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John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill on Equality in Marriage & Family

Lynn Gordon and David Louzecky compare the couple’s conjugal cogitations.

Harriet Taylor (1807-1858) met the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1831. They had a long intellectual friendship until finally she married him in 1851, two years after her first husband died. In his book The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill (1806-1873) argues for perfect political equality between the sexes, claiming that no society can hope to approach justice if half its people are in subjection. But although perfect equality fits his liberal philosophy well, he drew the wrong conclusions about marriage and family. In her earlier essay The Enfranchisement of Women (1851), Taylor set out views on marriage and family life which are closer to perfection.

The Mills
John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill by Gail Campbell

Mill’s Liberal Egalitarianism

For Mill, as for all utilitarians, happiness is the center of the moral life, being the most desirable goal for human beings. But he understood that his utilitarian goal – ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ – cannot be realized apart from the greatest moral and intellectual advancement of humanity. Consequently, one of the principal purposes of social and political institutions, he said, is to develop human potential to its highest level. Education and public opinion, which form human character, should be used to establish individual happiness and thereby the good of all. In addition, laws and social arrangements should connect the happiness of individuals with the common good. In On Liberty (1859), Mill presents a theory of human nature which stresses individuality and self-development as characteristically progressive traits, and so what a good society should foster. Individuals ought to derive their views from experience, and develop them with reason. Mill’s progressive individual epitomizes the dignity of a thinking being, who seeks truth rationally and exercises conscious choice rather than blindly following custom or prejudice. Such an autonomous individual expresses individuality, creativity, originality, and self-development. Mill’s argument is firmly based on the notion of ‘‘utility in the largest sense, grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.’’ He uses ‘man’ in the generic sense, but is concerned throughout with the individual person, irrespective of sex. In Chapter 3, he quotes Wilhelm von Humbolt: “The end of man… is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole”. To achieve this, freedom and variety are necessary.

Early in his later-published book The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that the existing (Victorian) relations between the sexes violate principles of freedom and justice. The subordination of one sex to the other is ‘wrong in itself’ and should be replaced by perfect equality. Mill does not here advocate ‘strict’ or what we might call ‘outcome’ equality. Instead, he claims that rewards and punishments should be apportioned equitably, that is, according to desert. There may well be areas where some will exercise power over others, but ‘policy’ requires that competence be the basis for this power. But this all means that the extant system of male domination over females violated a basic principle of justice, just because regard and advantage would and could not be based on merit or personal exertion. So Mill denounces the injustice of denying to women the equal moral right to choose their occupations: “would it be consistent with justice to refuse them their fair share of honor and distinction, or to deny them the equal moral right of all human beings to choose their own occupations (short of injury to others) according to their own preference, at their own risks?”

Mill’s conception of the nature and needs of human beings is clearly stated: “If there is anything vitally important to the happiness of human beings, it is that they should relish their habitual pursuits… Few persons are aware of the great amount of unhappiness produced… by the feeling of wasted life… Every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their fellow human creatures… dries up… the principal fountain of human happiness and leaves the species less rich… in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.” This conception of the nature and needs of the individual and its integral relation to happiness is the ultimate justification of Mill’s argument against the unjust and arbitrary subjection of women. Given better education and more opportunities, women, just as well as men, will flourish, and be happy living a life in which they can freely and usefully exercise their talents. Not only freedom, but also the opportunity to do something useful, is required for individual development. His utilitarianism further stresses that moving toward sexual equality would benefit both individuals and society, by doubling the mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity, and thereby reducing the waste in a society that refuses to use half the talent it possesses.

Marriage and (In)Equality

Subjection means being under the power and control of another, in a state of obedience and submissiveness. Subjection serves the interests of the dominant, and possessing power, especially over those closely tied to one’s interests, is desirable. It is also gratifying when one has so little power over other matters: men may be powerless over the environment, the economy, and viruses; but at least they have some power over women. Women in the 19th century were in a peculiarly bad position since they were socially dispersed and isolated, which made it difficult for them to organize. Furthermore, wrote Mill, ‘‘Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments.’’ (The Subjection of Women)

Mill argues that the subjection of women to men is a policy unsupported by experience just because no other principle has ever been tried. The adoption of a system of inequality was not the result of any deliberation or forethought, but simply arose from the physical power of men over women. Mill contends that women’s lesser muscular strength rendered them subject to the principal of force: he calls it ‘‘the law of the strongest’’ and ‘‘the system of right founded on might.’’ Yet although subjection began with force, it became subtler, and by Mill’s Victorian era the control of women by men involved chivalry and generosity. Deference and gratitude for protection render women dependent on men. Bribery and intimidation were generally used instead of brutality to secure obedience. The law completes the intimidation with discriminatory statutes, such as witholding from women the right to vote or even the right to open their own bank account.

Since society has only tried patriarchy, we cannot argue for it from comparative experience, nor by referring to the nature of women. As we have not observed women in different social arrangements, we do not know what their nature actually is, Mill elaborated, “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”. Indeed, we know a great deal more about psychology today, and what we do know suggests that the sexual differences that relate to political equality are largely socially conditioned.

Not only is subjection unsupported by experience, the entire course of human progress provides evidence against inequality. In past societies people were born to roles and stations, but a major feature of modern societies, even by Mill’s time, is the idea that people should be free to employ their faculties, and so to choose the jobs that suit them best. According to Mill, “It is not that all processes are supposed to be equally good, or all persons to be equally qualified for everything; but that freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it.” So any social policy that automatically excludes those who can perform a task is unwise as well as unjust. The subjection of women stands out as a glaring injustice, a relic of old-world thought and practice, and a breach of what has become a fundamental rule.

But suppose we did discover that women are fitted by nature for subordinate social roles. Could this be used to argue for policies of male domination? Such arguments, although surprisingly common, are incoherent. If women were fitted for those roles by nature, restrictive policies would be unnecessary. This argument is Mill’s coup de grace. What he argues for instead is a society without such restrictions: a society of perfect equality where every individual, regardless of sex, is free to choose their own role based on their individual talents and exertion.

Yet although Mill was overtly arguing for women’s right to self-development, he fails to revise functions within the household. Although he advocates freedom of choice, he favors the traditional division of labor within the family. Women ought to have a choice of career or marriage; but he assumes that most are likely to continue to prefer marriage, and that this choice is equivalent to choosing a career. By contrast, for men marriage is and was seen as compatible with having an external career too. So unless equality extends to the family, Mill’s perfect equality between the sexes is limited.

Additionally although Mill urges that the shackles of custom be lifted from unmarried women, and from women whose children have left home, he complacently relies on custom for most married women. The sex-based division of labor within marriage can be trusted to social opinion, he thinks. But if it is customary for women to rear children, and if society assigns this role to women, then it seems that being born female does circumscribe their choices throughout a considerable part of their lives. Their education, for example, will be affected and directed by this customary destiny. Hence, demands for sexual equality now become problematic.

Any activity outside the home, remunerative or academic, will prevent the wife from fulfilling her duties to home and children. Women make, Mill thinks, a free choice to marry and have children, and that choice carries the obligation to fulfill those duties. There is no mention of restricted opportunities or the husband’s taking on his fair share of the domestic tasks.

Unfortunately, the economic and social system gave women little alternative to marriage. Women will by and large continue to prefer the one vocation to which there is no competition; and thus, continue to perform those tasks ‘‘such as cannot be fulfilled by others, or such as those others do not think worthy of acceptance’’ (The Subjection of Women,1869). However, the abuses of human dignity permitted by custom and law within marriage were egregious. The actual position of married women in Mill’s day resembled that of slaves in several ways. For instance, once married, the legal position of women was subsumed under that of their husbands.

Mill argues for rights to property inherited or earned by the woman herself; but not rights to equal shares in the family income: “The rule is simple: whatever would be the husband’s or wife’s if they were not married, should be under their exclusive control during marriage.” Hence, the income of the male earner is his, as much after marriage as before. Mill does not seem to recognize that since women’s work in the home is unpaid, equality in this sense becomes a complete sham. This is surprising because Mill and Taylor discussed and wrote about these issues, and upon her death he fulsomely acknowledged her indispensable influence on his thinking in his introduction 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 unrivaled wisdom.”

Taylor, Egalitarianism and Family Life

One might be excused for thinking that Taylor wrote The Enfranchisement of Women to correct Mill’s views in The Subjection of Women, but in fact she wrote it eighteen years earlier. Nevertheless, Enfranchisement takes a stronger stand than Mill’s later work: Taylor argues that women must earn a living because their position in society and the family would thereby improve significantly.

Mill agrees that married women must be able to support themselves, but he explicitly rejects the idea that they should always do so, because that would lead to neglect of the household and children. Taylor, however, recognizes the importance to women of continuous economic independence both within marriage and in case of its disintegration. So Enfranchisement is more radical and speaks more strongly than Subjection in favor of married womens’ needs to have careers of their own and be more than an appendage of a man, attached to him for the purpose of bringing up their children and making the home pleasant.

Mill proposed that everyone should be able to rise in society just as far as their talents permitted, unhindered by restraints of law or custom. To guarantee that the most talented individuals are identified, it is necessary to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to develop their talents. But what should count as ‘talents’ and how they should be regarded is to be determined by the demand for those talents within the market economy. This means that women attain equality of standing with men only if they earn an income. Doing so would seem more important to a sound relationship between the sexes than economic improvement within the family. So Mill’s assertion that women should draw self-respect from an ability to earn, of which they make no use when married, is mere sentimentality.

Mill says that “When the support of the family depends, not on property, but on earnings, the common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labor between the two persons.” Unfortunately, Mill’s defense of traditional roles within the family amounts to a denial of his principle of freedom of opportunity and individual expression of talents to most women, whom he assumes would choose to marry. He is clearly aware that care of the household is an incessantly preoccupying duty, and that this is a major reason why women comparatively lack achievement in the arts and sciences. But in fact, he condones the continuance of this barrier for most women. Mill also fails to concede that the tiresome chores of domestic life should be shared by both sexes. His failure to question social institutions that make such sharing practically impossible is strange because he recognizes that the principal means by which the world recognizes equals is by success in fields monopolized by men. The only way of dispelling prejudicial beliefs about women’s inferiority is proof by example. So if most women are going to remain practically if not legally barred from such achievements, how will deep-seated prejudices change?

Taylor is more savvy about the realities of power. She notes that if wives are largely confined to the small circle of family, they will find it hard to protect their interests. Without experience outside domestic life, they will not even be able to learn what their interests are.

Taylor’s Enfranchisement is frank and clear that full liberation will lead to greater happiness for women. Even if women do not experience frustration or feel that their position is intolerable, this cannot be used to argue for the status quo. Taylor claims, for example, that some Indian Muslim and Hindu women do not mind being in purdah (a sort of marital lockdown), and find the thought of going about to be freely shocking. However, this does not mean that they should not be liberated from their seclusion or would not appreciate freedom once they had gained it. Custom hardens people. It prompts them to adhere to situations by deadening that part of their nature that would resist it. “How does the objector know that women do not desire equality and freedom?” asks Taylor. It would be overly simple to suppose that if they do desire it, they would say so. Instead, Taylor claims, “Their position is like that of the tenants or labourers who vote against their own political interests to please their landlords or employers; with the unique addition, that submission is inculcated in them from childhood, as the peculiar grace and attraction of their character.” Taylor is not committing the brutal political fallacy of discounting people’s expressed desires. She is arguing that restrictions be lifted so that people can pursue and satisfy their deeper desires.

Mill’s failure to question the traditional family and its demands on women limits his feminism. We can see that because of his assumptions about the family and its traditional roles, Mill’s feminism falls short of advocating true equality and freedom for married women. He eschews patriarchy within the family, and views the legal and political subordination of women as anachronisms in the modern age; as gross violations of liberty and justice. However, he fails to perceive the injustice involved in situations and practices which allow men to have a career and economic independence, in addition to home life and children, but which force women to choose between career and family.

In The Subjection of Women, Mill is genuinely concerned about the harm caused by men to women behind the closed doors of the family home. However, governments should act not just to restrict the behavior of individuals, but also to promote the development of progressive individuality. If one takes liberty seriously, state intervention may well be required to secure it. This would be a matter of justice, for it would be wrong to deprive women of the necessary conditions of freedom and equal opportunity.

Mill thought that equalizing access to the vote, to property, to education, and to occupations, would be enough; but he underestimated the importance of economic freedom. Merely providing more equal opportunities for women outside the family would not suffice without revision of the underlying social structures, both private and public, that reinforce and perpetuate the very subjection of women his essay was denouncing. Genuine equality of opportunity would require radical change in the way women were raised and educated, and in society’s opinion about their proper place. If women are to have equal freedom of opportunity, they cannot be channeled by education, public opinion, and economic structures into the belief that they have but one useful vocation in life, as dutiful mother and obedient wife. Social institutions must instead be restructured for the free development of original thinking in women as well as in men.

Being Fair to Mill

It may seem a bit unfair to criticize Mill. He wrote Subjection over a hundred and fifty years ago, and his anti-sexist views and personal behavior were far in advance of his time. He also made it poignantly clear in his Autobiography (1873) that his intellectual debts to both his wife and daughter were great. But with respect to the place of women in marriage and family, Mill had views far less liberal than what follows from his general political philosophy. And since he wrote Subjection, research has ranged far into biology and psychology, history and anthropology, religion and literature. We have experimented with a myriad of alternative lifestyles and social systems.

In The Enfranchisement of Women, Harriet Taylor shows that she was aware of the shortcomings of Mill’s views. However, with the exception of his discussion on marriage and family, few have articulated the fundamental case for equality as clearly or argued it as well as John Stuart Mill. Here’s how he begins The Subjection of Women:

“The object of this Essay is to explain as clearly as I am able, the grounds of an opinion which I have held from the very earliest period when I formed any opinions at all on social or political matters, and which, instead of being weakened or modified, had been constantly growing stronger by the progress of reflection and the experience of life: That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other” (Emphasis added).

© Lynn Gordon and David Louzecky 2023

Lynn Gordon is a philosopher by training and a rare-book restorationist by trade. David Louzecky is professor of philosophy (emeritus) at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. They have been partners for thirty-nine years.

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