Thursday, June 28, 2012

Harriet Taylor Mill: A Fighter of Women's Rights

Day of Birth:         October 1807
Place of Birth:       Walworth, south London
Day of Death:        3 November 1858
Place of Death:      Avignon, France
            Taylor was an English philosopher and early advocate for women's rights, who is often overshadowed by her husband, the philosopher John Stuart Mill.
            Harriet Hardy was the daughter of a surgeon. Educated at home, she enjoyed writing poetry. In 1826, she married John Taylor, a prosperous merchant and together they 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. Harriet and John met for the first time in 1830. Their meeting was arranged by the leader of Harriet's Unitarian congregation, the Reverend W. J. Fox. There is no way to know whether Fox anticipated that passionate feelings would spring up between John and Harriet, but whatever his intention, the two young people did very quickly fall in love. Their conduct during the long period in which Harriet was married to John Taylor would be scandalous by contemporary standards, let alone Victorian ones. Their affair was to last for more than 20 years, and was generally tolerated by Harriet's husband. From 1833, the couple largely lived apart, enabling Harriet to see Mill more easily. Their behavior scandalized society and as a couple they were socially isolated. But they inspired each other intellectually and often worked together.
            Mills' 'The Principles of Political Economy' (1848) has a chapter attributed to Harriet called 'On the Probable Future of the Labouring Classes' in which she argues for the importance of education for all in the future of the nation, both economically and socially. Her essay, 'The Enfranchisement of Women' (1851), considered one of her most important works, was published under Mills's name. The essay strongly advocated that women be given access to the same jobs as men, and that they should not have to live in 'separate spheres' - views more radical than those of Mills himself. “The Enfranchisement of Women,” published in The Westminster Review in 1851, is the best candidate for a significant philosophical work authored primarily or even solely by Harriet (H. T. Mill 1998, 51ff). Occasioned by a series of feminist conventions in the United States, it 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” (H. T. Mill 1998, 51). This essay contains many of the same lines of argument as The Subjection of Women, written by John and published in 1869, although it expresses a somewhat more radical view of gender roles than the later essay (see Rossi 1970, 41ff). It maintains that the denial of political rights to women tends to restrict their interests to matters that directly impact the family with the result that the influence of wives on their husbands tends to diminish the latter's willingness to act from public-spirited motives. Further, it contends that when women do not enjoy equal educational rights with men then wives will impede rather than encourage their husbands' moral and intellectual development. And it insists that competition for jobs will prevent most of the problems that admitting women into the workforce would putatively cause from materializing. All of these points are common to “The Enfranchisement” and The Subjection. The major point of difference between the two is that while the Subjection rather notoriously suggests that the best arrangement for most married couples will be for the wife to concentrate on the care of the house and the children, a position that John also takes in an early essay on marriage written for Harriet (J. S. Mill 1984b, 43), the “Enfranchisement” instead argues for the desirability of married women's working outside the home.
            Harriet's husband died in 1849 and in 1851 she and Mill were finally married. In the autumn of 1858, the couple travelled to France where the climate was better for Harriet's tuberculosis. She died of respiratory failure in Avignon on 3 November 1858. John Stuart Mills' most famous work 'On Liberty', which they had written together, was published in 1859 and was dedicated to Harriet.

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