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People of the 19th century had a strong belief in progress – and who can blame them, given the tremendous developments they witnessed and enjoyed? In Taylor’s eyes, however, progress is still lacking when it comes to morals. She saw evidence for this lack not only in the disenfranchisement of women, but especially in the commonness of violence, especially domestic violence against women, children, and servants. In 15 newspaper articles, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor argued against public opinion by alerting the readers to the disturbing fact that domestic violence was hardly on the decline. Yet although these articles appear in complete editions of Mill, there is good reason to consider Taylor their sole, or at least primary, author: Mill kept a record of everything he had written or published, and the entries on the newspaper articles on domestic violence state “[a] joint production, very little of which was mine” (see e.g. Mill, Newspaper Writings, 1138).

Jo Ellen Jacobs suggest that by pointing out the frequency and degree of domestic violence, Taylor very likely contributed to the passing of a parliamentary bill in 1853 (2002). Taylor’s articles deal with three aspects of domestic violence: psychological, social, and judicial. Writing about the psychological effects of domestic violence, Taylor is among the first thinkers to point out its long-term consequences. She maintains that domestic violence has a “degrading moral effect” on its victims because they grow accustomed to the brutality they have been treated with, which in turn influences their behaviour towards others (Complete Works, 104). According to Taylor, a beaten, abused child will become a beating abusing parent: “[T]he victims regard their suffering and debasement as the regular course of things, which the law sanctions and the world allows; and when not crushed entirely, they seek a wretched compensation by tyrannizing in their turn, when any hapless fellow-creature comes within their power” (104). Recent psychological findings speak of so-called “family traumata” passed from one generation to another, thus creating a vicious circle.

In analyzing the the social aspects of domestic violence, Taylor challenges the stereotype that domestic violence is mainly a problem of the working class and the poor. To begin with, she made clear that this idea doesn’t fit the criminal records, i.e. the working class cannot possibly account for all cases of domestic violence. Still, Taylor points out why this middle class prejudice against the supposedly violent poor might not be that far-fetched and refers to the horrible living conditions of the working class: crowded homes, no privacy, and the lack of money all contribute to bring out the worst in human beings. Moral progress presupposes material security.

Legal and Linguistic Issues

Moreover, Taylor identifies the important but then neglected issue of how men who abuse their wives and children can be brought to justice. Given the material dependency of women and children, it is impossible for victims of domestic violence to evade their tormentors. After all, the sufferers of domestic violence “know too surely the consequences of either failing or succeeding in a complaint, when the law, after inflicting just enough punishment to excite the thirst of vengeance, delivers back the victim to the tyrant” (104). In another article, Taylor suggests that a wife whose husband had been convicted of abuse should no longer be obliged to live with him. She considers such arrangement as the only possibility to deprive “the criminal of the power which he has misused” (118). Still, a convicted husband should be legally required to provide for the material support of his separated wife.

The judicial aspect of domestic violence is threefold, touching upon language, class, and the status of persons vs. property. According to Taylor, male dominance and violence come as no surprise given the conventional way of using possessive pronouns when talking about wife and children. She argues that such way of speaking induces men to view their marital and paternal relation as one of property:

Is it not their wife or child? Are they not entitled to do as they will with their own? These phrases are not, in their apprehension, metaphorical. The shoes on their feet […] – the horse or ass that carries their burdens, and that dies a lingering death under their cruelties – the wife and children – all are “theirs,” and all in the same sense. [116, emphasis in original]

Here Taylor draws attention to the signal effect of the way language influences our perceptions. In addition to employing from biased, distorting language , the supposedly impartial judiciary system also displays a serious class and gender bias. Taylor discusses this with regard to a trial against a barrister who had beaten his illegitimate six-year old son so badly that the law records state that the father “had done what the law did not justify. It was impossible to say that this was moderate chastisement of a child six years old” (120). Despite such brutality, the father received a mild sentence, which made Taylor wonder whether the judge was lenient because of the offender’s middle class background. Even though the sentences which have been imposed in the earlier cases on child abuse covered by Taylor have been far too mild in her eyes as well, the sentence for the member of the respectable middle class tops them all. In comparison: a working class woman who beat her little son was imprisoned for two months (cf. 100-04).

Persons vs. property

Lastly, Taylor points out that crimes against property were punished more severely than crimes of violence, arguing that “our law, or at least its administration, takes abundant care of property, but the most atrocious personal violence it treats with a lenity amounting to actual license” (100). For Taylor, this blatant injustice indicates the fundamental materialism of English society, which cares more about property than people. Taylor draws attention to the fact that thieves are punished more harshly than those who maltreat wives, children, and servants. She maintains that this disparity sends the wrong signals. The judiciary system, she argues, should educate the moral sensibilities of the public – something can be achieved only if the abuse of dependents is being outlawed. Taylor goes so far as to claim that if a woman or child dies from domestic violence, the responsible should be tried for murder and declares: “[S]urely a man who, though he does not intend to kill, perpetrates such ruffian-like maltreatment that death is a natural consequence, commits an offence that is at least equal to depravity to most cases of murder” (117). In Taylor’s eyes, to kill a dependent relative is a greater crime than the murder of any other person because it amounts to a violation of a “most solemn obligation – it is doing the worst injury where there is the most binding duty to cherish and protect” (125).


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Last modified 25 September 2019