Turbulent Londoners: Harriet Taylor Mill, 1807-1858

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Harriet Taylor Mill, a radical thinker who made a significant contribution to the work of John Stuart Mill.


Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill, around 1834 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

The well-known phrase ‘Behind every man is a great woman’ could have been invented for the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His wife Harriet Taylor Mill was hugely significant to his work, and, whilst we may never know the full extent of her contribution, she may well have co-authored substantial amounts of the writing attributed to him. She was also a radical thinker and writer in her own right.

Harriet Hardy was born in Walworth, south London on the 8th of October 1807. The daughter of a surgeon, she was educated at home. Her relationship with John Stuart  Mill was unconventional, even by modern standards. In 1826 Harriet married he first husband, the merchant John Taylor. They had three children. Four years into their marriage, Harriet became active in the Unitarian church community in London, and was introduced to John Stuart Mill. The two became close friends, exchanging essays on marriage and women’s rights. Mill was the first man to treat Harriet as an intellectual equal. Harriet was the more radical of the two, criticising the degrading effects of women’s economic dependence on men. She believed the situation could only be changed by the drastic reform of marriage laws.

By 1833, Harriet was living apart from John Taylor with her daughter, Helen. She spent six weeks in Paris with John Stuart Mill, and despite claiming they did not have a sexual relationship, they caused a scandal that left them both socially isolated. Harriet lived in a house in Walton-on-Thames, and Mill visited her at the weekends. John Taylor eventually accepted Harriet’s relationship with Mill, on the condition that she move back in with him.

John Taylor died in 1849, and Harriet married Mill two years later. The same year, 1851, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ was published by The Westminster Review. It is one of the few pieces of writing that can be solely attributed to Harriet, but at the time it was published in Mill’s name. Mill would build on Harriet’s arguments in The Subjection of Women (1869), although his arguments were less radical than Harriet’s.

Harriet published little of her own work, but contributed extensively to Mill’s. It is hard to know exactly the extent of this contribution though. At least, Harriet commented on all of Mill’s writing. In his autobiography, he claimed that she co-authored most of his work. In 1832, Early Essays on Marriage on divorce was published, co-authored by Harriet and Mill. It is unclear why Harriet might have been reluctant to take credit for her work– perhaps she was worried it would affect how the ideas were received. What was clear, however, was that Mill valued Harriet’s contribution; he dedicated On Liberty (1859) to her.

In her later years, Harriet traveled a lot due to ill health. She died in Avignon on the 3rd of November 1858. Mill bought a villa near Avignon, and spent most of the rest of the life there. Harriet’s daughter Helen helped Mill finish The Subjection of Women.

Even if Harriet Taylor Mill wasn’t a significant contributor to the work of John Stuart Mill, I think she would be worthy of admiration for to bravery she showed in pursuing happiness in her personal life in the face of social ostracism. Although the extent of her abilities will probably never be know for sure, she was also an accomplished thinker and writer. She deserves recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Anschutz, Richard Paul. “John Stuart Mill.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last modified June 15, 2017, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Stuart-Mill.

Miller, Dale E. “Harriet Taylor Mill.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified October 5, 2015, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/harriet-mill/#EnfWom

Simkin, John. “Harriet Mill.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wtaylor.htm

Wikipedia, “Harriet Taylor Mill.” Last modified August 22 2017, accessed September 28, 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Taylor_Mill

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Astell, 1666-1731

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Mary Astell, a philosopher and writer who is considered by many to be England’s first feminist.


The title page of Astell's first publication.

The title page of Astell’s first publication.

Mary Astell was a philosopher and writer from Newcastle whose ability to reason and argue made her a formidable force in intellectual circles in London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Her advocacy of women’s education and her opinions on marriage has led her to be seen by many as England’s first feminist.

Mary was born in Newcastle on the 12th of November 1666 to an upper middle class family; her father managed a local coal company. Mary’s father died when she was 12, leaving her family with very little income. She received some education from her uncle, who was affiliated with a group of radical philosophers in Cambridge, but she also taught herself by reading widely. After her mother died in 1684, Mary moved to Chelsea in London, where she became acquainted with an influential and wealthy circle of women who helped her to develop and publish her work.

Between 1694 and 1709, Mary published a number of texts on a range of subjects, but she is best known for her arguments relating to women. She used her extensive understanding of philosophical ideas to argue that women were just as rational as men, and therefore just as deserving of education. After withdrawing from public life in 1709, Mary set up a charity school for girls in Chelsea. She devised the curriculum, putting her ideas into practice. Mary Astell died of cancer on the 11th of May 1731, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

The title page of the third edition of Astell's 'Reflections Upon Marriage.'

The title page of the third edition of Astell’s ‘Reflections Upon Marriage.’

Mary’s first publication came out in 1694 and was entitled Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. In it, she proposes a female-only college, where women learn through reading and discussion, rather than a formal, hierarchical program of study. In Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700), Mary continues advocating for women. She argues that an education would enable women to make better matrimonial choices, and be better prepared for married life. She warns women against making hasty choices when it came to marriage, and believed marriage should be based on friendship rather than necessity or fleeting attraction.

Mary’s ideas were groundbreaking for more than just their content. The way that she used philosophical ideas to support her arguments was unique, and she addressed women directly in her writing- talking to them, not about them. Her arguments disputed the Protestant belief, dominant at the time, that reason and emotion should be separate; for Mary, knowledge was intimately connected to happiness. Linked to this, one of the most frequent criticisms levelled against Mary’s ideas was that they were ‘too Catholic’; her plan for an all-female college sounded too much like a nunnery to be accepted by mainstream society. Mary’s ideas about women’s education caused substantial debate, and she was widely respected for her ability to debate freely and confidently with both men and women, but she did not receive widespread support.

“If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”

Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage

The above quote is probably Mary Astell’s most famous, and it is easy to see why. This was a truly radical sentiment in the early eighteenth century. Not only did she express these radical ideas, Mary could support them with reasoned, rational, philosophical arguments. And she did all this at a time when there were few historical campaigners for women’s rights from which she could take inspiration and hope. As one of England’s first feminists she deserves to be remembered and celebrated, but she can also be for contemporary campaigners something she herself didn’t have- a role model.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Astell, Mary.’ Encyclopaedia.com. Last modified 2005, accessed 28th July 2015.  http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Mary_Astell.aspx

Anon. ‘Mary Astell.’ Wikipedia. Last modified 19th May 2015, accessed 28th July 2015.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Astell

Manzanedo, Julia Cabaleiro. ‘The Love of Knowledge: Mary Astell.’ Women’s Research Centre, University of Barcelona. Last modified 2004, accessed 28th July 2015.  http://www.ub.edu/duoda/diferencia/html/en/secundario2.html

Sowaal, Alice. ‘Mary Astell.’ Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Last modified 12th August 2008, accessed 28th July 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/astell/