Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor, the daughter of John Taylor, was born in 1831. Her mother, Harriet Taylor, was active in the Unitarian Church and developed radical views on politics. Her parents became friendly with William Johnson Fox, a leading Unitarian minister and early supporter of women's rights.

Her family moved in radical circles and in 1830 Harriet Taylor met the philosopher John Stuart Mill. 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 Helen's mother negotiated a trial separation from her husband. She then spent six weeks with Mill in Paris. On their return Harriet 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.

Helen Taylor was very interested in the theatre and from 1856 she took lessons from an experienced actress. She later acted in plays in Newcastle, Doncaster and Glasgow. Her mother suffered from tuberculosis and while in Avignon, seeking treatment for this condition in November, 1858, she died. Harriet Taylor and John Start Mill had been working on a book The Subjection of Women at the time.

Helen Taylor decided to give up her desire to become an actress and devoted herself to caring for her step-father, John Stuart Mill, 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."

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. She was an original member of the Kensington Society that produced the first petition requesting votes for women.

In the 1865 General Election Helen's stepfather, 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. 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. Helen Taylor, Lydia Becker 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.

In January 1867 she published anonymously an article, The Ladies Petition, in the Westminster Review. This later became a pamphlet, The Claims of Englishwomen to the Suffrage Constitutionally Considered. In the summer of 1867 Taylor, Frances Power Cobbe, Lydia Becker, Millicent Fawcett, Barbara Bodichon, Jessie Boucherett, Emily Davies, Francis Mary Buss, Dorothea Beale, Anne Clough, Lilias Ashworth Hallett, Louisa Smith, Alice Westlake, Katherine Hare, Harriet Cook, Elizabeth Garrett, Priscilla Bright McLaren and Margaret Bright Lucas joined together to establish the London Society for Women's Suffrage. In July she gave a £26 donation to the LSWS.

In December 1868, Taylor, resigned from the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage in protest against the leadership of Lydia Becker. Helen Taylor gave her maiden speech in the suffrage cause at a meeting in the Hanover Rooms on 26th March, 1870. Catherine Winkworth wrote later: "Miss Helen Taylor made a most remarkable speech. She is a slight young woman, with long, thin, delicate features, clear dark eyes and dark hair, which she wears in long bands on her cheeks, fashionably dressed in slight mourning; speaks off the platform in a high, thin voice, very shyly with an embarrassed air; on the platform she was really eloquent." Another observer, Kate Amberley commented that it was "a long and much studied speech; it was good but too like acting."

Helen Taylor also took part in the agitation for women to be allowed to take part in local government and after the passing of the 1870 Education Act she became a candidate for office. In 1876, standing as a radical, Taylor was elected to the Southwark seat on the London School Board. In 1881 she joined the Social Democratic Federation.

In 1885 spoke on the same platform as Richard Pankhurst. His daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, later revealed that her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was disturbed by the fact that she wore trousers during the meeting: "Mrs Pankhurst was distressed that her husband should be seen walking with the lady in this garb, and feared that his gallantry in doing so... would cost him many votes."

In her later years she was cared for by her niece, Mary Taylor. She later recalled that one of her last actions was "making petticoats for the wives and children of the unemployed in West Ham".

Helen Taylor died in 1907.

Primary Sources

(1) In his autobiography published in 1873, John Stuart Mill, gave credit to both Harriet and Helen Taylor for his achievements.

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."

(2) Harriet Taylor, Helen Taylor and John Stuart Mill, 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.

(3) Harriet Taylor, Helen Tatlor and John Stuart Mill, 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.