Harriet Martineau on Women's Equal Rights

Harriet Martineau was a lifelong feminist, and she became oneearly and on her own. "The woman question" was whatshe and other like-minded nineteenth-century thinkers and activistscalled what we call feminism. [1] In addition to giving her individualattention to women and women's concerns Martineau participatedin groups in both England and the United States that were fertileenvironments for deliberate efforts on women's behalf. Probablynot too much should be made of the fact that she wrote admiringlyof women writers in her first published piece ("Female Writersof Practical Divinity") or that she went to some length toestablish the fact that the form she used for her political economytales was derived from a woman. Still, these attributions acknowledgedinfluences from women that she valued from the first.

Her first intellectual groups, the Norwich and then the LondonUnitarians and Utilitarians, were probably far more importantin her development, since a component of the thought of both Unitarianreligion and Utilitarian philosophy was favorable to women havinga larger place in intellectual and public pursuits. Althoughthe first of Martineau's several breaches with people she hadonce favored came with W. J Fox, the Unitarian editor, becauseof his setting up a household with Eliza Flowers without marriage,Martineau was surely influenced by Fox's liberality toward talentedwomen and the intellectual role such women as Flowers played inFox's editorship. Her scruples about sexual liaisons were morestereotypically Victorian than the views and practices of manyof her associates. Yet sexuality per se was not a feminist issuein the nineteenth century. To consider it an obstacle to therealization of feminist goals is to interpret nineteenth-centuryviews in light of twentieth-century feminism which has made thelink between sexuality and gender role assignment. It is ironicfrom a contemporary feminist stance, if not from her own, thatshe regenerated or kept up correspondence or a working relationshipwith the men in such affairs, but not the women.

The American group with whom Martineau found the greatest affinityduring her 1834-1836 travels, the Garrisonian abolitionists, likethe British Unitarians and Utilitarians, valued the activity andimportance of women and was markedly more advanced on the questionthan many other groups. Anti-slavery women's groups in Americawere to provide leaders and formative ideas in its early yearsfor the movement for women's rights per se, a movement for women as well as a movement of and by women on behalf of slaves.

The five pieces that follow are ones in which Martineau addressedfeminism in some general way. In the opening selection she questionsthe advisability of marriage for everyone, a position that requiredconsiderable bravery in 1838. She raised the question as a meansof making judgments about the character of a society, but whateverits intent, it was a courageous question to ask and one that anticipatessuch contrasting variations of the theme in the 1970s as KateMillett's "sexual politics" and Jessie Bernard's studyof "his" and "hers" marriages that yield greaterbenefits to men and lesser benefits to women. Martineau was shrewdand discerning to pick the place of women and the treatment ofwomen in marriage as indices of a society's distinctiveness.

In How to Observe Morals and Manners she set up criteriafor analyzing a society. Published after her books on the UnitedStates, Society in America and Retrospect of WesternTravel, it reflects the method of comparative study of societiesused in those books. She set down what she believed to be anappropriate set of principles, laws of right and wrong, if youwill, and then gauged the society by how well she thought it metthe principles. As the title suggests, these principles had todo with "morals," deep values held and acted upon, and"manners," assumptions and practices of courtesy, kindness,politeness, or the absence thereof, the surface manifestationsof moral depth.

This work was indeed an early sociological work on method, asAlice Rossi has claimed. Martineau goes halfway toward what earlyanthropologists and sociologists several decades later hoped toachieve. That is, her methodological approach involved the attemptto evolve some detached criteria for objectivity. That far, shesucceeds in being a primitive scientist. But the other half ofher approach provides her limitation. She inserts her own values,quite assuredly and dogmatically, as the appropriate criteria. This was, however, four years before Comte's Positive Philosophy was published and at least thirteen years before she read it. She was herself to criticize this phase of her thinking as "metaphysical"at a later time.

Her feminism and her social science may be in conflict in thisarticle. To raise such questions about women and marriage wasimportant on women's behalf however she did it, but to do it dogmaticallyis not good enough. Calling monogamy of the English variety "thenatural method" for all coupling is application of an unexaminedvalue system. Calling for removal of inferior treatment of womenis suggesting a new one.

The second selection, "Criticism on Women," publishedin 1839, is ostensibly a review essay of three items, but is infact an essay on the abuse of women and the right of women tobe respected and honored or to be criticized according to standardsof honesty and fairness to all people. One of the persons shedefends so splendidly in this piece is the young Queen Victoria,just come to the throne in 1837. Another (this review is anonymous)is herself, attacked ad hominem for her deafness and her womanhoodafter daring to write on population

She had received vicious treatment in the reviews of "Wealand Woe in Garveloch." Writing under the editorship of JohnGibson Lockhart in the Quarterly Review, John Wilson Crokerwas the first to damn her. He wrote, "and most of all itis quite impossible not to be shocked, nay, disgusted, with manyof the unfeminine and mischievous doctrines on the principlesof social welfare. . . . A woman who thinks child-bearing a crimeagainst society! An unmarried woman who declaims againstmarriage! ! A young woman who deprecates charity and provisionfor the poor!!!" [2]

The attack was patently unfair, not only for its rejection ofthe mild story favoring birth control, but also for its sexistrebuke of Martineau personally as a woman who would dare to writeon such a subject. In "Criticism on Women," she coinsthe word "Crokerism" to identify this particular kindof reputation smearing.

The very year (1832) of Croker's article, in fact, she was stillallowing for the possibility that she might marry and, hence,bear children herself. Writing to her mother in anticipationof her mother's coming to live with her in London, she laid out,along with her claim to professional independence as a woman,her right to marry: "There is another chance, dear mother,and that is, of my marrying. I have no thoughts of it. I seea thousand reasons against it. But I could not positively answerfor always continuing in the same mind. . . . I mean no morethan I say, I assure you; but, strong as my convictions are againstmarrying, I will not positively promise." [3]

The third piece is a marvelous letter written, no doubt, to MariaWeston Chapman and read at an American women's rights conventionat Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1851.[4] In the letter, Martineaurepeats her themes of the necessity of equal treatment of allhumans, of the importance of education to enable women to flourish,of the need for the object of education to be occupation, andof the silliness of the old controversy of influence versus office. However, it is significant here that she couched her persuasivearguments in terms of the need to do a scientific experiment. Although her writing had always been analytical, this letterwas written in the year she was first reading Comte's PositivePhilosophy, and it is clear that she has a new faith thatsocial experiment will yield proof of women's ability. This letterfrom 1851 is an early example of her work after she had foundclarity in science and provides a good exhibit of her utter confidencein the outcome of an experiment not yet conducted. Only to thoseof us with post-Darwinian, post-Freudian, post-Einsteinian mentalitiesis such assurance unwarranted. It was entirely earnest and evenrevolutionary in Martineau.

If the personal is the political is the intellectual, we may havethe key to Martineau's vast outpouring of work about women. Oneelement in the shaping of her young life was the insanity andapparent suicide of the one man to whom she ever seemed to havehad a romantic attachment, her fiance John Worthington, a collegefriend of her brother James. I do not think it is the whole story. I do not think it is even a great part of the story. Yet, Itake at her word the account she gives in the fourth selectionof her singleness being the great benefit to her work, in effecther work being her love. In so doing, I differ with her recentbiographers who have speculated about her lesbianism or absenceof it, her sexuality, latent or active. R. K. Webb concludesthat she was a "latent lesbian." Pichanick disagreeswith him, arguing that although Martineau had important "affectionatefemale friendships," there is no evidence for her being alesbian. [5] I believe she was probably behaviorally asexualand emotionally sexually naive, and I think she means what shesays in her Autobiography: that Worthington's death liberatedher to be alone and like it.

The fifth selection, on Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, andthe woman question, occurs in the context of a description ofWilliam Godwin as one of her morning visitors in London in theearly days of her fame in 1833. [6] She delighted in Godwin andgreatly enjoyed his company, and, seeing no conflict of ideologyloyalties, Martineau expressly denied that her interest in himarose because of his connection with Mary Wollstonecraft. Instead,she said, the opposite was true. She had no use for Wollstonecraft,while honoring Godwin. She claimed Wollstonecraft did the causeof woman a disservice, proclaiming Wollstonecraft "a poorvictim of passion, with no control over her own peace, and nocalmness or content except when the needs of her individual naturewere satisfied."

All that, while extolling the pleasure of visiting with the manwho loved Wollstonecraft--presumably with a passion of his own--andwho had done everything he could to keep her memory alive! Thepassion she means, of course, is not merely sexual extravagancebut the exaggerated romantic flamboyance of a personality likeWollstonecraft's.

Following that judgment of Wollstonecraft, however, her commentson the woman question sound uncharacteristically self-righteous. Her tone is hostile toward some women, but her message is stillconsistently that of the rational moralist. She writes calmlyof her expectation that women will achieve the right to vote.


1. See note 13, Introduction.

2. Quoted in Vera Wheatley, The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957), pp. 101-102.

3. Quoted in ibid., p. 94.

4. I have to thank Joan H. Winterkorn of the Department of RareBooks, Cornell University Libraries, both for providing me witha copy of an undated clipping of the article from the CornellUniversity Library Anti-Slavery Collection, and for tracing itssource of publication to the Liberator. Webb in his HarrietMartineau (p. 182n) credits its publication to the NationalAnti-Slavery Standard, but Winterkorn speculates that he didso on finding it among other clippings of Martineau's writingsfrom the National Anti-Slavery Standard in theCornell University Libraries.

5. See Webb, Harriet Martineau, pp. 50-51; and Pichanick,Harriet Martineau, pp. 109- 1l0.

6. Godwin, a radical philosopher, was briefly the beloved husbandof Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of theRights of Women, the first English feminist work. The twowere a devoted couple but maintained separate households. Wollstonecraftdied from complications following the birth of their daughter,Mary Shelley.

From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 53-58.

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