Harriet Martineau

The Person


Harriet Martineau was the most astute female politician in Englandthrough almost four decades of the mid-nineteenth century. Shedid her work as a writer, an investigative traveler, a correspondent,and an interpreter of a multitude of intellectual trends. Inall the vast number of her works and interests she was ever consciousof being female. She knew that being a woman meant that she hadto do whatever she did differently from a man. Early in 1832she wrote in a letter to Francis Place from her native Norwich,"I wish I were in London, . . . I want to be doing somethingwith the pen, since no other means of action in politics are ina woman's power." [1]

She was able to move to London within the year, for her monthlyseries of didactic fictional accounts of the ideas of the neweconomics, Illustrations of Political Economy, had madeher instantly famous, and the income from the series made herself-supporting. She was to earn her living as a writer, herreputation as a radical economic, political, and social commentator,and her historical mark as a social scientist, current historian,and feminist. She is known today by scholars of American societythrough her keenly analytic work, Society in America, publishedin 1837 after a two-year journey in Jacksonian America. She isknown by English people as the renowned progressive journalistand leader writer (editorialist) for the London Daily News,author of a history of a period through which she lived, TheHistory of England during the Thirty Years' Peace, 1816-1846,translator into English of Auguste Comte's Positive Philosophy,and proponent of positivism and the social scientific method. In England she is even remembered locally as an amiable resident-householderof Ambleside in the Lake District, the informal educator of localworkers through her winter series of instructive evening lecturesand her personal lending library. In this, as in all her work,she was the progressive, enlightening reformer, perpetually confidentin the rightness of her truth. Her feminism, perhaps becauseit was part and parcel of the whole of her political philosophy,is not as well known as her other ideas. Yet she took a standand commented on virtually every campaign regarding women in Englandand America of her day and addressed some women's issues thatwere not identified so clearly as such until the women's movementsof the 1960s and 1970s.

Martineau's politics included a thoroughgoing attention to women. It was an essential part of her blend of radicalism, and it hademerged well before her declaration to Place a month before herthirtieth birthday in 1832 that she must act with her pen, asthat was the only access to politics a woman had. Her feministpolitics was to continue strong throughout her life. Sensitiveto her own womanhood and the limitations it imposed on her, theentry to feminism for many a woman through several feminist generations,Martineau gradually turned this personal sensitivity to socialends until the rights of women and advocacy of women's causesbecame one of her lifelong major efforts. The first piece sheever published--at age nineteen--was on women: "Female Writersof Practical Divinity." In 1869, while an invalid confinedto her home The Knoll at Ambleside, as her last public work sheapplied her mighty pen in support of the campaign by the Ladies'National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious DiseasesActs. This campaign was an organized effort by women to get Parliamentto repeal a group of laws that they believed incriminated womenindiscriminately. Euphemistically named, the laws purported tocontrol syphilis and gonorrhea through controlling prostitution,while giving sweeping authority to police in garrison towns todetain and examine women on mere suspicion of prostitution. Englishwomenmade the repeal of these laws a rallying focus for their firstfully organized feminist operation. In her sixties Harriet Martineauwrote the drafts for their petitions, wrote speeches for the campaignleader, Josephine Butler, wrote the newspaper letters that launchedthe effort.

A London female journalist, Sarah Curtis, standing for Parliamentin 1974 at the peak of the contemporary women's movement in GreatBritain, called Harriet Martineau "the woman journalist ofour time, then." [2] Curtis encapsulated in thatstatement the reason we need a fresh look at Martineau's feminism. I think this can best be accomplished through reading her ownwords on the subject, and to that end I present these selectionsof her works on women.

Harriet Martineau was a complicated female intellectual at a timewhen often the most a bookish middle-class woman in need of employmentcould aspire to was a position as a governess. She was full ofcontradictions, at times the advance messenger of a new movement,at times a reflector of Victorian eccentric views and narrow morality,sometimes farsighted, other times petty, sometimes mean, othertimes generous and wise, occasionally brilliant, but often verbose,repetitious, and tedious. Yet she was surely what we called inthe early days of the recent women's movement "a role modelfrom history," a woman of achievement, independence, andautonomy, whose hard-won gains resulted from her own effort. For Victorian England the magnitude of her accomplishment is astounding. She wrote without a significant break from early adulthood intoher late sixties, despite health obstacles, supporting herselfall her life by writing, and publishing well over 100 separatelyprinted titles, scores of periodical articles, and some 1,642newspaper editorials. The content of all that she wrote was wide-ranging,substantial, and serious.

As we reconsider her influence, we realize that we are not recoveringa "lost woman writer" whose few small gems have beenlost to the public for many years. Rather, hers is an enormousoutput. She never revised, and although some of her writing islively and brilliant, some of it is very dull. She can be creditedwith neither painstaking attention to craft nor stylistic grace. Some of her vast outpouring has remained in print, and she hascontinued to hold a small place of historical recognition. Thus,it is neither because of neglect nor because of her virtuosityas a writer that we should again turn our attention to her.

As she was not entirely lost to history, so she was not a typicalwoman of her time, either. Harriet Martineau cannot be used asa case study of a nineteenth-century woman. She was not inarticulateor limited in public expression as most women were. She was noteven a typical woman writer, for there were few women journalists,women writers tending to concentrate more on fiction and poetry. As a single woman, she was not dependent on an individual manfor her economic or emotional well-being as the vast majorityof women were. [3] No one thing that she did, no one aspect ofher life makes her in any way a representative nineteenth-centurywoman.

On the other hand, even though she more often expressed new trendsthan typified currents, she was not an original thinker. Hergenius lay in her ability to discern new ideas with quick intelligence,to communicate them clearly to the popular mind, and thus to rally,time and again, supporters and advocates of the new viewpointsand causes. Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, JamesMill, Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Bentham thought up the doctrinesof political economy, necessarian philosophy, and utilitarianismthat she taught in the early years of her adulthood. Mrs. JaneMarcet in Conversations on Political Economy even inventedthe format she first used, the simplified lesson in print aimedat educating common people. Martineau took the ideas and perfectedthe form--the primer textbook in a sophisticated field, the how-tomanual--at a time when the desire for general education was highlydeveloped, but the instructional materials for it were not. Similarly,her account of her travels in the United States helped changethe shape of the travel book. Although it was in vogue for Europeansto travel in the new republic and write about it, Martineau didmore than simply describe her journey. She formulated a comparativemethod for studying societies and analyzed the new American cultureby measuring it against carefully stated principles. Quite possibly,she wrote the first "methodological essay" ever published,How to Observe Morals and Manners.. Her greatest originalitywas in her method. Significantly, she translated and abbreviatedComte's Positive Philosophy, the wellspring of social scientificthought, so effectively that it spread the Comtean word far andwide and gave Martineau herself a new systematic framework inpositivism. Comte himself believed it was so good that he hadit retranslated into French for his French disciples, and hertranslation and abridgment are still the standard edition of Comte'swork used in English sociology textbooks today.

It was the same with political issues. She did not begin a singlecampaign, but whether it was British reform politics, Americanabolitionism, nursing in the Crimean War, or feminism, she wasin the forefront, interpreting and fighting for the cause. JohnStuart Mill took the first petition for woman's suffrage to Parliamentin 1866, but Harriet Martineau signed it and had long worked forit. American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was her hero,and no other English writer wrote so much in the cause of Americanabolition of slavery as she. Florence Nightingale was on thebattlefield, organizing and professionalizing nursing in the Crimea,and then back home organizing nursing education and the War Officein England, but Martineau was her champion in the press. It isthe cumulative effect of Martineau's numerous contributions thatforms a part of her lasting contribution.

Although in some ways Martineau was very much a woman of her timeand a Victorian intellectual, she was also, along with a groupof her contemporaries, a true progenitor of the intellectual modethat reigns in Anglo-American liberalism today and provides thedominant informing paradigm of mainstream Western feminism. Itis this intellectual influence that constitutes her greatest contribution. Her radicalism was the consistent strand in all her far-flungefforts. Its tenets were rationalism, progressivism, organizationalorder, voice for the inarticulate, respect for the individual,and faith in science, all of which determined right thinking. Hers was a singularly principled posture. She held the positionthat human free will is limited. What free will there is restson the ability of the human to uncover the immutable laws of nature,physical, economic, and social. This radicalism of the Victorianera became the twentieth century's liberalism, and liberalismbecame the idea that did more than any other conceptual nucleusto make room for twentieth-century feminism clear into the 1980s. Harriet Martineau, I think, spelled out a feminist overview inthe nineteenth century in terms that were radical then, and didit better, more consistently, and more often than most other feminists. I do not think she knew what she was doing, and I think she wasoften "wrong." I find some of her conclusions inadequateand even bigoted for my time and place. As an English-languagefeminist intellectual, I think I would recognize her as my forebearand the ancestor of my culture more readily than I would identifymy illiterate Irish American great-grandmother who came to Americain 1850 to escape the potato famine--or Emma Goldman, the RussianAmerican anarchist feminist whom I would like a great deal, andwhose radical twentieth-century ideas I enjoy exploring. ButGoldman and our great-grandmothers have had minimal influenceon what most American and English women think, and what we sociallyassume even outside the range of our conscious deliberations,whereas Martineau spelled out a century ahead of us these thoughtsand deliberations. Harriet Martineau's radicalism led her tomake a cogent, rational economic argument about conditions inIreland in 1843 that included specific consideration of the specialpoverty of women in the same decade that my great-grandmotherGraham was preparing for her boat trip to New Orleans to avoidstarvation near Dublin. Martineau's kind of radicalism rattledthe whole Anglo-American cognitive universe as well as the politicalone. Unlike the radicalism of the Emma Goldmans, it set in placethe cognitive assumptions the majority of us, whether socialist,radical, or liberal feminists, operate under today, whether fullyconsciously or vaguely from within our culture's orientation tothe world. These assumptions are the belief in order, the beliefthat change will bring about betterment, the belief that knowledgeis power, the belief that the individual will do good if she orhe is taught the good, and, above all, the substitution of a scienceof society for a theological or speculative base, as the firstpremise for other individual and collective ideas.

For the contemporary British journalist Sarah Curtis and me, and,I believe, the majority of the world that looks to concepts originatingin English, Harriet Martineau articulated the world view thatwas formative, comprehensible, palatable for our feminism. ForMartineau, it was very much a part of a whole, of politics, ofeconomics, of life-style, of philosophy, of a belief system. Beinginside the paradigm, she did not know this was so. She gave usour liberal faith in progress, science, and order, a faith thatincluded feminism, what she and her contemporaries called thewoman question, which would have as its "natural," inevitableoutcome rights of women corresponding to those of men.

Although in our day challenges to the paradigm, both the undergirdingphilosophic one and the feminist one, have arisen, making us consciousof the characteristics of that world view and challenges to it,I believe that what Martineau gave us is an explanation of thefundamental intellectual precepts on which most of our feminismis posited. A retrospective look at some of her works on thesubject of women and some of her advocacy of women's causes willhelp us, I believe, explain to ourselves where we have come from.


1. Quoted in R.K. Webb, Harriet Martineau (New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1960), p. 114.

2. Sarah Curtis, quoted in Observer, February 17, 1974,p. 26.

3. Though, like other women writers, she was indebted for encouragementand opportunity to many men. W. J. Fox of the Monthly Repository first paid her for her writing, trained her in his study, andwith his publisher brother Charles was responsible for puttingher political economy tales into print. Her beloved older brotherThomas, who died young, on discovering that she was the anonymousDiscipulus in the Repository, encouraged her to write seriously. To her even more adored younger brother James, she owed earlycompanionship, affection, and advice that led to the establishmentof her career. After she was established, many men, members ofParliament various government commissioners, and celebrated maleliterary figures contributed to the stream of information thatallowed her to keep informed and to write intelligently. It wasmen, too, who hurt her most, James the foremost of them when he,by then an eminent member of the Unitarian clergy, wrote a scathingreview of a book on which she collaborated and which disavowedChristianity. That exchange caused a permanent rupture betweenthem.

From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 1-7.

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