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ccording to Taylor, the present condition of women harms society as a whole. A utilitarian like her second husband, John Stuart Mill, Taylor considers gender equality as a necessary condition for social progress. Equal opportunities for women require a better allocation and use of human talent: “Let every occupation be open to all […] Each individual will prove his or her capacities in the only way in which capacities can be proved – by trial; and the world will have the benefit of the best faculties of all its inhabitants” (100).

Moreover, she believes in the benevolent effects of competition, which she views as “the general law of human life” (105). In this regard, Taylor contests a popular argument against women participating in the labour force according to which including them leads to excessive competition – an odd argument, given that the nineteenth century was the heyday of free market-ideology in England. Taylor underlines that as soon as people are valued according to their skills rather than their sex, market forces will settle who gets employed and in which occupation.

Taylor’s essay shares many points with Mill’s The Subjection of Women. Both stress that social and moral progress cannot be achieved unless both sexes enjoy equal rights. Moreover, they compare women’s lack of rights to the kind of despotic policies Western societies claim to have abolished. Yet there is an important difference: Although Mill is sympathetic to the idea of women working outside the him, in On Liberty he maintains that the best arrangement for married couples is for the wife to tends to house and children – in partbecause he thinks that women would prefer it that way. In contrast, Taylor holds that married women should work outside the home because it adds to their bargaining power in marriage and prevents the husband from taking advantage of her: “[A] woman who contributes materially to the support of the family, cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical manner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is a dependent on the man for subsistence (“Enfranchisement,” 105). This aspect of women’s bargaining power in marriage would receive attention again only the 1980s (compare Folbre 2009).

Related material


Himmelfarb, Gertrude. On Liberty & Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Folbre, Nancy. Greed, Lust & Gender. A History of Economic Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Jacobs, Jo Ellen. The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Kinzer, Bruce L. J. S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. London: Penguin, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Pappe, H. O. John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1960.

Reeves, Richard. John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Taylor Mill, Harriet. “Enfranchisement of Women”, in Alice S. Rossi (ed.): Essays on Sex Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. 89-121.

Taylor Mill, Harriet. Complete Works. Ed. J.E. Jacobs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Last modified 25 September 2019