A licence to kill
Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill on male violence
In 1979 I was researching Harriet Taylor’s contribution to John Stuart Mill’s Political Economy and decided to go off-piste and explore the other ‘joint productions’ as well. I was intrigued by the newspaper letters and leader articles, published anonymously in 1846 and 1849-51, that John indicated were predominantly Harriet’s.
I spent a day that summer accessing and reading these letters and articles at the British Museum Newspaper Library in North West London (there was no other source then - now they can be read online, here). Reading, in quick succession, the original tightly printed newspapers was a harrowing experience. Case after case of unbelievable cruelty, taken from contemporary court records. All with a consistent theme - how a political system that gives men power over women translates into male violence against women in everyday life, and how it affects the judicial response on the rare occasions when a crime is acknowledged.
Harriet Taylor on male violence
In these vivid accounts of male violence and its impact on women Harriet emphasises that the violence is both condoned and encouraged by the legal system. The following selection, from anonymous letters and leaders that John suggested were predominantly Harriet’s, illustrates this in relation to issues that remain relevant today - women’s distrust of a legal process dominated by men, male judges’ identification with male perpetrators, men’s cruelty to animals associated with their violence against women and children, and judicial acceptance of a man’s word that he didn’t mean to kill his partner.
“At present it is very well known that women, in the lower ranks of life, do not expect justice from a bench or a jury of the male sex. They feel the most complete assurance that to the utmost limits of common decency, and often beyond, a tribunal of men will sympathise and take part with the man.’
(Morning Chronicle, 28 October, 1846 - the case of Sarah Brown, who committed suicide after magistrates insisted that her seducer, who had stolen from her the illegitimate child that he had fathered, should have equal custody rights)
“we may infer what sort of taskmaster he is to the unfortunate wife and children, who are as much in his power, and much more liable to rouse his ferocious passions than the animal over whom he tyrannised. It really seems to us, that they are more objects of pity for being compelled to live with such a man than they would have been for being deprived during a whole fortnight of his agreeable society, and that it would have been a greater kindness to them to have seized the opportunity of giving a severe lesson to one who had the power of making so many human creatures miserable.”
(Morning Chronicle, 17 November 1846 - the case of William Burn, given a lenient sentence for cruelly beating his horse, because the Lord Mayor, adjudicating, didn’t want to punish Burn’s wife and children by imposing a bigger fine)
“Whether because the offender’s station in life was nearer than usual to his own, or from a total absence of moral sense in the mind of the judge, we know not, but his address is almost an apology to the prisoner, and he tells the offender - he, the guardian and vindicator of the law, declares to a man who, in his own showing, has broken the law, by such treatment of a child of tender years the surgeon’s evidence discloses, that ‘no serious stain would attach to his character’,and this because the poor infant had said in his evidence that the prisoner kissed and gave him playthings and toys, and taught him ‘to spell, read, and say his prayers’, as if the most brutal parents in anything like Mr Kenealy’s rank of life did not do such things as these.”
(Sunday Times 2 June 1850 - the case of Edmund Kenealy. a Barrister who was sentenced to one month in prison for brutally assaulting his six year old illegitimate son)
“If Curtis had killed, in any similar manner, some other man’s wife instead of his own - instead of the woman whom, as the Recorder said, he was bound to protect - there can be little doubt that he would have been indicted for murder, and probably hanged. The vow to protect thus confers a licence to kill.”
(Morning Chronicle 28 Aug 1851 - the case of Edmund Curtis, who had been witnessed forcing his wife over an iron railing and punching her in the face until she died, and was spared the death penalty and sentenced instead to 6 months in prison with hard labour because the judge believed he didn’t mean to kill her).
The Enfranchisement of Women
Harriet’s pamphlet, The Enfranchisement of Women, was published the month before the last of these newspaper pieces. In it, she developed insights from her 1832 Essay on Marriage and Divorce, and presented a powerful and coherent indictment of the injustice of inequality between the sexes - not just political inequality, but legal, economic, and social inequality as well - highlighting its consequences, not just how it oppressed women, but how it held back human improvement.
The relationship between inequality of the sexes and male violence towards women features prominently. Sex inequality, Harriet argues, is based on physical force:
“That an institution or a practice is customary is no presumption of its goodness, when no other sufficient cause can be assigned for its existence. There is no difficulty in understanding why the subjection of women has been a custom. No other explanation is needed than physical force.”
Customs are particularly pernicious for women when exclusion centres on patriarchal assumptions of what is or is not ‘feminine’:
“We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion, or any individual for another individual, what is or what is not their ‘proper sphere’. The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.. What this is, cannot be ascertained, without complete liberty of choice.”
Insisting that the ‘proper sphere’ for women is domestic, and not public, supports the oppression of women within the home:
“Even under the present laws respecting the property of women, 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. The truly horrible effects of the present state of the law among the lowest of the working populations is exhibited in those cases of hideous maltreatment of their wives by working men, with which every newspaper, every police report, teems. Wretches unfit to have the smallest authority over any living thing, have a helpless woman for their household slave. These excesses could not exist if women both earned, and had the right to possess, a part of the income of the family.”
Harriet acknowledged that not all men used their privilege to be violent to their wives - a man could choose other forms of control - but when marriage was unequal “he was a patriarch within four walls”:
“The wife was part of the furniture of the home - of the resting-place to which the man returned from business or pleasure. His occupations were, as they still are, among men; his pleasures and excitements also were, for the most part, among men - among his equals. He was a patriarch within four walls, and irresponsible power had its effect, greater or less according to his disposition, in rendering him domineering, exacting, self-worshipping, when not capriciously or brutally tyrannical.”
John Stuart Mill on male violence
The significance of Harriet Taylor’s writings on male violence has only recently been acknowledged, particularly by Helen McCabe and Jo Ellen Jacobs. Before that, these writings were either ignored or dismissed as evidence of a disturbed personality, as in this sexist diatribe by an acclaimed biographer of John Stuart Mill:
“We find her again and again dwelling, with the upmost intensity, on cases of wife-beating, of cruelty towards women at home or in factories, of sexual assault, and of corporal punishment …. Harriet’s self-conscious pride in her loftiness and purity, her aversion to all ‘coarse’ sexual appetites, her clinging to ‘propriety’, coupled with her hungry interest in sadistic treatment of women - all point to a deep-seated masochism unfitting her for normal physical love”
(Ruth Borchard, John Stuart Mill: the Man, 1957)
Borchard assumed that male violence was an obsession of Harriet’s that didn’t concern John. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
“The absolute power of a vindictive master”
John wrote to the Morning Post on 8 November 1854 about William Ebbs’ attack on his wife (a mother who had given birth 18 times). His description of the brutality of the crime, and his anger at the leniency of the sentence, were just as powerful as Harriet’s had been in relation to similar cases:
“This ruffian, after brutally beating his unfortunate wife (then ill of a fever, with her baby in her arms), deliberately attempted to cut her throat with a razor, which was only prevented by the son, scarcely less brutal than the father, who advised the father not to beat his mother any more, because he had given her enough now! This son … made the evidently false, and if true, frivolous excuse, that his mother had given provocation by her ill temper. The fellow, on being remanded for a week, threatened that he would do worse when he went home, or would not go home at all. At the end of the week Mr Norton (the Magistrate, and a former MP) releases the man, gives him money (sent for his use by a ‘benevolent gentleman’), and warns the unfortunate woman not to make “such free use of her tongue in abuse of her husband.” …The man Ebbs, on the showing even of the son who begged him off, had been in the frequent habit of brutally ill-using his wife. After his threatening, and attempting, to cut her throat, she is again given into his power…Can it be doubted that only the most atrocious cases come to light? And is it to be wondered at that even these are not at all diminished in frequency, when the perpetrators may hope for complete impunity, and the victims are entirely insecure of getting any redress? While, failing of redress, their situation, in the absolute power of a vindictive master, is frightful to contemplate.”
As an MP (nine years after Harriet had died), John gave a speech moving an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill that, if passed, would have introduced votes for women. In that speech, he proposed a nineteenth century version of ‘Counting Dead Women’:
“I should like to have a return laid before the House of the number of women who are annually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors, and, in an opposite column, the amount of the sentences passed, in those cases wherein which the dastardly criminals did not get off altogether.”
In his essay The Subjection of Women, published in 1869, John drew attention to the conditions which discouraged wives from making use of the minimal protections against violent husbands that the law provided. These protections, he pointed out, were undermined by the legally sanctioned enforced dependence of wives on their husbands that condemned them to lifelong servitude:
“There is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands. There would be infinitely more, if complaint were not the greatest of all provocations to a repetition and increase of the ill usage. It is this which frustrates all attempts to maintain the power but protect the woman against its abuses. In no other cases (except that of a child) is the person who has been proved judicially to have suffered an injury, replaced under physical power of the culprit who inflicted it. Accordingly wives, even in the extreme and protected cases of bodily ill usage, hardly ever dare avail themselves of the laws made for their protection.”
Central to John’s denunciation of this legally sanctioned dependence was the permission it gave to husbands to rape their wives (rape in marriage only became recognised as a crime in England and Wales 122 years later, in 1991):
“However brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to - though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him - he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations.”
After leaving parliament John continued to raise, in personal letters, the issue of judicial leniency in relation to male violence. In January 1870 he wrote to Sir Robert Collier, the Attorney General, about a policeman, William Smith, who was jailed with hard labour for a month for using excessive force to restrain a man from attacking a woman (who it turned out was the man’s wife) in the street:
“Policemen will think twice before they will interfere again to protect men’s wives, or any other woman against brutality when they find that any hurt they inflict on a brute of this description is declared from the seat of justice to be not only ‘brutal and unjustifiable’ but ‘unprovoked’, knocking down a woman in the street being no provocation to a bystander, even to an appointed and paid preserver of the peace - that in short a woman is a creature whom it is safe to knock down but most dangerous to defend from being knocked down by another man.”
John was equally forthright in denouncing men’s sexual objectification of women. In February 1870 he wrote to Lord Amberley about the evils of prostitution:
“Of all modes of sexual indulgence, consistent with the personal freedom and safety of women, I regard prostitution as the very worst, not only on account of the wretched women whose whole existence is sacrificed, but because no other is anything like as corrupting to the men. In no other is there the same total absence of even a temporary gleam of affection and tenderness; in no other is the woman to the man so completely a mere thing used simply as a means, for a purpose which to herself must be disgusting.”
John, in The Subjection of Women, was less radical than Harriet had been in The Enfranchisement of Women when discussing marriage, divorce, and the paid employment of married women. When it came to opposing male violence, though, it would be hard to identify any significant difference between their approaches, either in these essays or in their newspaper articles and letters.
In my next post: Overcoming biology - is Sophie Lewis (author of Full Surrogacy Now) justified in claiming that Shulamith Firestone wanted to abolish nature?