John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, the eldest son of the philosopher, James Mill, was born in London on 20th May, 1806. Educated a home by his father, John Stuart had studied the works of Aristotle, Plato, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Hobbes, David Ricardo and Adam Smith by the time he had reached the age of twelve.

Mill was especially impressed by the work of Jeremy Bentham. He agreed with Bentham when he argued in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), that the proper objective of all conduct and legislation is "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Mill became a Utilitarian and at the age of seventeen formed a discussion group called the Utilitarian Society.

Mill also began having articles published in the Westminster Review, a journal founded by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill to propagate Radical views. John Stuart Mill also wrote for other newspapers and journals including the Morning Chronicle and Parliamentary History & Review. Jeremy took an active role in the campaign for parliamentary reform, and was one of the first to suggest that women should have the same political rights as men.

In an article in the Westminster Review in 1824 Mill revealed his commitment to women's equality. He disagreed with his father, James Mill, who had argued that women did not need the vote. He also supported the views of William Thompson, whose book, Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, was published in 1825.

In 1830 John Stuart Mill became a close friend of Harriet Taylor. Taylor was attracted to Mill, the first man she had met who treated her as an intellectual equal. Mill was impressed with Taylor and asked her to read and comment on the latest book he was working on. Over the next few years they exchanged essays on issues such as marriage and women's rights. Those essays that have survived reveal that Taylor held more radical views than Mill on these subjects. She argued: "Public offices being open to them alike, all occupations would be divided between the sexes in their natural arrangements. Fathers would provide for their daughters in the same manner as their sons."

Harriet Taylor was attracted to the socialist philosophy that had been promoted by Robert Owen in books such as The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In her essays Taylor was especially critical of the degrading effect of women's economic dependence on men. Taylor thought this situation could only be changed by the radical reform of all marriage laws. Although Mill shared Taylor's belief in equal rights, he favoured laws that gave women equality rather than independence.

In 1833 Harriet negotiated a trial separation from her husband. She then spent six weeks with Mill in Paris. On their return Harriet Taylor moved to a house at Walton-on-Thames where John Start Mill visited her at weekends. Although Harriet Taylor and Mill claimed they were not having a sexual relationship, their behaviour scandalized their friends. As a result, the couple became socially isolated.

John Roebuck later argued: "My affection for Mill was so warm and so sincere that I was hurt by anything which brought ridicule upon him. I saw, or thought I saw, how mischievous might be this affair, and as we had become in all things like brothers, I determined, most unwisely, to speak to him on the subject. With this resolution I went to the India House next day, and then frankly told him what I thought might result from his connection with Mrs. Taylor. He received my warnings coldly, and after some time I took my leave, little thinking what effect my remonstrances had produced. The next day I again called at the India House. The moment I entered the room I saw that, as far he was concerned, our friendship was at an end. His manner was not merely cold, but repulsive; and I, seeing how matters were, left him. His part of our friendship was rooted out, nay, destroyed, but mine was untouched."

In 1834 Mill founded the Radical journal, The London Review with William Molesworth. Two years later, Mill purchased the Westminster Review and merged the two journals. As proprietor of the Westminster Review, Mill used the journal to support those politicians such as Thomas Wakley, Joseph Brotherton, Thomas Duncombe and Thomas Attwood, who were advocating further reform of the House of Commons.

After the death of John Taylor in 1849, Mill married Harriet Taylor. A few months after the wedding the Westminster Review published The Enfranchisement of Women. Although the article had been mainly written by Taylor, it appeared under John Stuart Mill's name. The same happened with the publication of an article in the Morning Chronicle (28th August, 1851) where they advocated new laws to protect women from violent husbands. A letter written by Mill in 1854 suggests that Harriet Taylor was reluctant to be described as joint author of Mill's books and articles. "I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book, the book which is to come, to have our two names on the title page. It ought to be so with everything I publish, for the better half of it all is yours".

John Stuart Mill had always favoured the secret ballot but Harriet Taylor disagreed and eventually changed her husband's views on the subject. Taylor feared that people would vote in their own self-interest rather than for the good of the community. She believed that if people voted in public, the exposure of their selfishness would shame them in voting for the candidate who put forward policies that were in the interests of the majority.

After reading a copy of Thomas Hare's book on democracy John Stuart Mill also became a strong supporter of proportional representation. In his autobiography Mill described this as a "great practical and philosophical idea, the greatest improvement of which the system of representative government is susceptible."

Harriet Taylor suffered from tuberculosis and while in Avignon, seeking treatment for this condition in November, 1858, died. Helen Taylor decided to give up her desire to become an actress and devoted herself to caring for her step-father, acting both as his housekeeper and secretary. She also helped him to finish The Subjection of Women. The two worked closely together for the next fifteen years. In his autobiography Mill wrote that "Whoever, either now or hereafter, may think of me and my work I have done, must never forget that it is the product not of one intellect and conscience but of three, the least considerable of whom, and above all the least original, is the one whose name is attached to it."

Mill wrote a large number of books on philosophy and economics. This includes: A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Considerations on Representative Government (1861) and Utilitarianism (1861).

In the 1865 General Election John Stuart Mill was invited to stand as the Radical candidate for the Westminster seat in Parliament. Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Bessie Rayner Parkes were enthusiastic supporters of his campaign as he spoke in favour of women having the vote. One politician campaigning against Mill claimed that "if any man but Mr Mill had put forward that opinion he would have been ridiculed and hooted by the press; but the press had not dared to do so with him."

John Stuart Mill won the seat. The Times commented: "The very circumstances that this eminent writer declared his most controverted opinions in his address, and in his subsequent speeches, makes his return the more significant. Hundreds who voted for Mr Mill probably disagreed with him philosophically, and a still greater number politically. But it is creditable to the electors, and a hopeful sign for the metropolitan boroughs, that Westminster people will rather have a man who thinks for himself, even though his conclusions may be different from their own."

In the House of Commons Mill campaigned with Henry Fawcett and Peter Alfred Taylor for parliamentary reform and in 1866 presented the petition organised by Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett and Dorothea Beale in favour of women's suffrage. Mill, added an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men.

During the debate on Mill's amendment, Edward Kent Karslake, the Conservative MP for Colchester, said in the House of Commons that the main reason he opposed the measure was that he had not met one woman in Essex who agreed with women's suffrage. Lydia Becker, Helen Taylor and Frances Power Cobbe, decided to take up this challenge and devised the idea of collecting signatures in Colchester for a petition that Karslake could then present to parliament. They found 129 women resident in the town willing to sign the petition and on 25th July, 1867, Karslake presented the list to parliament. Despite this petition the Mill amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Mill's attacks on colonialism in the West Indies made him unpopular and he was defeated in the 1868 General Election. After leaving the House of Commons, Mill was now able to finish off the book he had been writing for some time, The Subjection of Women (1869).

Frances Power Cobbe commented that Mill's attitude towards Helen was "beautiful to witness, and a fine exemplification on his own theories of the rightful position of women". As well as helping Mill with his books and articles, Helen Taylor was active in the women's suffrage campaign. In December 1868, Mill and his step-daughter, resigned from the Manchester National Society in protest against the leadership of Lydia Becker.

Mill retained his interest in women's suffrage and on 7th October 1869, he wrote: "The cause has now reached a point at which it has become extremely desirable that the ladies who lead the movement should make themselves visible to the public, their very appearance being a refutation of the vulgar nonsense talked about women's rights women."

Although he was in favour of universal suffrage he was against it being mixed with women's suffrage. He wrote to Charles Dilke on 28th May 1870: "Women's suffrage has quite enemies enough, without adding to the number all the enemies of universal suffrage. To combine the two questions would practically suspend the fight for women's equality, since universal suffrage is sure to be discussed almost solely as a working men's question: and when at last victory, comes, there is sure to be a compromise, by which the working men would be enfranchised without the women."

John Stuart Mill died on 8th May, 1873.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1866 Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, Helen Taylor, and Dorothea Beale organised a petition in favour of women's suffrage. Louise Garrett Anderson explained what happened on the day the petition was presented to Parliament.

John Stuart Mill agreed to present a petition from women householders… On 7th June 1866 the petition with 1,500 signatures was taken to the House of Commons. It was in the name of Barbara Bodichon and others, but some of the active promoters could not come and the honour of presenting it fell to Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett…. Elizabeth Garrett liked to be ahead of time, so the delegation arrived early in the Great Hall, Westminster, she with the roll of parchment in her arms. It made a large parcel and she felt conspicuous. To avoid attracting attention she turned to the only woman who seemed, among the hurrying men, to be a permanent resident in that great shrine of memories, the apple-woman, who agreed to hide the precious scroll under her stand; but, learning what it was, insisted first on adding her signature, so the parcel had to be unrolled again.

(2) John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Westminster Review (1851)

When we ask why the existence of one-half the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other half - why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own that there may be nothing to compete in her mind with his interests and his pleasure; the only reason which can be given is, that men like it.

Custom hardens human beings to any kind of degradation, by deadening the part of their nature which would resist it. And the case of women is, in this respect, even a peculiar one, for no other inferior caste that we have heard of have been taught to regard their degradation as their honour. They are taught to think, that to repel actively even an admitted injustice done to themselves, is somewhat unfeminine, and had better be left to some male friend or protector. It requires unusual moral courage as well as disinterestedness in a woman, to express opinions favourable to women's enfranchisement, until, at least, there is some prospect of obtaining it.

(3) John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, The Subjection of Women (1869)

All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the women most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. the masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite of that of men; not self-will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. Men hold women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness.

(4) John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, The Subjection of Women (1869)

The generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal. Were it not for that, I think that almost everyone, in the existing state of opinion in politics and political economy, would admit the injustice of excluding half the human race from the greater number of lucrative occupations, and from almost all high social functions; ordaining from their birth either that they are not, and cannot by any possibility become, fit for employments which are legally open to the stupidest and basest of the other sex.

(5) John Stuart Mill, letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John Pakington (March, 1866)

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.

(6) John Stuart Mill, letter to Charles Dilke (28th May 1870)

Women's suffrage has quite enemies enough, without adding to the number all the enemies of universal suffrage. To combine the two questions would practically suspend the fight for women's equality, since universal suffrage is sure to be discussed almost solely as a working men's question: and when at last victory, comes, there is sure to be a compromise, by which the working men would be enfranchised without the women.

(7) Olive Schreiner, speech to meeting in commemoration of John Stuart Mill (July, 1918)

We are meeting today to commemorate a man whom I believe to be the noblest of those whom the English-speaking race has produced in the last hundred years. John Stuart Mill laboured for the freedom of women. But he did more. He laboured for human freedom. Women can best show their gratitude to him by studying his writings.

Many women have now the vote, and are part of the governing power of their nation - all will have it soon. If we wish to use our power to its noblest end, we shall have to learn the lesson Mill taught - that the freedom of all human creatures are essential to the full development of human life on earth. We shall have to labour, not merely for a larger freedom for ourselves, but for every subject race and class, and for all suppressed individuals. To do this is to lay the best tribute we can at the feet if John Stuart Mill.