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aylor Mill’s “The Enfranchisement of Women” points out a striking contradiction in nineteenth-century economic theory — namely that the principles of laissez-faire and liberal individualism have so far been applied (or rather, conceded) to only to men. Why have been excluded from liberal individualism? According to Taylor, history provides ample evidence that the explanation has something to do with physical force (a line of argument we find also in John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Woman). According to Taylor Mill, “That those who were physically weaker should have been made legally inferior, is quite conformable to the mode in which the world has been governed. Until very lately, the rule of physical strength was the general law of human affairs” (99). Given the great social progress of the past decades, Taylor holds that also the relation between men and women, in her view “the nearest and most intimate” (100), should now change into one between equals.

Against those who might object that it is simply in women’s nature to be ruled by men Taylor argues that present conditions do not allow talking about the “nature” of women: Since women have always been denied “common rights of citizenship” (97), they never had the opportunity to live according to their “nature” or desires. Due to this lack of liberty of choice, “[n]umbers of women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them, no other occupation for their feelings or their activities” (104). Taylor argues that the exclusion of women from the labour market is based on circular reasoning: “To say that women must be excluded from active life because maternity disqualifies them for it, is in fact to say, that every other career should be forbidden them in order that maternity may be their only resource” (104). If women were indeed capable only of mothering, why does society take the pains of forcing them into marriage and motherhood by foreclosing them all other options? Besides, it is unclear why women who prefer to stay unmarried and/or without children are subjected to the same limitations as wives and mothers.

By alerting readers to such inconsistencies and non-sequiturs, Taylor discloses the patriarchal organization of English society: “When […] we ask why the existence of one-half the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other – why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own […]; the only reason which can be given is, that men like it” (107). Put differently, the current social order mirror not any natural talents or propensities of women but only the vested interests of men. In Taylor’s view, no person is entitled to assign “spheres” to other persons, for she emphasizes that “the proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to” (100). Taylor entertains a highly individualistic point of view insofar as she holds that only the individual in question is capable of deciding what is best for him or her – this is especially true of women, who have been denied liberty of choice for ages.

In this regard, Taylor also touches on an aspect political economists (including her second husband, John Stuart Mill) have addressed only with hesitation: the question of how to balance individual rights with social obligations. Taylor emphasizes that the answer to this question has long been biased: “It is agreeable to [men] that [they] should live for their own sake, women for the sake of men” (107). To ensure such a fundamentally unjust social order, physical force was only the initial —  but far from the only — means that men have used. According to Taylor, they have also succeeded in creating a false consciousness in women. Since women are from infancy conditioned to meet cultural expectations about “feminine” behaviour, they have internalized these demands and thus believe they can only thrive by meeting them. As a result, men could pursue their aims and interests at the expense of women, whom they have conditioned into self-denial and submission.

Harriet Taylor Mill, an insightful, stern critic of nineteenth-century English society, called attention to the material causes of the subordination of women. She attacked both the mystic and naturalistic justifications for the poor situation of marginalized groups like women and workers. Unlike many liberal economists and writers of her time (including her husband), Taylor Mill, who does not stop short of the implied consequences of liberal principles, applies them to hitherto neglected issues like the private spheres of marriage and family. In her newspaper articles on domestic violence, Taylor Mill proves a highly progressive thinker whose observations, such as those on the psychological effects of domestic violence on children, like her proposed changes to British law, were recognized only decades later.


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Last modified 25 September 2019