Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Harriet Taylor Mill

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If you’re like me, when you think of a philosopher, you think of either some old beardy guy in a toga sitting on a rock speaking slowly about thinking, or a rarely-seen academic sitting in a small university office in the back building marking First Year essays and grumbling something about inadequate references and why all the funding goes to Engineering.

But then there’s Harriet Taylor Mill, who wasn’t so much “old” and “beardy” and “a guy” as she was “doe-eyed” and “perky” and “quite the feminist”.

Born in London in 1807, Harriet was schooled and married by the age of 18. Her husband, 39-year-old John Taylor, was a wealthy businessman and, if some sources are to be believed, the bass player for Duran Duran. Their relationship produced three children but hit a bit of a snag when philosopher John Stuart Mill was introduced to Harriet in 1830.

Mill, whose views on liberty, sexual equality and other important thinkings were understood, shared and generally supported by Harriet, was so impressed by the lady’s smarts and her expression of them, he asked her to read the book he was writing and let him know what she thought.

Harriet, taken with the way Mill considered her an intellectual equal and not just someone who could make scones and babies, was only too pleased to read, listen to and establish an intimate friendship with him. The two became thick as thieves, if thieves spent a great deal of their time calling on each other and writing essays about the powerlessness of women caught in paternalistic marriage contracts. A few years on, Harriet’s husband suggested the couple separate, and they lived apart for the short remainder of Taylor’s life. Records indicate that Taylor died in 1849, partly from cancer and partly from a lack of scones and babies.

Was Harriet bonking John Stuart Mill while she was still married to her husband? Both parties deny it. But they’d both been fiddling with each other’s postulations and proofing each other’s roughs and [insert additional tortured double-entendre here] under Taylor’s tolerant eye for years. Whatever. Harriet eventually married Mills in 1851 and set to work becoming a proper Feminist Lady Philosopher. Or, to use the feminist term, “a philosopher”.

Harriet Taylor Mill (who I shall call HTML for short) continued to have a great influence on her new husband’s life and works. A large slab of Mills’ output – in particular Principles of Political Economy, On Liberty and The Enfranchisement of Women – was either edited, contributed to or even authored by his missus.

Ironically, most of HTML’s writing about the social and political inequality of women and their financial dependence on men was effectively published in her husband’s name. As a result, the surviving collection of work actually attributed to her is so small, she could have fit it in some kind of dainty purse tied around her tiny, tiny waist and still have room for a lipstick, if she were so inclined. She was a bit like real HTML, in that she did a lot of work, but nobody ever saw much of it.

Harriet Taylor Mill died of tuberculosis on the 3rd of November, 1858. She may be remembered as the world’s most famous feminist philosopher who maybe probably didn’t never write any philosophy.

Harriet Mill

Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity