But the story of Harriet does not end with her death by any means. One of the most contested aspects of Mill scholarship is Harriet’s influence, which has mostly been downplayed by scholars until very recently. The history of philosophy is often conceived of as the history of great texts written by singular authors, generally great men. There is not much of a vocabulary of collaboration within the history of philosophy, and because of this, scholars of the twentieth century often did their best to minimize the influence of Harriet or describe any influence she did have as a corrupting influence on the great intellect of Mill. Despite Mill’s lavish praise, many scholars agreed with the misogynistic standards of Mill’s contemporaries, assuming Mill was exaggerating Harriet’s intelligence and that, in reality, he was merely charmed and transfixed by this woman who simply fed his ego. One scholar has even gone as far as to say that without Harriet, Mill would be Mill still and that regardless of whom he married, his thought would be basically the same. These kinds of observations are completely divorced from reality. Any married person will tell you first hand that the person you marry has a colossal effect on your attitudes and thoughts. Another hilariously stupid scholarly assessment argued that Mill loved Harriet because her name was Harriet, the name of Mill’s mother and sister, yes Mill spent twenty years entranced by Harriet, meeting her in secret and collaborating because her name had some Freduain connection. Thankfully due to the more balanced work of people like Alice Rossi and Jo Ellen Jacob’s scrupulous scholarship, we are beginning to gain a clearer picture of Harriet’s neglected legacy.
Why has Harriet been so hard done by then? I believe there are a few factors at play. Firstly philosophy, as previously stated, is perceived as a highly individualistic field that does not lend itself to collaboration. Secondly, Harriet was not loved by Mill’s peers, who were philosophical radicals who aimed at reforming the legal system. Harriet, on the other hand, came from a radical unitarian background, which argued radical moral reform is what is needed, not legislative changes. Mill’s peers, in general, had a very low assessment of Harriet, often commenting on Mill overheating her intellect. At the same time, we should not ignore these comments, but we should also remember we are listening to the opinions of Victorian Englishmen who often had shallow assessments of women. Harriet was no wallflower; she was a headstrong person who had no qualms asking hard questions and not backing down, at a time when women were expected to be submissive to men. Harriet’s unflinching attitude made men uncomfortable. Thirdly, the history of philosophy revolves around great texts. Harriet did not contribute a large body of written work and instead edited and critiqued Mill’s work; she is not deemed as important or original as the esteemed Mill. But I believe this to be a grave error.
If we consider Mill to be one of the most important liberal thinkers who ever lived, then we ought to think of Harriet as an indispensable aspect of Mill’s life and thought. In Mill’s own words, she was the driving force behind his most original and celebrated works, such as On Liberty, which was one of my early introductions to libertarianism ideas. When I first read On Liberty, I concluded Mill was a genius and told people that he was the cause of me delving more into libertarianism. But now I know that I also owe a debt to the often forgotten and often criticized Harriet
They say behind every man is a great woman, but Harriet Taylor Mill fought for a future where we could say beside every man is a great woman.